Place and Promotion: Boxing in Nevada

jpegRichard O. Davies’ new book The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip is entertaining and insightful in many ways. It blends new and familiar stories while offering a unique perspective on the history of sports. More than a sports history book, it is a critical text on the history of Nevada. Indeed, Nevada is the central character as Davies explores the highs and lows of the state’s relationship with boxing. Davies takes the reader through 8 Rounds — not chapters — before leaving them with a “split-decision.” Over the course of these rounds, it becomes clear that Nevada’s boxing history is split between into three distinct periods.

The first period — which comprises the first three chapters — covers the sport’s early history and major championship fights such Fitzsimmons — Corbett 1887 and Johnson — Jeffries 1910, when Nevada was one of the few states where boxing was legal. Relying on his roots as a political historian, Davies also explains the bureaucratic manipulating involved in promoting boxing.

Such promotion relied on the combination of rowdy mining culture, liberal minded politicians looking for an economic boom, and brash boosters like George L. “Tex” Rickard. Here Davies recounts stories of Goldfield, Nevada, a mining boomtown home to a healthy saloon and gambling culture. Joe Gans defeated Battling Nelson there in 1906. It is in Goldfield where Rickard made his name, stacking 1,500 gold coins worth $30,000 in a bank window to both publicize and prove he had the money to guarantee a championship fight.

Tex Rickard’s success as a promoter along with the country’s changing sensibilities allowed him to migrate east to New York City and establish a monopoly of his own at Madison Square Garden. Nevada soon lost the national spotlight and its monopoly on the sport. This second period — one of limited national exposure or importance — lasted for nearly four decades.

Boxing did not entirely vanish from the Silver State, however. While Round 4 traces the decline of major championship prize fights, Round 5 focuses on the state’s local boxing culture. Amateur boxing in Nevada remained important and was an extremely popular sport at the University of Nevada. Though it was unfamiliar to him when he arrived at the University as Provost in 1980, Davies deftly explains the peculiar institution of collegiate boxing. The Nevada Wolf Pack competed in the short lived NCAA sanctioned sport before transitioning to the newly formed National Collegiate Boxing Association. In the mid-1980s the pressures of Title IX forced the team into club status and obscurity despite its tradition of success.

Round 6 focuses on the life and career of Mills Lane. Famous for his catchphrase “Let’s get it on,” Lane became a popular culture icon as a boxing referee. He oversaw 97 championship bouts, including the famous Mike Tyson ear biting incident (which was his last). Lane, who was also a judge and Washoe County District Attorney during his career, later became a reality TV star as Judge Mills Lane. Though Davies doesn’t mention it, younger readers will remember him from the gruesome MTV claymation-show Celebrity Deathmatch. He did the voice-overs for the show’s referee, which was based off of him. His life serves as a transition from Nevada’s limited importance in the world of boxing to the return of championship fights. Lane rise as a boxing referee and position in popular culture parallels the third period Nevada’s boxing history — the return of major boxing events and the rise of Las Vegas.

Prizefighting and Las Vegas became nearly synonymous during the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Between 1960 and 2010 Las Vegas held over 200 championship fights. Davies credits Muhammad Ali with reenergizing the boxing culture of Nevada and pushing Las Vegas to the center of the prizefighting world. Round 7 looks at the city’s relationship with Ali. In Round 8, Davies connects Las Vegas’ ascent with the state’s changing demographics and the influence of two of the sport’s most important promoters: Don King and Bob Arum. Their ability to attract money and headlines while also scheduling exciting bouts solidified the sport’s popularity in Las Vegas. Likewise, the rise of Oscar De La Hoya and other hispanic fighters appealed to many local residents who migrated to Nevada from Mexico and the Southwest.

In his final chapter “split decision,” Davies wrestles with boxing’s decline in popularity and where it fits with the rise of MMA and UFC. He’s unsure of the sport’s future, but remains convinced that, as long as there is money and entertainment involved, it will be hard to supplant Las Vegas as the sport’s center. Nevada has long viewed boxing as a part of its economic strategy — one that’s tied to tourism, entertainment, and risk.

