The fight, the foul and the lawman

Wyatt Earp is best remembered as an Old West lawman, but he also moonlighted as a boxing referee. Dick Loek/Toronto Star

J.J. Groom and John Gibbs had a problem.

They were the promoters of a scheduled bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey, which they were billing as a contest for the heavyweight championship of the world. And yet, by noon on Dec. 2, 1896, with the fight slated to take place that evening in San Francisco's Mechanics' Pavilion, they didn't have a referee. Fitzsimmons' manager, concerned that the fix was in, had rejected every name the promoters put forward. Finally, afraid that Fitzsimmons was on the verge of pulling out of the contest, Groom and Gibbs came up with someone they thought was the perfect candidate. They just had to convince him to accept the job.

His name was Wyatt Earp.

Earp was 15 years removed from what would come to be considered the defining date of his life -- Oct. 26, 1881. It had been cold in Tombstone, Ariz., that day, and snow flecked the air as Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Wyatt's friend Doc Holliday, walked slowly, four abreast, along Fremont Street and into history.

In a vacant lot next to Fry's Boarding House, just west of the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral, stood Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne, members of a cowboy faction that had been feuding with the Earps and Holliday for more than a year. The seeds of that conflict are complex, and the precise circumstances that led to these particular men coming face-to-face on that particular day are not without dispute. Forever lost in the mists of time is any iron-clad certainty over who fired the first shot. But someone did, and then about another 30 shots followed until, a mere half-minute after the shooting began, the gunfight ended with the McLaury brothers dead and Billy Clanton dying in agony.

What would later become known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was not, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the end of hostilities, or even the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning. Two months later, Virgil Earp survived an assassination attempt but permanently lost the use of his left arm. Three months after that, Morgan Earp was gunned down while playing billiards. Wyatt, Holliday and others set off on a "vendetta ride" to hunt down the rest of the cowboys, killing perhaps three of their intended targets before, pursued by a sheriff's posse, they fled the Arizona Territory.

After spells in Idaho, Colorado and San Diego, among other locales, Earp arrived in San Francisco. And in 1896, the San Francisco Examiner published a first-person, ghostwritten account of his life, which ran in three parts across successive Sundays in August. The series, which garnered Wyatt significant local attention, was substantially exaggerated for effect, all but painting Earp as the sole imposer of law and order in the Old West -- and was motivated, says Earp historian Tim Fattig, by more than sensational journalism.

The Hearst family, which published the Examiner, had just hired Earp as security. The articles, Fattig says, served the purpose of announcing, "'This guy's terrifying, so don't mess with us, because if you do, you have to go through Wyatt Earp to get us, and you don't want to do that.' They very heavily laid on the heroics, and it's a fair bet Wyatt never saw the articles until they were published, but I'm sure he would have loved them because they portrayed him as being 10 feet tall and bulletproof."

It was a mythos that would reach its apotheosis with a 1931 hagiography by Stuart Lake entitled "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal." But at the time Earp passed away, two years before the book's publication, he was arguably less known for the tumult in Tombstone than for the controversy that engulfed him in a boxing ring one evening in San Francisco.

Although the bout was advertised as being for the heavyweight crown, the true possessor of the ultimate prize in boxing was not a matter of uniform agreement. The previous champ, James J. Corbett, had retired from the ring in 1895. In a search for his successor, Steve O'Donnell was dispatched inside a minute by Peter Maher, who in turn was knocked out in the first round by Fitzsimmons. Corbett would rescind his retirement and immediately regain recognition as champion, but until then, Fitzsimmons had as legitimate a claim to the title as anyone.

A large crowd was expected for Fitzsimmons' fight with Sharkey. The last thing Groom and Gibbs needed was a cancellation, particularly over something as contentious as an inability to find a neutral referee. Appointing a man of Earp's reputation would surely satisfy everyone of the probity of proceedings -- and, perhaps, in the process, score the promoters some valuable brownie points with the powerful Hearst family.

But, according to Lake's account, when first approached that afternoon, Earp demurred. He did, however, allow that he would be eating dinner at Goodfellow's Restaurant across the street from where the fight would be held.

"If you can't get anybody else," he said, "you can find me there."

They couldn't, and so they did. And a mere five minutes before the combatants were scheduled to make their way to the ring, according to Lake's record, Earp entered the pavilion. The crowd cheered when Earp appeared, but responded with substantially less enthusiasm when it became clear that he would be the man in charge of the action. After all, one wouldn't nominate a referee to take part in a shootout; what did Earp know about handling a heavyweight fight? (He had, in fact, officiated a number of bouts before, albeit not under the Marquis of Queensberry rules.)

