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Legacy of Boxing in New Mexico
An overview of the history of boxing in New Mexico.
By Chris Cozzone
There is no other sport like boxing that tells the story of New Mexico. Though oftentimes virtual underdogs in its cyclical battles with the law, public opinion and racial tension, the sport has paralleled the state’s struggles and glories through the “wild west,” statehood, the great depression, world wars, and economic growth.
The forgotten history of boxing in New Mexico is less about a sport than it is about boomtowns and ghost towns, the railroad and mines, race and politics and casinos. It’s a story that includes every city, town and pueblo of the state, from Tucumcari to Gallup, Columbus to Raton, or Albuquerque to Acoma.
Of course, the story is also about the individuals who comprise the estimated 10,000 prize fights staged in New Mexico. From barrio-bred homeboys to miners and fruit pickers, those who laced up a pair of gloves – or fought bare-knuckle – represent the voices of generations of New Mexicans.
In the near-century-and-a-half of recovered boxing history, there are 2,150 known fight cards, and an estimated 500 or more left to recover. The first known prize fight took place in June of 1868 in an open field 35 miles north of Albuquerque, most likely on Santa Domingo land. Charles Johnson, a reporter for the Denver News, happened to be traveling north on his way home when he came across a large crowd off to the side of the road. He reported:
“They fought 185 rounds, occupying six hours and 19 minutes. The left side of Duffy’s head was fearfully swollen, his left eye closed, his right eye nearly so, two ribs broken, and his left arm useless. Jack’s head was all cut to pieces. He was totally blind the last two rounds, his nose knocked on the left side of his face, three teeth knocked out, two ribs broken and his left arm useless. He presented a horrible appearance. He died 10 minutes after the fight was over.”
That year had one other known prize fight, between two miners in Elizabethtown, but the date and details are unknown.
As a whole, prize fighting throughout the country was frowned upon and was often banned by individual states. Since there were no laws governing prize fighting in the Territories, many pugilists found their way westward. It wasn’t until 1882, however, that New Mexico hosted its next prize fight.
By then, bare-knuckle fighting had been replaced by the less-savage Marquis of Queensbury Rules, which called for gloves and pre-determined rounds while prohibiting kicking, eye-gouging and biting: The general public, including New Mexicans, found prizefighting more palatable.
The towns of Deming, Raton, Albuquerque and Silver City began regularly staging fights, almost always in saloons. The pugilists came from either coast or from Colorado: Men like Teddy McAulife, the “Butcher Boy of California”, Harry Morgan of Colorado and Herbert Slade from New York by way of New Zealand.
Hoping to win over the public, fighters were oftentimes nicknamed “Professor;” fights were billed as “exhibitions;” and, instead of promising bloody battles in the squared ring, the science of pugilism was promoted.
New Mexico’s first champions emerged in this decade: Harry Bennie of Lake Valley, W. H. Coyle of Silver City, and Anton Mazzonovich of Shakespeare, famous for hunting down Geronimo for the U.S. Army, were among the notables. Regardless, the fight scene struggled because of negative public opinion and sensational reporting. The following Sept. 14, 1884 account from the Silver City Enterprise, describes a fight in a Deming saloon between a “railroad bruiser of some note” and Doc Gilpen, deputy sheriff of Deming:
“The railroader fought as though he were broke and the $10 wager was just what he needed in his business, for in the first round he knocked Gilpin stiff and in the second he almost paralyzed him. Gilpin squealed enough before the young fellow had got fairly in work. It is reported that he was badly used up and not presentable to the people whom he is supposed to represent as a peace officer. Before he entered the fight he laid aside his revolver and official badge. Nice officers we have in this county.”
It wasn’t until early 1890 that prize fighting was firmly established. Though Albuquerque and the mining town of Cerrillos took the lead, Eddy (as Carlsbad was formerly known), Las Vegas, Santa Fe and Raton created scenes that drew fighters from coast-to-coast.
Emerging from the mines at Cerrillos was “Gentleman” James Flynn” the most popular fighter of the era. Flynn cleared out the competition statewide and then went on to Arizona, California and Colorado to fight. In 1896, fighting came to an abrupt halt in New Mexico.