Because Davies book is relatively short it reads more as a greatest-hits of boxing history in Nevada. He presents mostly familiar stories but adds a new perspective that connects them to Nevada history. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about this book is how it engages sports history — and the history of boxing in particular — as a study of place. In each section of the book, boxing is presented as a component of Nevada’s economic, social, and political life. Through the state’s changing relationship with the sport was often a product of outside influences or factors — such as Rickard moving east or the NCAA eliminating boxing. Nevada continued to embrace boxing while adapting to the new conditions. In this way, Davies describes boxing as both a sport and an industry essential to the economic and cultural life of the Silver State.

Throughout the book Davies also picks up on important themes in the history of boxing such as the centrality of place and the key role of promoters. The greatest eras in boxing have coincided with a strong control of the sport by a few individuals. This was true for Tex Rickard in Goldfield and then later with Jack Dempsey in New York. This control was essential in scheduling big fights, guaranteeing money, and attracting large crowds.

Rickard was the first of a string of men who controlled both Madison Square Garden and the sport of boxing. Mike Jacobs’ Twentieth Century Sporting Club with Joe Louis and James Norris’ International Boxing Club followed suit. Don King and Bob Arum were similar promoters and helped facilitate boxing’s return to Nevada. They seized control of the sport and established their own monopolies tying boxing to the glitz and glamor of casinos and easy money of pay-per-view.

When Rickard left Nevada he made New York City was the center of the boxing world. It remained at the fore from the 1920s to the 1950s thanks to large crowds. Place was essential in developing the big time feel. Few places other than New York could supply the crowds and associated glamour of a big event. Entertainment moved West, however, and Las Vegas emerged as a center of entertainment and celebrity during the 1960s. Nevada no longer lacked the essential ingredients of the “Main Event.”

The idea of studying place in boxing is interesting and a bit unique. Unlike other sports, boxing is not explicitly tied to specific cities or stadiums. Prior to its entrance into mainstream culture, place was perhaps even more important to boxing. The sport was illegal in most states. During the 19th century finding a suitable place required advanced work — building a temporary stadium and a ring, ensuring adequate transportation, connecting to telegraph lines, etc. Since then, championship prizefights have been held all over the world as promoters and fighters search for the biggest payday. Destination matters less because of satellites and pay-per-view, but the lure of the big crowds and important people remains important. The Main Event requires the spotlight. Throughout its history Nevada has craved these things, too, and worked to promote itself as a haven for boxing.

One final note of disclosure, my perspective of the book may been shaped by my personal involvement in the project. Richard O. Davies was my advisor for my master’s degree at the University of Nevada. While there, I wrote a seminar paper for him that he cites in the text. Likewise, I read and commented on the book proposal and a draft of the manuscript during the writing process.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

7 thoughts on “Place and Promotion: Boxing in Nevada

  1. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Boxing has declined precipitously in popularity over the past ten years. In its heyday, boxing’s popularity and visibility rivaled the NFL and MLB. Muhammad Ali was the most popular athlete in the world. Thirty years ago, even casual sports fans were familiar with the names of the middle and heavy weight champions. Today, most of us would only be able to identify the names of boxers from the relentless advertising of increasingly obscure pay-per-view of matches. Its decline could be attributed to its dependence on pay-per-view, boxing’s dysfunctional regulatory bodies, corruption, the implosion of its most important star (Mike Tyson) and the rise of the UFC.

    The Sport in American History has a post written by Andrew McGregor about a new book from Richard O. Davies titled The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Minings Camps to the Law Vegas Strip. While the book is focused on Nevada, the history of boxing in Nevada and boxing in the United States is inexorably linked. Davies book deals with the rise of boxing in Nevada’s mining communities and its swift decline over the past twenty years. Check out McGregor’s post.