The 10,000 or so in attendance only grew more restive when Earp, after stepping between the ropes, removed his overcoat to reveal a Colt .45 tucked in his waistband. The firearm was confiscated by a police captain who was seated ringside, but when the crowd bellowed for the policeman to search Earp for a second weapon -- which Earp denied he was carrying -- the officer proclaimed that "Wyatt Earp's word is good with me."

Duly mollified, the fans' attention turned with the commencement of the fight from the third man in the ring to the other two. Of those two, one of them -- Fitzsimmons -- was clearly in control of proceedings. Although the contest was reportedly more back-alley brawl than sweet science, Fitzsimmons was carrying the day with his superior technique, highlighted by his trademark left-hook-to-the-jaw/right-uppercut-to-the-solar-plexus combination.

In the third round, one of those body punches strayed low, but Sharkey insisted he wasn't badly hurt and that the fight should continue. And so it did, until the eighth, when, according to Lake, "Fitzsimmons landed a left hook squarely on the button of Sharkey's jaw and started his huge right fist from the floor to Sharkey's abdomen ... [Sharkey] stumbled forward instead of back. Fitzsimmons' right, coming up, struck Sharkey in the groin. Sharkey collapsed."

The blow had been unintentional; more pertinently, it had gone unseen by the crowd, many of whom had laid money on Fitzsimmons. When Earp stopped the contest and awarded victory to the poleaxed Sharkey by way of disqualification, the pavilion erupted. Fitzsimmons' manager complained that Sharkey had been fouling all evening, questioned whether the low blow had even occurred and protested that his suspicions of a fix had been confirmed.

A team of doctors verified that Sharkey had been hit hard below the belt, and Sharkey would later claim that Fitzsimmons had apologized for the transgression. But no matter: a tempest had been unleashed.

A temporary injunction prevented Sharkey from collecting his winner's purse until a hearing had been conducted to establish the legitimacy of the evening's events, and of Earp's part in them. Earp was fined $50 for the illegal firearm he had worn into the ring. Day after day, the San Francisco Chronicle fanned the flames of anger against the referee it dubbed the "Tombstone Terror" -- stoked, claimed Lake, by the publisher's loss of a $20,000 bet on Fitzsimmons, but more likely, asserts Fattig, by an all-too-easy opportunity to besmirch a rival publisher's poster boy. That series of articles in the Examiner earlier in the year had, Fattig pointed out, been "great publicity, but they also made him a bigger target."

Earp's initial reluctance to accept the assignment had likely been overcome by appeals to his considerable vanity, by a suggestion that refereeing such a high-profile bout would burnish his image. Instead, that image could not have taken a bigger hit. Before the fight, Earp was a figure of regional, not national, repute, famed in California and Arizona but not many points east. That all changed on Dec. 2, 1896, and in the worst possible way.

"It was a complete publicity disaster for him," Fattig said. "He was disarmed in the ring by a police captain. He was editorially vilified in newspapers all around the Bay Area. Newspapers in San Diego and L.A. were weighing in also, and unfortunately the Associated Press was in full swing, so the articles emanating from California were reprinted in Chicago and New York City. Small-town newspapers in Minnesota and Michigan would run wire service articles about Wyatt Earp, the bad man from Arizona, the murderer and crooked gambler, and they had no idea who Wyatt Earp was."

For Earp, it was all too much. Devastated by the furor, he upped sticks and left San Francisco, returning months later for only long enough to board a steamer for Alaska, where he spent several years trying and failing to earn a fortune from the gold rush. He ultimately resettled in the Golden State, living much of his final two decades in relative peace and quiet in and around Los Angeles. But whereas his image today, burnished by Stuart Lake and Hollywood, is of a sharp-shooting scourge of lawless cowboys, for the rest of his life -- and even in death -- Earp struggled to remove the stain of the fight.

"I was surprised to discover how much ink was spent on recapitulation of Sharkey-Fitzsimmons in obituaries of Earp," Fattig said. "Even in the 1930s, I found newspaper references to 'pulling an Earp' or 'Earping the job' as being shorthand for a crooked referee."

In March 1897, Fitzsimmons achieved universal recognition as the true heavyweight champion when he defeated Corbett in Carson City, Nev., with a 14th-round knockout. The winning blow was his patented right uppercut to the solar plexus.

Wyatt Earp was in attendance. He was not invited to referee the fight.