Ringside Jersey City's pugilistic past
by :Jim Hague Jersey City Magazine Correspondent
Mar 22, 2007 | 6718 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The sport of boxing has enjoyed a rich and storied history in Jersey City, dating back to before the turn of the 20th century, and that tradition remains strong to this very day. The city has earned its place of prominence, both as a home to some of the most influential bouts in the sport's history, and as a birthplace and residence for some of the best boxers of all time.

The early days

The first-ever recorded professional boxing match in Jersey City took place on July 25, 1885, when Jack McAuliffe, a talented lightweight from County Cork in Ireland who had the distinctive nickname of "The Napoleon of the Prize Ring," knocked out a non-descript Joe Milletecchia in the second round at a location in Jersey City that can not be determined.

McAuliffe went on to have a brilliant career, winning the World Lightweight championship in 1887 and holding the title for five years. He retired with an undefeated professional record of 33-0-2 in 1897.

In 1886, Jersey City boxing fans were first introduced to a fighter named Jack Dempsey. No, not that Jack Dempsey; he gets his place in Jersey City boxing history later on.

This Jack Dempsey was an Irish middleweight who fought under the nickname of "The Nonpareil" and became a regular in pro boxing cards in Jersey City at the time. He twice fought at a site known as the Oakland Avenue Rink in 1886. He went on to have a fine 44-3-9 professional record, but by the age of 32, he was dead from unknown causes, long before the "real" Jack Dempsey ever came to prominence.

By 1905, Newark had been established as New Jersey's boxing capital, eliminating Jersey City as a major player in the pro boxing game. Only one pro boxing card would be held in Jersey City for the next dozen years.

A rise to prominence

However, in 1918, Jersey City became a hotbed for pro boxing almost overnight, with 37 different boxing cards that year. To avoid New York's city and state surcharges on boxing cards, big-time promoters like Tex Ricard came to Jersey City. The move enabled bigger purses for promoters and boxers alike, and there would be no substantial drop-off in the size of attendances or gates.

The sport's sudden resurgence enabled places like the Grand View Auditorium, the Jersey City Skeeters baseball field, and a grand facility on Montgomery Street known as the Jersey City Armory to become fixtures as sites for pro boxing cards.

The first-ever boxing card at the Jersey City Armory was held on June 24, 1918, when Johnny Dundee defeated Mickey Donley in an eight-round decision.

A month later, a local hero named Frankie Burns fought for the very first time in his hometown. Burns was already moving his way up the featherweight and bantamweight ranks by the time pro boxing hit it big in Jersey City in 1918.

On July 3 of that year, Burns defeated Pete Herman in a 10-round decision at Skeeters Park, avenging a loss that Burns had suffered at the hands of Herman for the world bantamweight title in New Orleans the prior year. In total, Burns, who would become the featherweight champ of the world, fought seven times during his career in Jersey City.

On July 8, 1918, a young and promising light heavyweight, fighting in only his tenth professional fight, made his debut at the Armory. The 22-year-old fighter from California, Gene Tunney, delivered a first-round knockout of a journeyman fighter named Young Guerini.

Tunney, who later became the heavyweight champion of the world and engaged in two epic battles with the immortal Jack Dempsey (yes, that one), would fight six more times in Jersey City.

Local champs debut

Heavyweight Joe Jeannette, a Hudson County native who was born in North Bergen and raised in Union City, fought for the first time as a professional in Jersey City on Dec. 8, 1918, when he took on Andy Schmader and won an eight-round decision. Jeannette was the "colored" heavyweight champion of the world and had a total of eight fights over his career with the legendary Jack Johnson, who would himself grace Jersey City rings four times, including an October 1919 loss to Harry Wills for the "colored" heavyweight crown.

Jeannette later opened two local gymnasiums that would be the training home of several great boxers, including future heavyweight champ James J. Braddock.

By 1919, Jersey City was humming with pro boxing activity, hosting a total of 45 fight cards, even topping Newark for the busiest site in the Garden State.

