Throwback Thursday: Billy Petrolle Staves Off The Curse Of King Tut

A not-so-subtle Day of Thor theme in our throwback Thursday pieces, if you’ve been paying attention, has been rivalries that have rested just outside the normal plane of consciousness of boxing fans. Past a handful of big name fighters with known, established counterparts, others are often perceived as lacking nemeses or defining bouts, and sometimes that’s not true.

Sometimes the important fights on a ledger aren’t against the apex-level titans of boxing. Often they are, just not always.Fighters demonstrate trends of behavior and tendencies over the course of a series, regardless of class. Many factors — television and greater purse disparities among them — lead to fewer fights in a given career these days, and thus a lower tolerance when it comes to the acceptable number of total matches between two fighters. A convenient example is the generalized unease about pitting Juan Manuel Marquez against Manny Pacquiao for a fifth time, whereas in the 1910s, ’20s or ’30s, they might have fought that many times in a span of two or three years.

Between 1927 and 1931, Billy Petrolle, a man who faced the best his generation had to offer, squared up against poor man’s legend King Tut a half-dozen times, splitting honors with royalty.

Despite originally hailing from Duluth, Minn., early in his pro career Petrolle cut teeth — both his own, and those of a foe or two — in Fargo, N.D., leading to the nickname, “The Fargo Express.”

Petrolle was experienced on many levels, and was riding a high on a win over Jimmy McLarnin in November of 1930, which led many to question why Petrolle’s manager Jack Hurley would risk a potential crackerjack of a rematch against lightweight champion Tony Canzoneri, who Petrolle had already beaten, by facing a puncher like King Tut.The answer, though, was the $12,000 that Petrolle made for the fight. After all, Petrolle was 2-2 against Tut, winning the first two times they faced off, and had something to prove after suffering a beating and a schooling in fights three and four. A nice payday and a chance to make headway in their series added up to an easy decision, apparently.

It was a short-term disaster. Tut flattened Petrolle in 24 seconds, leading some media members to suggest that Petrolle was “caught cold” without having proper time to loosen up in the St. Paul, Minn. venue. Others, though, like Wilbur Wood, said Petrolle “must start all over again.”

In the aftermath, a pre-scheduled bout against Filipino trial horse Lope Tenorio was scrapped and then moved to a different date, perhaps to allow Petrolle to get his feet back underneath him and his confidence under control. Eventually he won a 10 round newspaper decision.

Tut held wins over Jimmy Goodrich, Billy Wallace, and an older Babe Herman, in addition to the three wins over Petrolle. Apart from his style and persona, Tut had something of a claim to fame as a member of former heavyweight alpha Jack Dempsey’s crew. The King knew how to draw a crowd, however, as his start in combat sports had him traveling with a carnival and playing the role of a “beat me if you can” wrestler, then a boxer. But in the pro game, Tut earned a name as a flailing anvil of a fighter, working constantly and heaving lead.

On Feb. 5, 1931, three days after their fifth meeting, it was announced that one of Tut’s managers, Ernie Fleigel, Petrolle’s manager Hurley, and Madison Square Garden matchmaker Tom McArdle had agreed to terms for another fight on Feb. 27. The contract stated that Tut would be taking home $15,000 and a large chunk of the gate, and the AP reported, “If he fails to win on Friday, Petrolle threatens to quit the ring for good.”

Tut found his way to New York City a few days in advance, stopping in at the landmark Stillman’s Gym to spar a while. A news wire via Jack Farrell for the Omaha World Herald read, “King Tut, the Minneapolis lightweight, will have to curb his rough tactics if he expects to make a hit with local fans when he fights Billy Petrolle at the Garden Friday night. While sparring with Joe Martin, a colored helper, before a crowded house at Stillman’s Gym, the king wrestled his man to the floor twice and pushed him down another time with a cuff on the back of the neck — which is not cricket.”

Just prior to the fight, odds swung from roughly 8-to-5 in favor of Tut, to about 2-to-1 Petrolle’s way, somewhat unexpectedly, given the history between the two and Tut’s early knockout win over Petrolle earlier in the month. Henry McLemore, United Press correspondent, said it may have been “because New York fans still remember the manner in which Petrolle smeared their idol McLarnin here last year and the fact that Tut new has shown no advantage in a New York ring.”

Les Conklin for the INS said, “If Tut beats Petrolle again tonight, he will go down into the ring records as another nemesis.”

Edward J. Neil reported from ringside, “…it was a savage, boisterous battle, replete with thrills and studded with fierce punching and knockdowns until the Minneapolis blonde dropped in the fourth from a left that barely touched his head.”

Another UP member reported, “Tut got off to a great start last night. He won the first round with ease, rocking Petrolle several times with wild rights swung from the floor. In the second round, however, the tide turned toward Petrolle, He scored a featherweight tap on the chin, and Tut after a moment’s hesitation dropped to his knee for a nine count. From that time on Tut led almost none at all and offered scarcely any protection from the insistent hammering of the so-called Fargo Express.”

In other words, Petrolle did exactly as he’d wished, weathering everything Tut could wind his way, staving off an early ending and taking over the fight himself. Petrolle put Tut down again in round 3, and twice more in the 4th round before the fight was waved off and Tut was helped to his corner.

Literally minutes after the fight ended, some declared that it played out suspiciously. An AP report read, “From the ringside, Commissioner John J. Phelan ordered that the purses of the fighters be held until an investigation could be conducted. ‘I don’t care to say anything about it at this time,’ he said. ‘I will say that it looked to me to be the sort of fight that deserves a little investigation. Our action speaks for itself.’ One possible solution for the somewhat peculiar ending of the battle came out a short time after Tut had been taken to the dressing room. Friends rushed the blonde to the Polyclinic hospital for observation. Hospital attaches had nothing to say, but it was reported the beaten boxer had an attack of appendicitis and that an operation might be necessary.”

Nothing came of the investigation, and both men wound up being paid. But the fight would mark a turning point for both men, as it was a downhill roll from this point forward in both of their careers. Petrolle would go on to lose twice to McLarnin, then to Canzoneri and Tony Ross — in themselves certainly not shameful losses, but sign enough for Petrolle that it was time to leave.Tut was a bit more stubborn, though. It took a handful more stoppage losses to convince him that his time was done. A tough out against future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia saw Tut stretched in 1933.

In the end, it might not have been the glamorous conclusion that such a series deserved, but it was a spectacle. Petrolle may have demonstrated just enough separation from Tut to be able to state a claim as a the better fighter, but the rivalry remained numerically even, suggesting a tie-breaker that would never come.

About Patrick Connor

Patrick Connor is a long time boxing fan and historian. He is additionally a voice actor and co-host of TQBR Radio, Queensberry-Rules' boxing podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Vine: @VoiceOfBeard