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Boxers of Yesteryear: Tommy Gibbons

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To any follower of boxing's history the name of Tommy Gibbons will eventually come up, usually regarding his heavyweight championship fight with Jack Dempsey. However, there is much more to story of Tommy Gibbons. In viewing films of some of his fights, especially in slow motion, you will find for a heavyweight he was an excellent defensive boxer. In my youth I heard much from my father who did some boxing in the same era, about the famous Gibbons Brothers, Tommy and Mike. I find as I research them that he was right about their greatness.

George D. Blair


Thomas J. Gibbons was born on March 22, 1891 in Saint Paul, Minnesota – Died November 19, 1960. Tommy as he was to be known was the brother of future world boxing champion Mike Gibbons. Tommy started boxing professionally in 1911 as a middleweight. Like his brother he was a master scientific boxer who chose to outbox his opponents. In time, he advanced to the Heavyweight class and developed a respectable punch.

In his youth he began work at the Great Northern Railway rail yard for $1.10 a day, of which he was allowed to keep 10 cents. He gave the rest of the money to help his mother and father support the family. He accompanied his brother, Mike to some of his boxing matches. When their father saw that they could earn much more money boxing, than they could ever earn at the rail yard, he allowed them to go into boxing full time.

Gibbons got his start in boxing as a young man in St. Paul at the local YMCA. He turned professional in 1911 as a welterweight at the age of twenty, knocking out one Oscar Kelly in Minneapolis. He relocated to New York before his third bout and went undefeated in first twelve outings to secure a match with fellow up-and-comer Billy Miske in 1914. The fight, held in Hudson, Wisconsin, lasted a full ten rounds, but as state law forbade official decisions at the time, the bout was declared a no-decision. Still, more reporters at ringside felt that Gibbons had the better of the action. In 1915 the pair fought a rematch, to another no-decision which again was felt to be Gibbons?s fight. Almost immediately following this, Gibbons leapt into a match with Pittsburgh's Harry Greb, a wild-swinging middleweight brawler who would later be recognized by The Ring magazine as the single greatest middleweight in history. According to reporters, only Greb’s fabled toughness saved him from a knockout. The fight went the distance and was officially a no-decision, but no one doubted who the winner was. Gibbons spent the next several months travelling and fighting less than stellar opponents in Canada, Missouri, Milwaukee, New York, and Scranton before taking on Battling Levinsky, who was the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world at the time, though, because Gibbons was only a middleweight, the title would not be on the line. Though Gibbons was by now undefeated in twenty-four pro fights, Levinsky was a veteran of an amazing 181 fights. Again the fight ended in a no-decision, but reporters gave their verdict to Gibbons.

Gibbons continued his undefeated streak for the next three years--fighting a variety of competition and fighting in places such as Dayton, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Baltimore, Akron, Terre Haute, Des Moines, Buffalo, Denver, Minneapolis, Calgary, Seattle, Peoria, and Edmonton. On May 15, 1920 he fought a second no-decision against Greb. In a rematch two months later, which took place in a thunderstorm at the open air Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the fight was closely contested in the early goings but Greb’s aggressive style made all the difference in the final third of the bout. The newspapers gave their verdict to Greb. Technically, though, Gibbons was still undefeated and he continued to be so through his bouts with moderate level fighters like Chuck Wiggins and Dan (Porky) Flynn in the next few months. On June 22, 1921 he knocked out Willie Meehan, the “San Francisco Fat Boy”, who had twice beaten the great Jack Dempsey earlier in his career. Against Gibbons, Meehan lasted less than a round. In fact, for all of 1921, Gibbons scored twenty-one knockouts, ten in the first round. On March 13, 1922, Gibbons was back in the ring with his old nemesis, Harry Greb. This time Greb was the more active fighter and walked away with a fifteen round decision, handing Gibbons his very first professional defeat. A few months later a disqualification against Billy Miske became a second defeat. Gibbons did go undefeated in his next six fights however.

His biggest fight came near the end of his career when he met heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey on July 4, 1923 in Shelby, Montana.

When Jack Dempsey’s handlers were looking for his first title challenger in two years, they picked Gibbons as a credible contender who would still be an easy mark.

The town of Shelby had dreams of prosperity and a touristic boom, riding on the back of the discovery of oil in the area in 1922. The local backers and the town of Shelby went for broke putting on the fight. A large arena with 40,208-seating had been built for this fight.

Dempsey’s manager, Jim Kearns asked Shelby officials to guarantee him and the champion an advance for their travelling costs. He also asked for the champion to have a guaranteed purse. So Kearns convinced Shelby to commit money or lose the fight to somewhere else.

Kearns eventually got a contract of three hundred thousand for his boxer – a $100,000 deposit was made, followed by a second payment and finally it was agreed that the rest of the purse was to be collected from the gate revenue. The whole idea was doomed to failure, bad planning and the bad publicity resulting from Kearns threats to cancel the show, resulted in the train company cancelling their extra schedule trips to Shelby, pre-fight ticket sales was badly organised.

The great Dempsey had to battle through the full fifteen rounds before winning by decision.

The fight was scheduled for the then almost regular distance of 15 rounds. Dempsey was considered an aggressor: He had dropped Jess Willard seven times in the first round before winning the title from Willard by stopping him in round three, retaining the title with knockouts over Bill Brennan and Georges Carpentier, among others. Because of this, the fight was thought to be a possible action bout, but instead it was quite strategic. Dempsey constantly threw punches to Gibbons' head, with Gibbons trying to attack Dempsey's body. As a consequence, Gibbons was able to duck many of Dempsey's shots. Dempsey's mobility, however, made it hard for Gibbons to punch Dempsey's stomach and ribs.

In the end, Dempsey retained the title with a 15-round unanimous decision.Only 7,702 paying fans showed up, making the fight one of the biggest economical disasters in boxing history.

An estimated 13,000 people got to see the fight free. Four banks in Shelby went bankrupt in the months following the fight.

Tommy Gibbons record was 56-4-1 with 44 no decisions, and 1 no contest. He scored 48 knockouts, and was stopped only once by Gene Tunney on June 5, 1925. The names dotting his record read like boxing's hall of fame. Tommy recorded wins over George Chip, Willie Meehan, Billy Miske, Chuck Wiggins, Jack Bloomfield, and Kid Norfolk. Tommy had no decision matches with George "K.O." Brown, Billy MiskeHarry Greb, Battling Levinsky, Bob Roper, Chuck Wiggins, Georges Carpentier, and others. Only Harry GrebBilly MiskeJack Dempsey, and Gene Tunney were able to score wins over Tommy Gibbons.

After retiring from boxing at age 34, he sold insurance very successfully and was a member of the $100,000 Club in the 1920*s. His friends convinced him to run for Sheriff of Ramsey County in Minnesota, which included the capital city of Saint Paul, Minnesota. He won for six consecutive four year terms before retiring at the age of 68.

 He died on November 19, 1960 at the age of 69.

Charley Rose ranked Gibbons as the #5 All-Time Light Heavyweight; Nat Fleischer ranked him as the #8 All-Time Light Heavyweight; Gibbons was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1963 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993

Information Source:

Tom & Mike Gibbons Preservation Society

Wikipedia, Boxrec, George D. Blair, Cyber Boxing Zone