“Battling” Buddy Cochrane & “Knockout” Harvey Saunders ~ Boxing in Itasca County

2.13.2022

In 1923, Joe Poliquin from Effie traveled to Shelby, Montana to attend the highly promoted boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. In his book, Tim-BERRR, (1991) Benhart Rajala wrote that Poliquin and Dempsey were on the same train. “Joe happened to meet Jack Dempsey in the aisle.  Joe tossed his turkey on a seat, pinched Dempsey in the belly, and stepped back quickly, ‘Haw-haw-haw!’ he said. ‘I just wanted to see what it felt like to sock a world’s champion!’ For a second, he was ready when he saw at the killer expression that crossed Dempsey’s face, but he kept his own broad grin in place.  Dempsey relaxed, and they shook hands.  It gave Joe a story he was fond of telling again and again.  ‘Dempsey’s belly was as hard as a rock,’ he would say.”

Gene Rajala confirmed the story his Uncle Ben related and added his own. “Joe owned a tavern in Effie, and he believed himself to be the authority on fights.  He always had the radio tuned in to listen on fight nights. Joe was a husky man with a big stomach but was pretty agile. One evening an old lumberjack was arguing with Joe about the Dempsey-Gibbons match and things got out of hand. The ‘jack’ got in front of Joe, ready to throw a punch, but Joe was quick.  He knocked him across the floor, and he laid there. Joe thought he killed the 150-pound man. Fortunately for all, he lived.”

Boxing in 1898

The following article was the oldest I have found about boxing matches in our local history. The writing of the newspaper editor, Murry James Taylor is so colorful that I’m sharing a good portion of it.

Was a Hot Bout ~ Itasca News 11-26-1898

“The sporting fraternity of Deer River was last Wednesday night treated to one of the most entertaining and genuine of any pugilistic ring bouts that ever took place in the county.  The contestants were Tom Murray of Grand Rapids, and Jack Cross of Montana.  Murray has been a resident of this section for a number of years and has had several hot contests with known men of the Northwest.

Jack Cross, who claims to be of Montana, is a total stranger here, having drifted in a week before the scrap, and is likely ‘on the rods’—judging from his personal appearance. He is a young man, under thirty, is smooth shaven, and looks like a hayseed.  In fact, when it was known about town that he was to meet Murray, pity was felt for him, and he was dubbed ‘The Reuben.’ Going about in clothes that bespoke better days past, and a gait indicative of slowness, he was immediately put down as a licked man, notwithstanding Murray’s ill condition.

The fight took place in the table room of Kelly’s saloon and began at 10:45 in the evening.  It was for an equal divide of the gate receipts.  The admission price was one dollar, and about fifty tickets were sold.  There were about seventy-five spectators present, including a dozen women.

Owing to Murray’s ill condition, and the fact that his opponent was a total stranger, there was no betting done whatsoever.

When the fighters came out of their rooms into the ring, stripped, there was immediately a lull and in many minds a change of opinion as to the outcome of the fight; or at least a doubt shadowed the minds of some of Murray’s admirers.  The young man’s massive shoulders and long arms, and the surprising amount of weight he had stowed away in the recesses of his flimsy garments caused a look of wonderment to spread over the countenances of the spectators.

Murray, like an old-timer, took the seat in his corner with perfect composure and seemed to have plenty of confidence.  He had two active rubbers attending him with all kinds of bottles, cloths, and fans.  Cross took his seat with an old pair of apron overalls on, and they were removed by his sole attendant, a young fat lively lad who had all the appearance of a typical hobo.  He had one bottle of water and a towel, which constituted all his apparatus for the rubbing down act.  Long before the fight and until he stepped to the center of the ring, Cross felt uneasy, never sitting, or standing still nor engaging in conversation.

The bout was advertised to be ten rounds; but when the fighters took their corners and Frank Hart was chosen as the referee, Murray called the referee to him and in an undertone, they talked about a minute.  Hart then had a few words with Cross, and after this the referee turned to the audience, and after introducing the contestants he explained that owing to the smallness of the ring, and the ill condition of Mr. Murray, the men would prefer to go six rounds real hard fighting, and if there was any indication of fake the people would get their money back. ‘But,’ said Mr. Hart, ‘If you want ten rounds you can have it.’ At this several voices answered that six would do; and ‘Go ahead,’ and ‘Fight hard.’

