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Las Vegas, New Mexico, July 4, 1912

When New Mexico became a state in January of 1912, the law prohibiting prizefights changed overnight. Professional boxing was now legal and there was an explosion of events throughout the state. Four hours after statehood, Gallup hosted a fight card. And the action continued for the next 30 years.

Las Vegas was quick to throw its hat in the ring. The town sought to establish itself as a viable venue for high profile events by hosting a world heavyweight championship match.

Boxing was cringingly violent in these days. Spectators paid hard-earned money to be entertained. They wanted a bloody spectacle and they usually got it. This was to be a 45-round fight…savage and unthinkable by today’s sporting standards. Somebody was going to get hurt, and badly.

The card featured international boxing star Jack Johnson – America’s first African-American world heavyweight champion. His challenger was Jim Flynn “The Fighting Fireman” from Pueblo, CO – a tough, mean scrapper with a reputation for dirty fighting. He was one of several white heavyweights considered a potential “great white hope” to unseat the African-American champ.

Little Big Town

The architects of this spectacular were those whose fortunes were tied to Las Vegas’ future growth – the town’s civic leaders, movers, shakers and investors. Johnson vs. Flynn would make catapult Las Vegas, New Mexico into fame over one July 4th holiday. This would be a monumental match in the eyes of the world with the potential for drawing thousands to the remote venue. And it did.

At the time, the town’s population was about 7,000 residents. Days before the fight, several thousands more arrived, filling the streets, packing hotels, swamping businesses and spending money. Many came by automobile, others on special Santa Fe “fight trains”.

The overflow crowds gave average citizens an opportunity to cash in as well. Some set up impromptu lunch stands in their yards and others offered overnight cots in their homes.

Visitors and residents alike were giddy with excitement. The event was an ambitious, brilliant idea for a little-known town in New Mexico.

A Show On The Ropes

Preparations for the big day started early in May when each fighter and his entourage arrived to prepare for the fight.

Johnson and company set up camp at the Francisco Baca y Sandoval house. An enterprising businessman set up some hastily constructed bleachers and a platform so spectators could watch the world champ train in the afternoons. Price was ten cents a seat.

Flynn’s training headquarters was the luxurious Montezuma Castle (now the United World College). Observers would comment that his preparation for the big day was lacking – that he didn’t exhibit the “snap and ginger” for a fight this big. In his interviews, he claimed otherwise, that he was in excellent shape. He was confident that the title would be his in spite of comments made by sportswriters and others describing him as ”hog fat”.

As the day drew nearer, national boxing reporters were sniping and typing away. Those in the know predicted far ahead of time that this fight would go down as a classic – a classic mismatch. Yet however unlikely, the possibility of a successful white successor to the title seemed to capture the public’s interest.

The promoters, of course, were optimistic and the construction of a 17,000-seat open-air arena was completed two and a half miles from downtown adjacent to what is now Robertson High School. The budget for entire event was about $100,000.

As the big day arrived, investors were disappointed that the gate was a paltry 5,000 tickets sold.

The Great White Hype

Boxing was cringingly violent in these days. Spectators paid hard-earned money to be entertained. They wanted a bloody spectacle and they usually got it. This was to be a 45-round fight – savage and unthinkable by today’s sporting standards. Somebody was going to get hurt, and badly.

The boxing aficionados were spot on. This was an embarrassing match-up as seen in footage captured by an early newsreel crew.

Flynn was no match for the giant champion. His early, exuberant punches were met with a relaxed and confident defense from Johnson. After the first several rounds, Johnson embarrassed his opponent by chatting with spectators and his wife sitting ringside. This infuriated Flynn who was now bleeding.

Exasperated by his inability to do damage, Flynn resorted to illegal head-butts to Johnson who extended his long arm to keep him at a distance.

The butts were flagrant fouls under the rules of the game, but they kept on in spite of stern warnings from the referee. Unexpectedly, Captain Fornoff of the New Mexico State Police entered the ring on behalf of New Mexico Governor William C. McDonald. His job was to insure that an overly bloody punch fest wouldn’t leave a stain on the new State’s image. By law, the fight was halted.

After only nine rounds, the show was over. Johnson won by a technical knockout.

Unfortunately, the town of Las Vegas took a strong punch of negative publicity, but scored a July 4th that will be remembered forever.

Background photo courtesy LVCCHP

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