|Arkansas Democrat, 1912.|
Courtesy of the Arkansas
The influence of the criminal element as well as the brutality inherent in boxing gave the sport a bad reputation. Critics of the sport argued boxing matches tended to draw the most immoral sort of people. Boxing matches fueled alcoholism and gambling, they argued. Such an atmosphere invited corruption. Professional criminals paid boxers to fix, or “rig,” fights to benefit certain gamblers. Investigations into crime in the sport led to bans nationwide. At one time, the only place in the country where it was legal to box was in Nevada. Some places in Arkansas even banned the showing of films featuring boxing. In 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 1912. The Little Rock City Council followed suit on April 8 of that year and banned the sport as well. Little 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 law. The day after the City Council passed the ordinance, police learned of a boxing match scheduled to take place in a vacant building on Markham Street. The 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 contests. One 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 and Joe Sherman, two nationally known boxers, to take place on April 10, 1912. White 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 transpire. White approached Mayor Will asking for use of the city’s skating rink. declined. The 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 crowd. He 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 building. Frantic, White decided he would hold the event on a barge in the middle of the Arkansas River. He 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 watched with interest. He declared he would do everything in his power to prevent the club from holding boxing matches. He 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 snag. Heavy rains in eastern Arkansas had left the region flooded, causing a cancellation of train service from Memphis. Joe Sherman was not able to make the trip from Memphis to Little Rock in time. Meanwhile, Joe , who was scheduled to fight in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the following weekend, decided to leave early due to the flooding. This left White with no contestants for the opening program. Additionally, White was unable to secure a barge, leaving the event without a venue. White 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 date. In the meantime, the club began building its club house in the Pulaski Heights neighborhood. For the next month, workers feverishly labored to complete the new building and finished in time for the opening. White 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. arrived at the venue flanked by B.W. Green of the Arkansas National Guard and a handful of law enforcement officials. They approached Jack White and demanded he stop the proceedings. White 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 residents. After the bell sounded, the two boxers approached each other. Jacobson reached out and slapped Heard on the wrist, shouting, “Take that, curse you!” At that provocative moment, Little Rock Constable Renton leaped into the ring. “Stop! Stop! Both of you! You are under arrest,” yelled the lawman as other police officers surrounded the two boxers. While declared he was arresting the men for violating “a law of the governor of Arkansas,” police handcuffed the two men. They also arrested Jack White and led the men to the paddy wagon. The 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 . Although the prosecutor, M.E. , argued that the trio had violated the law, the judge was not persuaded. Before dismissing the case, Judge delivered a speech praising the sport and its effect at promoting “manliness.” quickly rearrested the men as they walked out of the courthouse, this time charging them with inciting a riot. The 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 Arkansas. The event went off without controversy. As the decade of the 1910s went on, the nation began to soften its stand against boxing. Former President Theodore Roosevelt championed the legalization of boxing, which led to a nationwide repealing of anti-boxing laws. Officials 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 commission. This commission continues in operation today. Arkansas’s boxing fans now enjoy the sport in peace.