On Jan. 28 of that year, another local product, Johnny Buff (born John Lesky), made his debut in his hometown. Buff, who would eventually become both the flyweight and bantamweight champion of the world in 1921, fought in his hometown a total of 27 times over a four-year span.

An epic rivalry

Perhaps the most storied rivalry in the history of the sport came to Jersey City in 1919, when two veteran boxers fought for the world welterweight title at the Armory. Jack Britton, a native of Buffalo who won 105 fights in a 348-bout professional career, defeated Ted "Kid" Lewis, a British fighter with an amazing 193 pro wins on his resume, for the welterweight crown on July 28 of that year.

Their fight in Jersey City would be the 17th of 18 times that Britton and Lewis met for the welterweight crown.

Who was the better fighter? Well, try these numbers on for size. Britton defeated Lewis seven times for the title, while Lewis defeated Britton seven times. Two of the bouts ended in draws, while two others ended with no contests. It's fair to say that their epic rivalry had to be declared as dead-even.

'Fight of the Century'

Jersey City became the focus of the boxing world in 1921, when the sport's first-ever $1 million gate took place at Boyle's Thirty Acres, an area off of Montgomery Street that is the current location of County Prep High School.

On July 2, 1921, Jack Dempsey, "The Manassa Mauler" and the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, took on Georges Carpentier, a French war hero and the European champion, before more than 80,000 fans from all walks of life, including entertainers like George M. Cohan, Al Jolson, and Rudolph Valentino and auto giant Henry Ford.

Dubbed by promoter Tex Ricard as "The Fight of the Century," the Dempsey-Carpentier fight was the main event on a seven-bout card that also featured appearances by local hero Burns and up-and-comer Tunney. It was the first fight ever broadcast on live radio, airing all over the world.

The fight ended with Dempsey knocking out Carpentier in the fourth round, preserving his heavyweight title.

Battles at Boyle's

At Boyle's Thirty Acres a year later, on July 27, 1922, Benny Leonard defeated Lew Tendler in a 12-round decision for the lightweight championship of the world.

A year after that, on July 12, 1923, Luis Firpo knocked out Jess Willard in the eighth round of a bout called "The Battle of the Giants."

Willard, who hailed from Kansas and stood 6-foot-6, was the former heavyweight champ of the world, having won the title from Jack Johnson in 1915 and held it until losing to Dempsey in 1919. His loss to Firpo in Jersey City was the final bout of his career.

Firpo, a 6-foot-2 solid mass from Argentina, would lose to Dempsey for the heavyweight title just two months after beating Willard in Jersey City. Firpo would return one final time to Boyle's Thirty Acres in 1924, only to lose to the black champion Wills, headlining a six-bout card that drew a crowd of over 60,000.

'The Cinderella Man'

Local hero James J. Braddock made his first professional appearance in Jersey City on May 1, 1926.

Nicknamed "The Cinderella Man" for his incredible rise to the ranks of heavyweight champion nine years later, Braddock defeated Phil Weisberger in a first-round knockout. It was the first of 12 professional bouts that Braddock, the longtime resident of North Bergen, would fight in Jersey City over the next eight years.

While Braddock suffered highs and lows throughout his career, he absolutely loved fighting in Jersey City, winning all 12 of his fights here. His story would be immortalized in the 2005 film Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe.

Fight of the Year: 1948

While America battled the Great Depression and then the world endured World War II, pro boxing took a backseat in Jersey City.

However, on Sept. 21, 1948, two legendary boxing Hall of Famers squared off in Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium for the world middleweight championship. Headlining a seven-bout card, Marcel Cerdan of France battled American Tony Zale for Zale's middleweight title belt. Zale had just regained the middleweight title from Rocky Graziano and was the heavy favorite going into the fight.