After World Heavyweight Champion Jim Corbett relinquished his claim to the title, promoter Dan Stuart arranged a title fight between Ireland’s Peter Maher and England’s Bob Fitzsimmons. A location had only to be arranged and of all places, the Territory of New Mexico was chosen. Maher set up camp in Las Cruces and Fitzsimmons in El Paso, Texas. That’s when Governor William Thornton stepped in. Not only did he shut down Stuart’s plans of a title fight on New Mexico soil, he enlisted the aid of Texas, Arizona and Mexico in lobbying Congress to pass a bill outlawing prize fighting in the Territories. For the next 16 years, boxing was banned in New Mexico.
However, through secrecy, the guise of “sparring exhibitions,” and the umbrella of so-called “athletic clubs” who could stage shows for members only, boxing continued sporadically. At least 68 shows are known to have occurred during this time.
Though there was no news reporting on fights, for obvious reasons, the Rio Grande Republic published this account on Mar. 9, 1906, between anonymous fighters “Roe” and “Doe,” held at a Las Cruces bar:
“The first round was fairly even, but, in the second, after being dropped to one knee, Roe pulls out a six-shooter and, disregarding all Queensbury rules, gives Doe a 16-inch-stitch cut on the head with the butt. …Doe, with blood flowing down his face, grapples with Roe and succeeds in getting the revolver, minus the cylinder of cartridges, which had dropped out unnoticed by either during the scuffle. Roe, seeing that he had displayed his best and lost, ran out through the doorway, closely followed by the triumphant Doe, carrying the cylinders and gun.”
New Mexicans desiring to fight (and not be arrested) went elsewhere – to the West Coast and north to Colorado. Louis Newman of Las Vegas became a regional lightweight champion in Denver while William Pettus, a “negro league” baseball player, tried to work his way up the heavyweight ladder in California.
Back home, dodging the law, Al Smaulding, the “Clayton Blacksmith,” a middleweight and Luis Gonzales, a Silver City lightweight, fought intermittently until about January 6, 1912, when New Mexico achieved statehood.
Boxing Becomes Legal
When New Mexico became a state, the laws governing prize fighting changed. Boxing was no longer illegal and exploded all over the state. Four hours after the papers were signed making New Mexico a state, Gallup hosted a fight card. Later that month under local promoter Mark Levy and the newly-formed New Mexico Athletic Club, Albuquerque was established as “Fight Town,” New Mexico. For the next 30 years, the action across New Mexico continued.
An attempt was made by Governor William McDonald to reinstall the ban on boxing when New Mexico became the focus of attention as the site of a world heavyweight title fight. At the time the champion was Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight titlist. In an attempt to defeat him, white heavyweights, termed “great white hopes,” were groomed for the ring. A victory over Johnson, in the Southwest, fell to “Fireman” Jim Flynn of Pueblo, Colo. Unable to lobby enough support to for his ban on boxing Governor McDonald watched as worldwide attention focused on the small town of Las Vegas, New Mexico where on July 4, Johnson and Flynn fought for the world heavyweight title. Though the fight was billed for 45 rounds, the one-sided battle was stopped in round nine in favor of Johnson when Captain Fornoff, of the state police, entered the ring on behalf of Governor McDonald. Though the turnout was disappointing for a world title fight, about 5,000 spectators, the big fight helped to promote the sport in New Mexico. By the end of the decade, nearly 600 fights were staged.
Flourishing primarily in Albuquerque, Silver City, Deming and Columbus but also showcasing in dozens of smaller locales statewide, New Mexico produced dozens of fighters known throughout the Southwest and nationally. Benny Chavez of Wagon Mound, the biggest name produced in N.M. in the 1910s, became the state’s first world title challenger. In 1914, Chavez was TKO’d by World Featherweight Champion Johnny Kilbane, in Denver, Colorado. Benny Cordova of Albuquerque fought the nation’s leading lightweight contenders. Cordova’s legendary seven bouts with top contender Bobby Waugh of Fort Worth, Texas totaled 100 rounds. Jack Torres, a lightweight from Old Town, Albuquerque fought his way into contention throughout the Midwest and Southwest. Mike Baca of Santa Fe and Johnny Connolly of Roswell were Southwest lightweight champions who fought each other six times around the state. Other top fighters included “Dynamite” Tommy Sanchez, Demon Rivera, Insurrecto Kid and Perfecto Romero.
