Over a century of gloved prizefighting has been logged, and still the sport is fumbling its way through its own Dark Ages. There are still disputes over gloves, television and media rights, race’s place in boxing and much more.
There was something special about the chunk of time right before the start of the 20th century, though. Whereas these days the formula for putting on good, meaningful fights and entertaining fans is well known but botched anyway, the first time around, the slate was clean and they didn’t know what would happen. Fights were allowed or prohibited on a policeman’s whim — or even derailed mid-action because a combatant with the wrong skin pigment was winning.
Gambling attractions aside, fights often weren’t significant until well after the fact, when news finally reached most corners of the world and the impact could be assessed. And because local boxing scenes were far more rich then, what we would now consider a small, unsuccessful club show could be a crowning achievement to a ragged character who called himself a pugilist.
On November 25, 1890, heavyweight “Old Chocolate” George Godfrey forged forward along a path of social dissent as well as athletic prowess when he vanquished “Denver” Ed Smith in 23 rounds.
Godfrey began his professional career at the age of 25, in 1879. As boxing’s organization was unclear and largely varied by jurisdiction at the time, Godfrey’s record is likely incomplete, but in his first four years as a fighter, he fought 11 times, including a draw with future bare-knuckle semi-champion Jake Kilrain, and four fights with “Professor” Charles Hadley. In 1883, Kilrain earned a stoppage in three rounds in their rematch.
Over the next five years, all Godfrey’s fights ended with him stopping his opponent, by draw or no decision, except for one loss by disqualification to rival Jimmy Doherty. In January of 1888, Godfrey smashed highly touted McHenry Johnson, who he had fought to a draw with twice before, but later that year legendary heavyweight Peter Jackson took Godfrey 19 rounds and drowned him with the “colored” heavyweight championship on the line.
In February of 1889, Godfrey fought to a 15 round draw with inaugural heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan’s chief sparring partner, Joe Lannon. Many apparently felt Godfrey deserved the call, but the draw had been pre-arranged if the fight lasted the distance; additionally, Sullivan was the referee rendering the decision.
Stoppage wins over Jack Wannop, Jack Ashton and Patsy Cardiff — all in Boston — over the next year-plus boosted Godfrey’s local reputation, and he had become something of a local celebrity. When the temperature dropped that year, so did the name of “Denver” Ed Smith, a British heavyweight based sometimes out of the Colorado city.
Smith had strung together and 8-0-1 record before arriving in Baltimore in 1884. Notching nine more wins, usually over unheralded opponents, Smith’s momentum was stopped by a fighter named John P. Clow, by disqualification. But Smith returned to knock Clow out two weeks later.
Through the next five years, Smith defeated New Zealand heavyweight champion, fought a two round draw with George LaBlanche, and twice knocked out Irish ring pioneer Mike Cleary. In May of 1890, Jackson proved too much for Smith as well, ending his night in five. Following a comeback win a month later over another pioneer in Jim Daly, Smith’s handlers likely felt they needed to test the waters once more, albeit against a foe not quite as strong as Peter Jackson.
On Nov. 7, the match between Godfrey and Smith was announced, and said to be taking place at the Puritan Athletic Club in Queens, N.Y. on the 11, a Tuesday. The Daily Inter Ocean reported that odds had opened up “slightly in favor of Godfrey,” and negotiations had settled on a $2,000 purse.
Two days later, the Daily Illinois State Journal said, “The glove fight between the colored pugilist George Godfrey and Ed Smith, of Denver, at the Puritan Athletic Club, Long Island City, N.Y., Nov. 11, promises to be one of the liveliest pugilistic events of the season. Godfrey is an old timer with a long list of victories, while Smith is a new light. Smith’s most notable achievement is the lively mill he gave Peter Jackson at Chicago. If Smith wins he will challenge [Frank] Slavin.”
It was wasted ink, though, as the Queens County District Attorney appeared before a local judge to stop the bout from happening, even requesting warrants for the arrest of Godfrey and Smith, and a search warrant for the athletic club. And all warrants were granted.
Underlining the seriousness of Johnny Law, the same day that it was announced there would be warrants issued for the arrest of Godfrey and Smith, British fighter Jem Smith and Slavin, Australian, were sentenced to a month-long jail term in Belgium for a fight that happened the previous December.
Undeterred, both Godfrey and Smith arrived in New York the day before they were to have fought. Upon arriving by train from Boston, Godfrey, weighing about 172 lbs., told a reporter, “I have trained hard for this contest and I think I can win. I’ll do my best at any rate.”
Former bare-knuckle champion Sullivan gave his take, saying, “This fellow Godfrey is an awfully clever boxer, but I hope Smith gets the decision.”
At the last minute, under threat of arrest by Sheriff Goldner, the directors of the athletic club claimed carpentry work for the roughly 2,000 seats had not been completed, and the fight was called off. A throng of travelers were stopped from taking the ferry to Long Island City with no time to spare. A headline in the Denver Rocky Mountain News read, “Ed Smith’s Victory Postponed.” Said the same paper the following morning, “The explanation seemed to satisfy most of the disappointed people, who were grateful at being saved a fruitless trip to the dismal town over the river, but some went away grumbling. The growlers, who are bound to form a portion of every crowd, were heard to mutter that the real reason for the adjournment was that the club officials were afraid of being arrested with the principals.”
Godfrey went back to Boston, while Smith set up camp in Brooklyn, both waiting out the threat of arrest and fielding offers from athletic clubs from Omaha to Boston. But it was Cronheim’s Theater in Hoboken, N.J. that won the right to host the bout on November 25, putting up roughly $2,000 to go to the winner.
