In the era before John L. Sullivan’s reign as heavyweight champion, fight promoters were practically unknown. Pueifiats or their backers put up side bets, winner take all, and it was a custom to pass the hat among the spectators, the funds so derived either going to the winner or being split 50-50, as the contestants may have decided.
The pioneer promoters, as we know fight promotion in the United States today, were a group identified with the Olympic Club, New Orleans, who put up $11,000 for a bout to be staged in its gymnasium on Jan. 14, 1891, between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack (Nonpareil) Dempsey for the middleweight championship of the world. The California A.C. of San Francisco followed with a $10,000 purse for the James J. Corbett-Peter Jackson fight on May 21, 1901. The battle went 61 rounds before it was stopped by Referee Hiram Cook, who called it “no contest.” Corbett declared he had received no part of the $10,000 and that Jackson told him, “I got only a few dollars.” The Olympic Club of New Orleans promoted the Fitzsimmons-Peter Maher bout on March 2, 1892, putting up $10,000, of which Fitz received $9,000 for stopping Maher in the 12th.
The same club then decided on a “championship carnival” for New Orleans during which three titles would be at stake. A total of $37,000 was put up, to be divided as follows: $20,000 for a heavyweight battle between Sullivan and Corbett; $10,000 for a lightweight championship bout between Jack McAuliffe and Billy Myers; $7,000 for a clash between George Dixon and Jack Skelly for the featherweight title.
The fights took place on Sept. 6, 7 and 8, 1892, and results were as follows:
Dixon stopped Skelly in 6 rounds. Corbett knocked out Sullivan in the 21st. McAuliffe defeated Myers in 15. Promotions from then until the advent of James W. Coffroth of San Francisco generally were conducted by clubs or syndicates. But Coffroth went on his own and made some revolutionary changes.
Coffroth, in his 20’s at the turn of the century and just graduated as a lawyer, visited New York, saw some ring battles there, and decided to promote in San Francisco. He staged some of the most important contests of the time, involving such men as Corbett, James J. Jeffries, Tom Sharkey, Fitzsimmons, Tommy Burns, Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel, George Gardner, “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien, Jack (Twin) Sullivan, Billy Papke, Joe Walcott, Honey Mellody Mike (Twin) Sullivan, Joe Gans, Battling Nelson, Leach Cross, Dal Hawkins, Ad Wolgast, Abe Attell and many others.
Coffroth customarily paid the fighters 60 per cent and, on some occasions, 75 per cent of the gross receipts, which money they split either 60 per cent to the winner and 40 per cent to the loser, or 75-25, and, in a few instances, 90-10. Coffroth promoted for about a dozen years, then abandoned boxing and promoted racing in Mexico and amassed a fortune. He died in 1943. Tex Rickard was the next of the leading international promoters. He first came to notice when he offered $30,000 for a fight between Joe Gans and Battling Nelson in the mining town of Goldfield, Nev. His next major venture was in 1910 when he offered a $101,000 purse for the July 4 battle between Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, which was divided 60 per cent to the winner (Johnson) and 40 per cent to the loser. His next promotion of importance was in 1916 when he matched Jess Willard, heavyweight champion, against Frank Moran in Madison Square Garden, New York, with Willard guaranteed $100,000. In 1919 he guaranteed Willard $100,000 and Jack Dempsey $27,500 for their July 4 fight in Toledo.
In 1920, when boxing was legalized in New York, Rickard leased Madison Square Garden, gained control of boxing, and started the golden era of the sport. Unlike Coffroth, who dealt in percentages, Rickard took the gamble by guaranteeing certain sums to the fighters in important bouts. He gave Jack Dempsey $300,000 and Georges Carpentier $200,000 for their 1921 meeting in the bowl he built in Jersey City, N.J. The fight grossed $1,789,238, but Rickard’s profit was small due to what he explained as “the political overhead.” He guaranteed Dempsey $450,000 and Tunney $200,000 for their first fight in Philadelphia, in 1926, giving Dempsey the option of taking 371/2 per cent of the gate. The receipts were $1,895,733, and Dempsey’s percentage share was $718,868.
For the 1927 fight in Chicago, Rickard agreed to give Tunney 371/2 per cent of the gate, which reached $2,658,660. Tunney’s share was $990,445, while Dempsey accepted a guarantee of $425,000.
Although Rickard suffered a few small losses in his many outdoor promotions, he generally was a big winner until he put on the TunneyTom Heeney championship contest June 6, 1928. He guaranteed Tunney $525,000, Heeney $100,000. The fight was not well patronized and Rickard admitted a loss of “around $200,000.” That ended Rickard’s guarantee policy, and fighters who fought thereafter under his other promotions worked on percentage. Rickard died in 1929.