Wyatt Earp is featured in a betting scandal

Wyatt Earp: A Square Gambler But A Crooked Ref?

Unless you’re a real film buff, you may not be aware that Kevin Costner, Henry Fonda, Kurt Russell, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart and James Garner all portrayed the Old West lawman Wyatt Earp.

Many people don’t even know that Wyatt Earp was a real person, and that the gunfight at the OK Corral was a real thing that happened. And, I think it’s fair to say that most boxing fans don’t realize that when Earp died, he was more notorious as a referee than as a deputy U.S. marshal.

Wyatt The Ref

The bout between Bob ‘The Freckled Wonder’ Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey in San Francisco in December of 1896 was the first heavyweight championship fight since champ Jim Corbett had retired the previous year.

Boxing was illegal in San Francisco at that time, but the fight was nonetheless attended by civic and police officials who were among the majority that had put down a bet on Sharkey.

Entering the fight, Sharkey was unbeaten in 24 trips to the ring with 20 knockouts. Fitzsimmons’ record was only middling, but he was known for his powerful arms developed by working as a blacksmith, and he had a win over Jack Dempsey on his resume.

Leading up to the fight, Fitzsimmons was a 3-1 favorite, but a late surge of betting on Sharkey dropped the odds to 3-2.

One of the interesting things that happened in the leadup to the fight was that suffragettes in San Francisco, even then a progressive city, protested that the fight was only open to men, and were successful in getting the ban on women removed.

At the same time, the promoters of the fight, John D. Gibbs and J. J. Groom, couldn’t find a referee satisfactory to both sides. Fitzsimmons’ manager rejected all of the early candidates, suspecting the fight had been fixed in Sharkey's favor.

Gibbs told the San Francisco Call that he saw Earp in a hotel, and “knew that Wyatt Earp was a cool, clear-headed person of unimpeachable reputation, and one who would be perfectly fair to both fighters." He called Earp "the bravest fighter, squarest gambler, best friend and worst enemy ever known on the frontier."

The Oakland Tribune praised Earp’s choice as ref in a front-page story.

"Wyatt Earp is one of the bravest and best-known sporting men in the country. He has had a varied experience since he retired from office in Arizona and is now in the horse racing business.”

Even then, the Fitzsimmons side was unhappy with the choice, but with 15,000 tickets sold for the fight, finally acquiesced. Earp had refereed more than two dozen fights, but none under the relatively new Marquess of Queensbury rules, and never a championship.

(Not until Muhammad Ali was the ref at the first Wrestlemania and punched Rowdy Roddy Piper in an attempt to restore order did an official get so much attention.)

Locked & Loaded: Ready For Controversy 

With that detail finally settled, it was almost time for boxing, but not before Earp entered the ring with his .45 caliber pistol sticking out of his coat pocket. Police Captain Charles Whitman, attending the illegal event, climbed into the ring and got Earp to hand over his weapon.

Once the bell rang, Fitzsimmons dominated the fight. In the eighth round, with the two pugilists boxing at close quarters, the Freckled Wonder hit Sharkey with his “famous solar plexus punch,” an uppercut under the heart, known to leave an opponent stunned.

Then, according to one account, Sharkey "stumbled forward instead of back. Fitzsimmons' right, coming up, struck Sharkey in the groin."

Sharkey rolled around on the canvas, clutching his groin and screaming that he’d been fouled.

Earp stopped the fight, and after lengthily conferring with both corners, ruled that Fitzsimmons had hit Sharkey below the belt and was disqualified.

Spectators were vexed.

Or, in the argot of the day: “There was a moment of silence and then a burst of resentment from thousands of throats.”

The site BoxRec, quoting from the Jeffersonville Evening Journal, wrote:

“Bob Fitzsimmons was Wednesday night robbed of a victory which he had clearly earned by punching Tom Sharkey into insensibility…As Sharkey rolled over on his back, Wyatt Earp, the referee, announced that Fitzsimmons had struck him foul with his knee, and that the decision should go to Sharkey. The decision was received with hoots and jeers, and Earp disappeared just in time to avoid rough handling. It was clearly an unfair decision, as the knockout blow was a fair punch on the jaw. The crowd became boisterous and cursed Earp loud and long. The unanimous sentiment was that Fitzsimmons had been robbed in the most cold-blooded manner.”

Was The Fight Fixed?

Despite the accusations of a fix, the bookmakers paid off bets on the fight based on Earp's decision as final.  Fitzsimmons' managers went to court to keep Sharkey from cashing the check Earp had presented to him.

After several days of testimony, the judge ruled that because boxing was illegal the court had no standing, and allowed Sharkey to claim the prize. How it took the judge days and days to remember he had no authority has been lost to history.

Weirdly, it was later reported that a quack doctor had injected an “irritating fluid” into Sharkey’s testicles so it would appear he had been punched in the balls.

That same doctor was later arrested when he entered a San Francisco bank and tried to cash a bond stolen from a Kansas City bank.

As for Earp, his obituary in 1929 devoted considerable space to his role in the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight.  It wasn’t until after his death that a biography would start to burnish the legend of Wyatt Earp we know today.

But for years, newspapers used the terms pulling an Earp or Earping the job as shorthand for a crooked referee.

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