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  2. Boxing is definitely one of the greatest American pastime activities in the culture of sports. You mentioned that in the early chapters of the book that few states made boxing legal, but what states had made the sport illegal? With the sport, it can come with reward money to the winner and so on, but how did manipulation play into the promotion of each certain fight, did money play a role? With the intense rise of popularity with MMA and the UFC, do you think boxing stands a chance with its role in Nevada, and will it regain popularity from your personal take on the information presented in the book?

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    • Hi Kaylee — thanks for your comment. Essentially every state made boxing illegal for much of the 19th century. Nevada was one of the early state where it became legal, thus its influence on the sport.
      Promotion is definitely tied to money, and together both work to craft narratives that appeal to potential viewers and gamblers. The amount of the purse, for example, would work to indicate the importance of the fight, thus attracting more viewers and higher ticket prices. They’re all related and work together to make boxing matches ‘big time.’
      As far as the future of boxing goes, Davies himself seems to think the sport is waning and the UFC and MMA are threats. Boxing has lost its appeal for a variety of reasons: 1) it became some what over saturated with TV fights 2) it’s lacked big name rivals and fighters in recent years 3) the difficulty in scheduling championship matches between quality fighters has become very difficult. MMA and UFC seem to have a lot of talent (#2) and the fights take place without too much bickering between camps (#3), which allows them to show fights regularly (#1). They don’t seem to have the same issue of over saturation yet. I’m not familiar enough with them to know if this will happen, but so far it seems to work in a different structural environment then boxing.

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  3. Boxing has had a very unique history. Unlike most of the modern day sports like MLB, NBA, and the NFL boxing has been illegal in some sense for most of its existence. Boxing becoming a mainstream sport had to overcome the fact that it was violent and that it was associated with the “scum” of society. But boxing goes hand in hand with the American Dream, where a person can change his life for the better, He just needs to work hard. Boxing is littered with fighters who come from nothing to become something and when this happens its easy for people to try and make money. I was born in the mid 80’s and I all I remember of boxing was Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. These where big money names and fore some reason I thought the only thing to do In Vegas was to watch boxing. As a grew up I remember the HBO pay per view events as the where held in Vegas. But this started to change around the 2000’s when UFC started to come into existence. UFC started to replace boxing. I no longer remembered boxing in Vegas it was all UFC. I know the The popularity of Boxing has dandled from its hay day but do you think that the UFC has replaced boxing as what I liked to call the “The American dream through Sports.”

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  4. Boxing has had a very unique history. Unlike most of the modern day sports like MLB, NBA, and the NFL boxing has been illegal in some sense for most of its existence. Boxing becoming a mainstream sport had to overcome the fact that it was violent and that it was associated with the “scum” of society. But boxing goes hand in hand with the American Dream, where a person can change his life for the better, He just needs to work hard. Boxing is littered with fighters who come from nothing to become something and when this happens its easy for people to try and make money. I was born in the mid 80’s and I all I remember of boxing was Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. These where big money names and fore some reason I thought the only thing to do In Vegas was to watch boxing. As a grew up I remember the HBO pay per view events as the where held in Vegas. But this started to change around the 2000’s when UFC started to come into existence. UFC started to replace boxing. I no longer remembered boxing in Vegas it was all UFC. I know the The popularity of Boxing has dandled from its hay day but do you think that the UFC has replaced boxing as what I liked to call the “The American dream through Sports” and has it replaced boxing as the main sporting event in Vegas?

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  5. Dear Andrew McGregor,
    I really enjoyed your review. When I read it I felt like I had a lot of facts that gave me a great understanding of the book itself. However when I found out your personal relationship with the author I was worried about bias comments being an issue. Although then I read the book myself and realized that all the main facts were spoken of correctly and precisely. My question for you and Mr. Davies’ is do you think that boxing will ever go back to being the main sport in vegas and across the U.S. or do you think that UFC, and MMA will stay ahead for the rest of time? In my opinion I feel like it will take a new Icon such as a Muhammed Ali or Mayweather in order to get boxing back on top. In conclusion I feel as though you did a very good job on the review, Thank You.

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