Like his older brother Mike, Tommy Gibbons is best remembered for a fight in which he kept a champion at bay. Widely acknowledged as a stellar fighter in several weight classes, Gibbons held his own with heavyweight king Jack Dempsey and was knocked out only once in his career.
Gibbons learned to box at the YMCA in his hometown of St. Paul. He turned professional at the age of twenty and recorded knockouts in his first three fights. At the start of his career, Gibbons fought as a welterweight. As he added weight, he moved up in class until he eventually contended for the heavyweight title. Gibbons battled Hall of Famer Harry Greb four times from 1915 to 1922, losing the only one of the four bouts in which a decision was rendered. He also fought multiple bouts with George ("K.O.") Brown, Joe Herrick, George Chip, Gus Christie, Silent Martin, Billy Miske, Clay Turner, Burt Kenny, and Chuck Wiggins. Only Miske beat Gibbons, and he won on a foul.
Initially, Gibbons was famed for his speed and boxing ability. However, as he gained weight, he developed a more powerful punch. In 1921, Gibbons won 21 fights by knockouts, with ten of them coming in the first round. Although not all of the victories were against top competition, Gibbons succeeded in making enough of a name for himself to earn a shot at Dempsey's heavyweight title.
The title fight took place in Shelby, Montana. The city fathers wanted to put the town on the map by hosting a heavyweight championship bout. Jack Kearns, Dempsey's manager, agreed to have his fighter perform there if Dempsey were paid $310,000. Kearns also insisted on using his own referee, James Dougherty. Gibbons, hungry for the championship, agreed to be paid beyond expenses only if there were money left over after Dempsey's cut. Dempsey got paid, but because the fight drew only about 7,000 spectators, Gibbons received nothing. In fact, the fight was a financial disaster for Shelby and three banks failed as a result of backing the fiasco.
Still, it was a good fight. Dempsey hit Gibbons with some solid shots, notably in the eleventh and fifteenth rounds, but Gibbons parried and slipped away from punches that would have scored against a less-accomplished fighter. It was later rumored that Kearns told Dempsey to be sure to go a full fifteen rounds so that his agent could get out of town with Dempsey's purse before the local promoters reconsidered. The stories surrounding the fight do little to diminish Gibbons's achievement; most observers believed that he could not have been knocked out under any circumstances.
It took Dempsey's nemesis, Gene Tunney, to finally stop Gibbons. In a fight in 1925, Tunney dropped Gibbons in the twelfth round. It was the first and only time he was knocked out. Gibbons then retired, never having won a championship. In retirement, he sold insurance and served four terms as sheriff of St. Paul.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.