The Fight Game

A Tucson native, who was employed at the Southern Pacific shops as a blacksmith, had a knockout punch that flattened everyone it reached. Happy Woods started as a preliminary fighter on cards featuring the McManus brothers, who came to the Old Pueblo with impressive records established at the clubs on the West Coast in the early twenties.

Al McManus was a lightweight; Johnny was a bantamweight. They were handled by an old-time manager and trainer by the name of Moran. They did much to build interest in boxing in Tucson. I was at the ringside in the Pavilion at the Elysian Grove (after it had ceased its operation as part of the amusement park my dad had owned previously) to see the McManus boys fight on July 4, 1919.

This was the same day that Jess Willard fought Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight crown in Toledo. The local fight promoter had arranged for telegraphic reports at ringside of the big fight in Toledo. All of us kids were rooting for Dempsey to win. When the report of the first round was read from the ring, we were tickled to death to learn that Dempsey was making a punching bag of the champ Willard. The next report told about Dempsey's victory when he flattened Willard in the second round. The place went wild -- Willard was not a very popular champion.

Happy Woods fought on that card as a young comer and knocked out his opponent. He continued to wade through all opposition and was becoming a great hero and drawing card. I saw nearly all his fights and thought he was certain to be a world champion someday.

The promoter brought in from the Coast a well-known welterweight, which was Happy's class, 142 pounds, by the name of Frenchy Desmaires. Although a fancy boxer, he wasn't much of a puncher. Happy was a puncher but not much of a boxer. Those kind of matches usually go to the boxer who is clever enough to stay away from the haymaker of the slugger.

By this time Happy was a main eventer and the bout was scheduled to go ten rounds. Frenchy cleverly outboxed Happy throughout the early part of the fight; in fact, he was making Happy look pretty bad and knew he was ahead on points. He began taunting Happy, much to our disgust. We were yelling for Happy to nail him with his famous right hand, but to no avail.

It was a sad fight crowd that night. Then, in the tenth round, Happy finally connected with one of his haymakers right on Frenchy's jaw. Down he went with a thud. He got up before the count of ten, but Happy stepped in, finishing him with a single blow.

We were ecstatic! After being so far behind in points, our hero had won the fight in the last round! The crowd picked Happy up and carried him around the area on their shoulders. He had beaten a well-rated fighter and was on the road to becoming a world champion.

The papers gave the fight a big play. There was talk about matching Happy Woods with Bert Colima, a great favorite in Los Angeles, and even with Jack Britton, the then world's welterweight champion.

There was another Arizona fighter, by the name of Kid Palmer, who had been bashing everybody's lights out. He was in the army and stationed at Camp Harry J. Jones in Douglas. He was an experienced fighter who had campaigned in the East before joining the army. The fans clamored for another Happy Woods fight with a top-notch man like Palmer or Colima. Finally the match between Palmer and Woods was arranged-to be held in the Tucson Armory, the largest arena in town.

Palmer opened his training camp in Tucson a few days before the fight. His army buddies, the officers, and people of Douglas, who had seen him fight, followed him to Tucson. That's all anyone talked about. Could the clever Palmer avoid Woods' knockout punch for ten rounds?

The visitors who came to root for Palmer came loaded with money, and they were anxious to back their man with dollars. Tucsonans were just as sure that Happy was worth supporting with money and bet everything they could lay their hands on.

The day of the fight arrived with interest in the battle at fever pitch. Never before had Tucson bet so much on a single sporting event. It was said that some men bet their automobiles, and one was said to have wagered his ranch on the outcome.

The bout went ten rounds. Happy didn't catch up with the more clever Palmer and lost by a decision. Most people agreed that Palmer deserved to win, but that didn't make the loss any more pleasant to those who bet on Happy and lost not only their shirts but everything they could lay their hands on. The bout was the talk of Tucson for several years.

Happy Woods continued to fight for a year or more, and won some fights, but no longer was mentioned as a future world's champion. Tucson's hopes for Happy burst like a bubble. But he certainly did stir the natives' blood while he was on his way up.

Boxing was a popular sport in Tucson for many years, with many good fighters matched on local cards that drew well. One of boxing's great names, Spider Kelly, moved to Tucson for his health and lived here for many years. He had been Jack Dempsey's trainer for a while and had also served in the same role for other famous fighters. He knew boxing inside and out. He helped some of the local boys and would occasionally be summoned out of town by a fight manager who wanted Spider to help his boxer get in shape for a forthcoming bout.