The fight scene flourished in New Mexico until World War I when the fight centers around the state, having lost their fighters to Uncle Sam, closed down. That is, unless you were in southern New Mexico.
Rise of the Army Boxers
Boxing was not only allowed in military camps, it was encouraged and taught. The military camps at Deming, Fort Bayard, Columbus, and Fort Bliss (El Paso) became the new centers of boxing for the Southwest. Local fighters stationed there, as well as hundreds of professional boxers from the Midwest and East and West Coast made for some of the most competitive fight cards ever seen in New Mexico and on the border. New stars included “Speedball” Hayden, the welter and middleweight champion of the U.S. Army and claimant to the “Negro” World Middleweight championship, Jack Lopez of Santa Rita, and Johnny Newton of Ohio.
After World War I army boxing continued for a few years but slowly declined as mining towns and the bigger cities once again entered a second golden age for New Mexico boxing. Though army boxers like Walter Caldwell of Springer and Nick Mortio of San Marcial continued to thrive, new “homegrown” fighters were added to the list of Southwest champions. Topping the list was a kid named Pedro Quintana, who would fight under the ring moniker “Eddie Mack.”
Fighting out of Alamosa, Colorado, Mack turned pro in 1922. Two years later he was the main attraction from Albuquerque to Denver. Fighting nearly his entire career including through high school and college, Mack defied all odds in climbing the ladder of contention; retiring as “The Uncrowned Champion.” Mack became the first New Mexican to beat a world champion. In fact, in his two bouts with World Jr. Lightweight Champion Tod Morgan, Mack held two victories and one draw: They were unfortunately non-title fights. Other big names during the ‘20s included Young Benny Chavez of Albuquerque, Henry Pacheco of Santa Fe, and Mike Vasquez, of Albuquerque and El Paso.
By the 1930s Albuquerque’s reputation as the boxing capital of the state began to wane: Smaller cities and towns picked up the pace and collectively made the decade the busiest ever. Las Vegas, under promoter Joe Roybal, became a hotspot of boxing activity which included the small towns of nearby Springer and Wagon Mound. Fighters like Jimmy Johnson of Las Vegas, Frankie Cantou of Wagon Mound, and Ted “Mustang” Garcia, originally from South Dakota, headlined the shows.
Billy Firpo aka “Manuel Cruz” was perhaps the state’s busiest boxer. His travels were a testament to the state’s railroad system. In March 1937 he fought six times in 14 days: March 11th he was in Springer; March 12th in Hobbs; March 18th in Silver City; March 19th in Hobbs; March 22nd in Fort Sumner; and March 25th he was back to Springer. One month later Firpo drew with Lew Jenkins of Sweetwater, Texas whom he had previously defeated. One month later, Jenkins became the Lightweight Champion of the World. Another near-champion was Emilio Martinez, “The Clouting Caballero,” from Wagon Mound. In 1938 Martinez defeated World Light-Heavyweight Champion John Henry Lewis in a non-title fight.
The 1930s were the golden period of boxing for Gallup, with nearly 100 shows staged at Kitchen’s Opera House. The headliners in Gallup were the Chiaramonte brothers; Nardine, Boney and Julio. Having turned pro at the ages of 14, 15 and 16, the “Fighting Wops” of Gallup defeated all comers. Julio, after 15 professional bouts, decided to fight as an amateur at New Mexico Military Institute at Roswell. In 100 bouts, Julio lost but one fight, when he was “hometowned” in Chicago in the finals for the 1936 Olympics.
In its peak period Santa Fe headlined Tiny Garcia, Andy “Gump” Carrillo and Jimmy Ortiz. Western New Mexico also had its peak years: Fort Sumner was the home of the Perry brothers, Jim and Joe, who held state and Rocky Mountain championships; Clovis featured Paul “Bearcat” Mathis, Ernie “Ghost Man” Grossman; and Melrose had Speedy Ryan.
