Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Historical Fight Hits Boxing in Arkansas

Arkansas Democrat, 1912.
Courtesy of the Arkansas
State Archives
One of the world’s oldest sports, boxing, has often been shrouded in controversyIn the early 20th Century, concerns about the legitimacy of the sport led to it being banned across the country 

The influence of the criminal element as well as the brutality inherent in boxing gave the sport a bad reputationCritics of the sport argued boxing matches tended to draw the most immoral sort of peopleBoxing matches fueled alcoholism and gambling, they arguedSuch an atmosphere invited corruptionProfessional criminals paid boxers to fix, or “rig,” fights to benefit certain gamblersInvestigations into crime in the sport led to bans nationwideAt one time, the only place in the country where it was legal to box was in NevadaSome places in Arkansas even banned the showing of films featuring boxingIn Arkansas, the controversy came to a head in 1912, when an athletic club decided to defy the laws. 

The Arkansas Legislature effectively banned the sport when it passed a law outlawing “prize fighting” in 1912The Little Rock City Council followed suit on April 8 of that year and banned the sport as wellLittle Rock Mayor Charles Taylor supported the new ban declaring, “No prizefight, under that name or other name, will be permitted in this city as long as I am mayor.” 

Immediately, there were attempts to defy the new lawThe day after the City Council passed the ordinance, police learned of a boxing match scheduled to take place in a vacant building on Markham StreetThe crowd and boxers were tipped off that police were on their way and vacated the building before they arrived. 

While politicians debated the morality of boxing, a group of sportsmen in Little Rock organized the Rose City Athletic Club with the purpose of promoting what they termed “clean athletics.” They promised all contests would be free of gambling and other vices and that no prizes would be offered to the winners of the contestsOne of the sports the group wanted to promote was boxing, despite the new law against prizefighting 

Jack White, the director of the Rose City Athletic Club, began organizing a fight between Joe Mandot and Joe Sherman, two nationally known boxers, to take place on April 10, 1912White asserted, “It is not a prize fight and the contestants are not receiving one cent for their services…no prize is offered for the winner.” White announced the purpose of the fight, besides being entertainment, would be to test the new law outlawing boxing in Little Rock. 

Because of the controversial nature of the program, White realized there might be a large crowd of people anxious to see what would transpireWhite approached Argenta Mayor Will Faucette asking for use of the city’s skating rinkFaucette declinedThe owners of a dilapidated theater in Forest Park offered their venue for the event, but White decided the building would be inadequate to accommodate a large crowdHe eventually secured Little Rock’s Kempner Theater for the event 

As the event date neared, however, the theater’s owner suddenly developed cold feet and refused to allow White to use the buildingFrantic, White decided he would hold the event on a barge in the middle of the Arkansas RiverHe began searching for a barge large enough to accommodate a large crowd 

As White continued to plan the opening night of the athletic club, Gov. George Washington Donaghey watched with interestHe declared he would do everything in his power to prevent the club from holding boxing matchesHe downplayed the fact that no prizes would be awarded to the winner of the contest and argued “a boxing contest is only a new name for a prize fight…all power of the state will be exerted, if necessary, to prevent such an exhibition being held.” 

White’s plans hit a snagHeavy rains in eastern Arkansas had left the region flooded, causing a cancellation of train service from MemphisJoe Sherman was not able to make the trip from Memphis to Little Rock in timeMeanwhile, Joe Mandot, who was scheduled to fight in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the following weekend, decided to leave early due to the floodingThis left White with no contestants for the opening programAdditionally, White was unable to secure a barge, leaving the event without a venueWhite had to admit defeat and postponed the event for an undesignated time in the future. 

White immediately began to reschedule the event, setting May 31, 1912, as the new dateIn the meantime, the club began building its club house in the Pulaski Heights neighborhoodFor the next month, workers feverishly laboreto complete the new building and finished in time for the openingWhite took to the newspapers, advertising the opening and personally inviting city council members and the governor to attend the boxing match 

Moments before the first bout was to get underway, Gov. Donaghey arrived at the venue flanked by B.W. Green of the Arkansas National Guard and a handful of law enforcement officialsThey approached Jack White and demanded he stop the proceedingsWhite refused, informing the governor he would not stop the show, and even invited the officials to witness the match. 

The first match was scheduled between Adolph Jacobson and Homer Heard, two Little Rock residentsAfter the bell sounded, the two boxers approached each otherJacobson reached out and slapped Heard on the wrist, shouting, “Take that, curse you!”  At that provocative moment, Little Rock Constable Renton Tunnah leaped into the ring“Stop! Stop!  Both of you!  You are under arrest,” yelled the lawman as other police officers surrounded the two boxersWhile Tunnah declared he was arresting the men for violating “a law of the governor of Arkansas,” police handcuffed the two menThey also arrested Jack White and led the men to the paddy wagonThe men were taken to the constable’s office, ordered to appear before the judge the next morning, then released. 

On June 5, the men went before Judge Henry EllenbogenAlthough the prosecutor, M.E. Dunnaway, argued that the trio had violated the law, the judge was not persuadedBefore dismissing the case, Judge Ellenbogen delivered a speech praising the sport and its effect at promoting “manliness.”  Dunnaway quickly rearrested the men as they walked out of the courthouse, this time charging them with inciting a riotThe charges were eventually dropped. 

With the law now clarified, the Rose City Athletic Club held another event on June 10 to benefit flood victims in eastern ArkansasThe event went off without controversyAs the decade of the 1910s went on, the nation began to soften its stand against boxingFormer President Theodore Roosevelt championed the legalization of boxing, which led to a nationwide repealing of anti-boxing lawsOfficials also turned a blind eye to illegal boxing matches 

In 1923, the Arkansas legislature legalized boxing, putting it under the authority of a state boxing commissionThis commission continues in operation todayArkansas’s boxing fans now enjoy the sport in peace.  

For more information about Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives website at, call 501-682-6900 or email