Every time someone tries to give boxing last rites, someone else applies the cardiac paddles. Floyd Mayweather Jr. returned to the ring 10 days ago and did more than a million pay-per-view buys, punking a UFC card head-to-head and delaying for the moment the conclusion that all fight fans want their combat meaner, nastier, no-holds-barred.
So all is well. Except it’s not.
Boxing is now diced into 17 weight classes with four storefront sanctioning bodies crowning champions in each. If the average sports fan can name more than one, it’s because two of them are Klitschkos.
Boxing’s past is far more entertaining than its present, though the ongoing malaise can even fog history. For example, it managed to elude us or get boiled out of wire accounts that the most recent class of the World Boxing Hall of Fame included – a full 25 years after his death – one Guido Bardelli, known professionally as Young Firpo and colloquially as “the Wild Bull of Burke.”
That’s Burke as in Idaho, up the spooky canyon of the same name from Wallace. A virtual ghost town now, Burke produced not just mountains of silver ferried out by two rival railroads but an hombre so tough that his legacy got him into the hall of fame without a championship belt.
Of course, boxing titles are as often the residue of circumstance, luck, location, opportunity, politics, money and corruption as they are attributable to a hard right hand. The Bull of Burke never broke a sweat in Madison Square Garden.
He won two of three wars with a rugged customer named George Manley, who himself twice outpointed three-time light-heavyweight champ Maxie Rosenbloom, and fought a brutal draw with John Henry Lewis a year before that fighter would become world champion. Rosenbloom himself would fight nearly 300 times professionally – against the likes of Manley and Lewis, Tiger Jack Fox, Jimmy Slattery, Bob Olin and Lou Nova, and even here in Spokane and Stateline.
But he couldn’t be coaxed into a ring with Young Firpo, whose hammering right was developed singlejacking as a Silver Valley miner.
Never heard of him?
Well, sure. His career did crest 75 years ago, in a pair of fights in Portland just a month apart with Fox and Lewis.
At that point, Firpo had already won 67 fights and the Pacific Coast title and was an in-his-prime 27. But in the winter of 1934, he was driving to Butte for a fight with a former middleweight champ named Gorilla Jones when he was injured in a car wreck that hospitalized him for seven weeks. Fox – like Firpo an inductee in the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame – was waiting for him when he recovered.
The two fought a savage affair in which both hit the canvas in the fifth round – Firpo first, from a right hand, and then Fox from a left hook when he bored in for the kill. But after 10 rounds, the decision went to Firpo.
There was more at stake in the Lewis fight. Rosenbloom had been stripped of his title, and a dubious “tournament” was concocted to fill the vacancy. This was purportedly an elimination bout for that tournament. Let John Bardelli, a Spokane Valley attorney and Firpo’s son, pick up the narrative:
“Lewis was a ferocious body puncher and one of the first ones he throws, a right uppercut, fractures Dad’s breastbone,” he recalled. “Dad knows he’s in trouble, but he has to bluff or it’s over in the first round. He couldn’t breathe for four rounds and then it starts to come back – and in both the sixth and seventh rounds he has Lewis on the verge of a KO, but couldn’t connect.”
The fight was ruled a draw. One newspaper account said the Portland crowd booed for five minutes, another said 10. Someone threw a knife in the ring. The tournament would go on without him. Olin would beat Rosenbloom in New York – and lose the title to Lewis in his first defense.
Firpo’s boxing career soon slowed. He had married and would start a family, and his work as a miner and prospector took precedence. Two knockout losses to a kid named Red Bruce in 1936 would all but close the book – truly close it. He revealed little of his ring story to his children, and lowered the boom if he caught them trying out his gloves.
“The only time I heard him lament anything about his career was when he said, ‘I didn’t know what I had,’ ” Bardelli said. “He really didn’t know how good he was.”
Long before pay-per-view, few did. And, yes, some knew all too well.