But Cerdan floored Zale with a left hook to the jaw just at the end of the 11th round. Referee Paul Cavalier stopped the fight in between rounds, giving the title to Cerdan. The Cerdan-Zale fight was considered the fight of the year by Ring Magazine. However, it was a tragic fight for two reasons. The loss was the last bout in Zale's historic career, and a little more than a year later, on Oct. 27, 1949, Cerdan was killed in a plane crash off the coast of the Azores Islands near Portugal. Cerdan died with an amazing 109-4 record with 63 knockouts.

Sugar Ray and The Hurricane

Another world title fight was held at Roosevelt Stadium on Aug. 9, 1950, when the immortal Sugar Ray Robinson won via an easy decision over Charley Fusari, winning 13 of the 15 rounds and successfully defending his world welterweight title in a seven-bout card.

By 1951, however, virtually all the big New Jersey boxing cards were being held in a place called the Laurel Garden in Newark. Jersey City had once again become an afterthought.

An up-and-coming middleweight named Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who would later fight for the middleweight title on two occasions, broke the lull by fighting twice in the Armory in 1961.

Carter, of course, is better known for his trial, conviction and eventual acquittal for a triple murder in Paterson in 1966. His story would inspire Bob Dylan's song "Hurricane" and the 1999 film The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington.

'The Bayonne Bleeder'

After a six-year drought, pro boxing returned to Jersey City in 1967, when a local heavyweight fighter from Bayonne named Chuck Wepner won the New Jersey State Heavyweight title via a seventh-round technical knockout over Don McAteer On June 29, 1970, former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston battered "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner at the Jersey City Armory, forcing Wepner to retire on cuts in the ninth round. It was the last fight of Liston's illustrious career; less than six months later, on Dec. 30, Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas apartment. No official cause of death was ever determined.

Two years later, Wepner, who would eventually gain national recognition for his heavyweight title fight against Muhammad Ali, which served as Sylvester Stallone's inspiration for the film Rocky, regained the New Jersey heavyweight title at the Armory, defeating Randy Neumann.

The last big boxing card held at the Jersey City Armory was on June 2, 1978, with Wepner beating Tom Healy in a five-round knockout, Jersey City heavyweight Rodell Dupree winning a four-rounder, and the headliner, eventual light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, knocking out Ray Elson in the second round.

'The Greatest' comes to Jersey City

A year later, on July 29, 1979, a fundraiser was held at the Armory, featuring Muhammad Ali climbing into the ring against Jersey City Mayor Thomas F.X. Smith to raise money for the Jersey City Medical Center.

Earlier that year, Muhammad Ali had gone up against then-Gov. Brendan Byrne in another charity event for St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston. Mayor Smith seized the opportunity and challenged Ali to an exhibition match, which drew about 8,000 fans to the Armory and about 1,000 more to a VIP reception at the Casino in the Park.

The two showmen clowned for the cameras for three rounds, but no real punches were thrown. Smith, however, definitely took the match seriously and trained rigorously, running through the streets of Jersey City with his faithful dog, Henry Hudson, before the match.

Locals fight for glory

By 1980, Atlantic City had become the big-time home of pro boxing in New Jersey, eliminating Jersey City as a venue for boxing cards. There have been no professional cards in Jersey City since.

However, the city reentered national prominence in the boxing world on March 11, 1984, when resident Mark Medal captured the IBF light middleweight title, defeating Earl Hargrove with a seventh-round TKO at the Sands in Atlantic City. Medal retired in 1987 to become a Jersey City police officer.

Arturo Gatti, a native of Canada who has called Jersey City his home since his pro boxing career began in 1991, has been thrilling boxing audiences ever since as one of the most popular figures in the sport today. In 1995, he won the IBF super featherweight championship with a win over Tracy Harris Patterson.

Gatti has held two world titles in his extremely popular career, although he suffered a setback to Carlos Baldomir of Argentina in July while attempting to win the WBC welterweight championship.

Gatti also has a home in Hoboken, but when he enters the ring he is announced as hailing "from Jersey City, New Jersey."

Although boxing has been a part of the athletic fabric of the city for a very long time, Gatti's popularity has given the sport a rebirth in Jersey City.

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