Tex Rickard and the Making of Modern Sports

Dempsey-Carpentier boxing matchDempsey-Carpentier boxing match, 1921. (Tex Rickard center) (Photo: Library of Congress)

One of the most important, if perhaps least known, figures in modern American sports history is George “Tex” Rickard. In some ways, his story is almost too extraordinary to be true. His adventurous life took him from the prairies of Kansas and Texas to New York City with side trips to Alaska, Nevada, and even South America. Along the way, Rickard nearly froze to death prospecting for gold, tended bar with Wyatt Earp, and refereed the Fight of the Century between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. He helped legitimize one major American sport: boxing, and was at the foundations of another: ice hockey. Rickard was a man who rose from poverty to make, lose, and remake a fortune without the help of inherited wealth or a prestigious family name. He was a cowboy, miner, saloon keeper, promoter, and sports team owner who felt equally comfortable hobnobbing with presidents, celebrities, captains of industry, boxers, gamblers, and murderers. Using only his intelligence, a gift for promotion, and a healthy dose of luck, he helped create modern American sports.

Rickard believed that people were attracted to sporting events not solely because of the inherent nature of the competition, although it was important that the contest be interesting and honest, but also because of the spectacle surrounding it. Rickard orchestrated sporting events that were more than mere athletic contests; they were glorious shows with an importance and impact that went beyond simple competition. The events attracted anyone and everyone, regardless of social standing, economic wealth, or gender. He dragged boxing out of the barrooms, seedy dives, and gambling dens and into the national spotlight, making it not only acceptable, but required viewing among Americans both rich and poor, male and female, black and white. In addition to launching the American obsession with sports as spectacle, Rickard also, for good or ill, emphasized another aspect of American sporting life that continues to dominate its culture to the present day: money. All of Rickard’s events were designed above all to make money. Everything else, save perhaps the integrity of the competitions, took a backseat to the need to make a profit.

Rickard was born in Kansas on January 2, 1870. A few years later the family moved to Texas where Rickard had to grow up fast after his father died when Rickard was just eleven. Soon he was working as a cowboy and took part in several long cattle drives even as the expansion of the country’s rail network began to eliminate the need for such endeavors. At age 24 he became city marshal in the town of Henrietta, Texas. After the death of his wife and young son, Rickard, like thousands of others, escaped to Alaska with a need to start over and a desire to strike it rich. In what would often characterize his success, Rickard soon recognized an opportunity: there was money to be made, not in mining but rather in catering to the needs and desires of the booming population. Although his first attempt at running a saloon ended when he and his partner lost the establishment in a card game, Rickard soon regrouped and made a fortune operating a hotel first in the city of Dawson and later in Nome.

By the early twentieth century, Rickard had relocated to another boomtown – Goldfield, Nevada. Once again he didn’t go there to mine but rather to operate the town’s largest saloon, called the Northern. Despite its flashy name, Goldfield was a bit down on its luck and the city fathers decided that staging a prominent boxing match would bring publicity to their struggling community. Rickard took charge of the plans. He signed Battling Nelson to compete against African American lightweight champion Joe Gans. The match up revealed two important traits about Rickard’s promotional acumen. First, he wasn’t afraid to offer mixed race bouts and second, he would do anything to generate interest in the fight among both the general public and the press. In the case of the Gans-Nelson bout Rickard’s ballyhoo included placing the fight’s entire $30,000 purse in the window of a Goldfield bank – not in stacks of bills but rather in piles of gleaming gold coins.

During his early career as a boxing promoter, Rickard showed no hesitation in matching black and white fighters, despite widespread resistance to mixed race bouts. Rickard’s color line was not black or white, but green. When there was money to be made, Rickard was glad to match black and white fighters as he had in his first fight back in Goldfield and in the famous Johnson-Jeffries bout of 1910. Nevertheless, he refused to give the Brown Panther, Harry Wills, a shot at titleholder Jack Dempsey during the 1920s. It may be that he feared a recurrence of the violence and outrage that followed Johnson’s historic win or he feared a Wills victory because he knew that Dempsey was a far better draw as champion.

While Dempsey held the crown, Rickard engineered some of the sport’s most profitable fights, including the first to earn over a million dollars and the first to pay out a million dollars to an individual boxer. Not willing to rest on his laurels, Rickard died unexpectedly following surgery in early 1929 while investigating the site of his newest potential venture: a stadium and casino in the then underdeveloped town of Miami, Florida. Although he is still not a household name, the legacy of Tex Rickard continues in larger than life boxing spectacles like the hugely anticipated match up between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao scheduled for May 2, 2015, which may well become the highest grossing event in boxing history. But his legacy continues more widely, in the big-money spectacles of all professional sports, an American tradition we owe to a one time cow puncher, bartender, and gambler named Tex Rickard.

About the Author

Brian Bunk

Brian D. Bunk is senior lecturer in history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His early research focused on Modern Spanish history and his book Ghosts of Passion: Martyrdom, Gender, and the Origins of the Spanish Civil War appeared in 2007. His recent work examines the history of sport in the United States with an emphasis on boxing and soccer. Articles on these topics have been published in the Journal of Sport History, Sport in History, and Sport in Society. He is also the creator and host of the Soccer History USA podcast, a monthly program examining the history of soccer in the United States.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice write-up on his early adventures and boxing promotion, but I was surprised to see no mention whatsoever of his role in building the third Madison Square Garden in 1925 (it lasted until 1968) or Boston Madison Square Garden in 1928 (later known as Boston Garden, demolished in 1998). Especially since the premise of this article is his importance in US sports history. Frankly, it would be difficult to come up with two more important indoor athletic venues in America, past or present.

    These were the first two of his seven planned “Garden” arenas in which he hoped to expand his spectator sports empire around the country. Miami may well have become the third, but his death there just 50 days after his Boston venue opened put such thoughts on ice — and the stock market crash 10 months later brought them to an end.

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