By the end of round six both men were weak and breathing heavy. Murray was spitting blood and Cross had a bloody nose.  Referee Hart declared the bout a draw and the decision met with the approval of the fans. Boxing either in Deer River or Grand Rapids continued through the turn of the century, often with a local boxer and a contender from out of the area.

After WWI

It seems that after the war, there were more newspaper advertisements for local boxing and wrestling competitions.  Frequently the events were billed as fundraisers for the American Legions and other civic organizations.  Some of the nicknames I found for boxers in the1920s were Coast-to-Coast McIaney of Grand Rapids, “Battling” Buddy Cochrane and “Knockout” Harvey Saunders, both of Big Fork, Battling Knotts of Effie, and Kid Greeley of Big Falls.

The William and Nettie Tibbett family had at least three sons who were talented pugilists – Jesse James, Tommy Phillips and William Burnham, Jr.

Archie Bolduc, one of sixteen children of Majoric and Georgianna, enlisted in the army at the same time as his twin brother Theodore.  According to a 1924 advertisement, Archie was a Bantamweight Champion of the 50th Engineers. In this same ad there is a photograph of Tommy Tibbetts in a boxing pose.

Brothers Godfrey and Jim Knight of Bustitown were not only boxers, but also coaches and referees.  Lew Brownlow wrote about his father-in-law. “Jim was also an enthusiastic boxing fan in those years and with his usual drive, he coached many of the local youth in the art of fisticuffs.  The training ring for these amateur boxers was in the hay mow of the Knight’s dairy barn.  His contented cows must have known many evenings of disturbances as the barn echoes with the clap, clap, clap of jump ropes against the floor and shuffling of feet as the sparring athletes perfected their techniques with the gloves.  Boxing bouts were promoted with contestants coming from neighboring communities.  These bouts were held in the Ward Johnson community hall in Effie, and after the last round, the ropes were removed, and the floor cleared for a dance.” [from Toward a Good Life by Lewis Brownlow, 1976]

Lew and Jean (Knight) Brownlow are enthusiastic Reminisce readers and contributed two photographs to this article. It is believed that the Amateur Boxing poster dated November 16th is from 1935.  Brownlow explained that Godfrey and Jim Knight were instructors in the use of tools and equipment at the Deer Lake CCC Camp southeast of Effie. “The photo was a for-real-suit-up. The pose was for show. Jean says the photo was taken by her dad back of their house. Some of the ‘boys’ were coming over to spar and workout in the barn. As trainer, old-man Godfrey sparred with the boys.”

Dempsey-Gibbons 1923

My husband’s family owns an unused ringside ticket to the July 4, 1923, Dempsey-Gibbons heavyweight title boxing bout. This is the match that Joe Poliquin probably paid thirty dollars for a ticket in the “outer ring.”

This might seem like an unbelievable find, until you realize there were at least 32,000 unsold tickets! The town of Shelby, with a population of about 1000, thought that by hosting the event they could put their municipality on the map. After the details were worked out, an outdoor arena, at a cost of $82,000, was constructed and loans were secured for upfront capital.

“This fight is often referred to as the ‘fight that broke Shelby,’ because the small Montana town almost went bankrupt in order to meet Dempsey’s purse of $300,000. That fee, which was to be paid in three installments, was negotiated by Dempsey’s manager, Jake Kearns, who made sure that the champ was well compensated for his efforts. Incredibly, raising that amount proved so onerous to the town of Shelby that challenger Tom Gibbons received no money for the fight. His only remuneration was a chance at the title. That was obviously incentive enough for him, as he shocked most pundits by lasting the entire fifteen rounds with Dempsey in a losing effort.

Only 7,000 tickets were sold for the fight, and the town eventually opened the gates to allow 13,000 fans in for free just to fill the arena. Needless to say, it was the first and last heavyweight title fight ever held in Shelby, Montana. That low attendance figure is the reason for the survival of full tickets today.”

In the end, Dempsey retained the title with a 15-round unanimous decision. William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey (June 24, 1895 – May 31, 1983) reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926, retiring from boxing in 1927.

Thomas Joseph Gibbons (March 22, 1891 – November 19, 1960), was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and was a professional boxer from 1911 to 1925. After he retired, Gibbons was elected four times as the Sheriff of Ramsey County. He won six consecutive four-year terms before retiring at the age of 68.

Boxing has been a Summer Olympic sport since its introduction in 1904. Beginning with the 2012 Summer Olympics, women’s boxing has also been part of the program.

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