He was a very interesting man to talk to and I always enjoyed being around him. One night another man and I were sitting in the fifth row ringside watching a preliminary fight at the Armory. Spider Kelly was sitting right in front of us. The crowd had not arrived as yet, and Spider was turned around talking to us, when all of a sudden, one of the fighters tagged his opponent with a blow that could be heard throughout the arena. Without even turning around to see what happened, Spider said, "That's the end of that bout. Bring on the next one." And he was 100 percent correct! The guy went down and never moved for a couple of minutes. Spider knew enough about boxing to tell a knockout blow when he heard one.

Later in the early thirties, another well-known figure in boxing came to Tucson as a fight promoter. His name was Joe Levy and had managed top name fighters, such as Joe Rivers, and who had been matchmaker at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles for several years. He had the same post at the Olympic Auditorium in Portland at one time.

A mutual friend in Los Angeles had told him to look me up when he came to Tucson. We hit it off very well from the very beginning; I was running the Rialto at the time but had time to become involved with Joe and his promotional activities.

He rented the Armory from the city as the arena for his fights, which he planned to present twice monthly. With excellent contacts on the Coast he had no trouble in bringing name fighters to Tucson. He also promoted wrestling matches which drew large crowds. Wrestling was enjoying great popularity in all the large cities and became a favorite spectator sport in Tucson also.

I was Joe Levy's "secretary," which, in boxing, meant that I handled all ticket sales, money, and paying off the fighters or wrestlers, and enjoyed every minute of it. That's where the action was, and I was right in the middle of it. However, I found out that people connected with boxing in most cases were well down on the scale of society. i.e., they weren't the kind of people you wanted to take home.

Joe Levy operated in Tucson for about a year and then moved on because Tucson was just not big enough to support the ambitious program he had in mind, although we remained friends for many years. I used to see him occasionally in L.A. where he lived in one of the old downtown hotels.

One piece of advice Joe gave me I have never forgotten: "Damn fools write letters and smart guys save them." It is advice that has helped me to avoid some embarrassing situations.

Perhaps the most interesting fight I ever saw took place outside a boxing arena. It was early in 1925 when the annual Tucson Rodeo was becoming a fixture on the local scene. I was a freshman at the university, as was Dick Drachman, a cousin. We were in the Stewart Cafe on Congress Street late one night during the rodeo with a couple of other college kids.

A group of the cowboy performers were also there having a midnight snack when a bunch of older college men came in. They were obviously feeling no pain. They were "federal board" students, veterans of the First World War. They began making uncomplimentary comments about the cowboys, who were minding their own business. However, one word led to another and soon they were challenging each other.

Old man Stewart asked them to please not have a fight in his place. They agreed that they would follow his suggestion and go around the corner on North Scott Street to a garage where they could settle their beef. I knew all the college boys, and I was glad that I also knew one of the cowboys who recognized that, while we were also in college, we were not involved in that hassle.

There were seven cowboys and ten college men. We followed them to the garage, but as they got there, a patrolman showed up and said there would be no fighting there that night. In answer to where they could go to fight, he suggested that they go down on West Congress, across the bridge, where they would be outside the city limits.

They got into their cars and, with a couple of carloads of onlookers following along, drove to the large vacant lot across the bridge. They parked their cars so as to form a semicircle. They left their lights on. We parked next to the cars but remained in the car.

The two groups got out of their autos. Some of them started throwing tin cans and large rocks out of the area where the fight was going to take place, when, all of a sudden, "Rube" Roberts, world's champion bulldogger, and about 210 pounds of muscle, grabbed a college boy next to him, lifted him in the air and plopped him on his back. He then stuck his thumb at the lower part of his adversary's eye and said, "Sonny boy, if you don't apologize for what you said in the restaurant, I'm going to gouge your eye out."

The boy began screaming and begging for mercy. He apologized over and over!

The other cowboys then collared some of the other kids, and within two minutes it was over. I don't think a blow was struck, so fast did the cowboys prove to the college boys that they were badly overmatched.

I thought they were damned lucky. Those cowboys are about as tough a bunch as you could find anywhere. They were used to wrestling, not men, but large animals. They were also used to seeing blood flow and weren't about to be frightened by a pack of college boys. It was one of those things you hear about but seldom, if ever, see. I'm glad I was there, but certainly happy to be a spectator instead of a participant.

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