Thrown together on only a few days notice most likely to avoid interference, the fighters agreed to fight with five ounce gloves for 25 rounds, and the tickets went fast. The the day before the tussle, the Jersey Journal reported, “No event has ever occurred in the history of the prize ring in this vicinity that is causing as much excitement among the sporting class, as the glove fight which occurs to-morrow night at Cronheim’s Theater in Hoboken, between George Godfrey, colored, of Boston, and Ed Smith, of Denver, Col. Large gloves are to be used, and the bout will be one of twenty-five rounds. The tickets are all sold, and the gathering of sporting men on this occasion will be the most noted ever present at a similar event in Hudson County.”
The New York Herald’s pre-fight take read, “Both men are exceedingly clever and both are in perfect condition. Eastern people are familiar with Godfrey’s ability as a scientific, strategic and hard-hitting pugilist. With a winning record to support his skill the colored man enjoys the confidence of the Boston sports, who will back him for big money. They say:- ‘ We know Godfrey. He has shown us what he can do. Smith is yet to show what he can do. We prefer to put our money on the man who has shown something. … During [Smith’s] preparation for the present match he has had the advice and assistance of William Muldoon, Mike Cleary, Jack Ashton and Jake Kilrain. So careful a financier and so good a judge of boxers as Muldoon offers to back him for a $1,000 of his own money. A better expression of confidence could not be made. All indications favor a rattling contest that will decide a lot of money.”
Likely not coincidentally, Muldoon, a former Greco-Roman wrestling world champion, had trained Kilrain for his famous bout against Sullivan — the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship bout, which Kilrain lost in the 76th round. With the addition of Ashton, who lost to Godfrey by knockout the previous November, a squad was put together to defeat the streaking Godfrey.
Godfrey, accompanied by Sullivan’s old barber and supporter Billie Hogarty and manager Billy Mahoney, entered Cronheim’s Theater, stuffed with 800 or so spectators — plus police presence — and proceeded to educate Smith quite painfully.
Having his way more often than not, Godfrey simply proved to be far more evolved and in better condition than Smith, who looked foolish in comparison at times.
A news wire from New York the following day said of the engagement, “Smith went in at once to knock his man out. Uppercutting was his favorite style, but his attempt did not count. The Denver man seemed to have no idea of distance, and his right was poor. He struck out wildly and the colored man had little trouble in avoiding the blows. Godfrey fought cautiously and met Smith’s rushes in the first few rounds with left handed jabs that soon turned Smith’s head.”
In round 1, a right hand and the follow up volley sent Smith to the floor, and round 2 saw Smith come back with body work despite a fighting with a bloody nose, and by some accounts again going down. Things tilted back and forth, and by the 6th, both had at least one eye closed.
The Jersey Journal reported that the local police captain, a man named Hayes, had instructed the club not to permit any “slugging,” and weighed the gloves before the fight, but it didn’t prevent the men from absorbing punishment, to the delight of an entertained crowd. Legal, however, was giving the fighters alcohol between rounds, and Smith was furnished with whiskey when things got rough.
Smith put together a flailing effort in round 9, attempting to catch Godfrey with a “LaBlanche Swing,” which was a spinning back-handed punch that middleweight George LaBlanche had used to knock out “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey the year earlier. Unsuccessful in that try, Smith again swung at Godfrey with the illegal punch and landed on his ear, staggering him significantly. The Daily Inter Ocean said, “[Godfrey] had things all his own way until the middle of the round. Smith acting in his own peculiar way, half cowardice and half stupidity, but he suddenly went at Godfrey with both hands and landing right and left swung on his heel and caught the darky full on the neck with his arm, working the LaBlanche blow to perfection. Godfrey was plainly dazed and Smith, encouraged by the wild yells of his friends, went to work to end the battle. Time was called with the men fighting desperately. From this point on until the end Godfrey had a shade the best of it.”
Godfrey either couldn’t or wouldn’t wade in to bring a halt to things in the meantime, for every time he did, Smith swung wildly and managed to deter him just enough to survive another three minutes. In rounds 13 and 14, Smith’s damaged right eye was repeatedly whacked at by Godfrey, and things looked to be sliding downhill quickly for the Denver scrapper. But after round 15, Smith’s corner soaked up his damage with a steam of whiskey, and the fight came to life in the 16th, perhaps not by accident.
By this point, due to the general difficulty of keeping time and the starts and stops, the fight had been going on for more than an hour. But in the 17th round, Godfrey was heard saying to Smith, “You’re all right; you can stay two hours longer.”
The New York Herald reported that Smith was “severely punished” in the 18th and 19th, however. When Smith tried to turn things around by hitting low, Godfrey told him, “I would fight fair or not at all.”
Clinching saved Smith a few times, but in round 22 he was sent back to his corner wobbled and sapped.
Finally in the 23rd round, things came to a close. The Daily Inter Ocean said, “…the men had scarcely come together for the twenty-third, when Godfrey landed a straight left-hander, and Smith’s head struck the brick wall violently.” Smith made it to his feet after falling, but when Godfrey moved in to finish the fight almost angrily, Captain Hayes interfered and referee Jere Dunn announced, “I am now able to decide the matter; Godfrey wins.”
Godfrey fought ten more times over the next six years, losing to Kilrain once more, another ring legend in Joe Choynski, and a young Irish walloper named Peter Maher, who made his own dents at heavyweight.
Smith’s career lasted until 1908, when he was well into his 40s. He fought 19 more times after losing to Godfrey, defeating nobody significant, and losing early to Choynski twice.
It’s as if the farther you go back in time in this sport, the more names are available to call upon as proof of a fighter’s place in history. There were legends and myths here, there and everywhere, as maybe only trailblazing days can bring. And Godfrey and Smith walked among them.