In the Four Corners’ area Abie Chavez, the “Farmington Flash,” earned his title as Southwest flyweight and bantamweight champion. Perhaps more than anyone else, barring Julio Chiaramonte, Chavez had the goods to be a world beater and despite an offer made to him by former heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, did not want to leave New Mexico for bigger and more prestigious venues. The boxing action in New Mexico during this last great era of boxing came to a screeching halt with US involvement in World War II.
Post-World War II
Boxing in New Mexico was never the same after World War II. Local boxing venues disappeared around the state and fighters who had any talent, including Larry Cisneros, the “Rock of Questa,” Tony Chavez of Albuquerque and Charles McGarrity of Roswell were forced to leave New Mexico for the West Coast. Chavez became a contender and later a “trial horse” with over 150 bouts. McGarrity, though ranked for a time, became a journeyman to be used. Cisneros though, was in a different class. He fought in the latter half of the 1930s but made a name for himself overseas in the Army. After the war, he relocated to Los Angeles where he fought his way up the ladder to a number 3 ranking as a Lightweight. In 1947 Cisneros headlined the biggest show of the decade in Albuquerque. He defeated top contender Chalky Wright before a crowd of 8,000 at Zimmerman Field. With the win, Cisneros returned to Los Angeles but was never given an opportunity to fight for the title.
Fabela Chavez, born in Los Lunas, also made a name for himself in Los Angeles, earning his rank as a contender with a fast rise – and an equally fast fall. After a two-year break, Chavez repeated his success and also his failure. The New Mexican who made it big on the Pacific Coast was Art the “Golden Boy” Aragon. Aragon was born in Belen and raised in Albuquerque but Los Angeles became his hometown after countless headlined shows at the famous Olympic Auditorium. Aragon, unlike other New Mexican transplants on the West Coast, received a title shot. After beating World Lightweight Champ Jimmy Carter in a non-title bout, Aragon got a rematch—this time for the belt. Weight loss for the fight drained Aragon and he lost a 15 round decision to Carter in 1951. Several years later, Aragon defeated Carter a second time – again, in a non-title bout. To date Aragon is the biggest box-office draw in the history of Los Angeles boxing.
Back home in New Mexico boxing had its ups and downs. It wasn’t until the late ‘50s that a mini-golden age surfaced with the opening of the Civic Auditorium in Albuquerque. The newly-established venue gave rise to new talent: crafty Joe Louis Murphy, hard-hitting Flory Olguin, relentless Joey Limas and swift Joey Olguin. The six matches between Flory Olguin and Limas are still talked about by old-timers. For a time it looked as if Joey Olguin was going to get his chance at a title fight. After a stint in the Air Force Joey became a local favorite in Sacramento, California but his career suffered upon returning to New Mexico. He retired a contender but not a champion.
New Mexico’s first world champion was crowned in 1968 when light-heavyweight Bob Foster knocked out Dick Tiger at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Foster was born in Borger, Texas but was raised in Albuquerque and had excelled in the Air Force as a boxer. After several years of fighting on the East Coast he returned home a champion in 1969. Foster headlined occasional shows in the ‘70s but the local fight scene was again in decline. The majority of shows were amateur and while “Golden Glovers” from Albuquerque and Clovis were able to make a name for themselves, professionals had very few options. After Bob Foster retired there were few professional fights.
Tommy Cordova and Henry Anaya of Albuquerque and Louie Burke of Las Cruces made waves in the 1980s but New Mexico bouts were few and far between. That all changed in the 1990s when Johnny Tapia and later Danny Romero became the first born-and-raised world champions from New Mexico. Their rise (and falls) culminated in a 1997 showdown in Las Vegas, Nevada. The success of Tapia, who secured five world titles and Romero, a two-time champ, paved the way for a burgeoning New Mexico fight scene through the late 1990s and early 2000. With 91 fights under veteran promoter Lenny Fresquez, the cooperation of Native American casinos, and the recent success of six-time female champion Holly Holm, the local prizefighting scene continues to flourish in New Mexico.