When the Pacific Northwest First Bared Its Knuckles for a Prizefight
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because fighting came with the frontier.
By Patrick Connor
The prizefight looked like a mismatch from the opening bell. Every time Billy Morgan tried to land a punch, he either slipped and fell in the muddy grass, or he got decked by his younger, bigger opponent, Tom Manning. The two men were following the London Prize Ring Rules, thus bare knuckles and rounds that ended when one fighter was knocked or wrestled to the ground. Manning should have made short work of Morgan, and yet this 1883 bout, held in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, lasted an astounding 99 rounds.
Why the remote venue? Back then, prizefighting was illegal throughout much of the U.S., and law enforcement in the rough-and-tumble frontier metropolis of Portland, Oregon — known as Stump City for its logging industry — wanted to keep it that way. Illegal gambling financed fight purses, and the state couldn’t tax money changing hands at secret bouts. Even the spectators were breaking the law. Nevertheless, decades before the sport’s widespread acceptance, organizers still found ways to make fights happen.
The sleepy spectators crowded around the ring, the boxers shook hands and the fight began at the ungodly hour of 6:35 a.m.
And that’s how it came to pass that on the bitterly cold, overcast night of Oct. 9, Morgan and Manning, their handlers, the promoters and the fans were all sneaking down alleys, ducking behind buildings and moving in shadows to reach a dock on the Willamette River. There, the fans could purchase a $5 ticket for what was billed as a “moonlight excursion” on the steamship Traveler. In those days, “[attending fights] was a really bizarre experience,” says Lauren Chouinard, historian and author of Muscle and Mayhem: The Saginaw Kid and the Fistic World of the 1890s. “The only way they could do it was to circumvent the law.”
Just past 1 a.m. the Traveler pulled away from the dock, cruised down the Willamette and then chugged downstream on the mighty Columbia. The chatter among the impatient crowd centered around which brave men they were about to watch beat the life out of one another. When an unkempt character named Diamond attempted to steal their attention by playing Stephen Foster tunes on his old banjo, the other passengers threatened to pitch him overboard. Once Diamond had been silenced, the promoters introduced Manning and Morgan to the crowd so wagering could begin. Manning ended up the favorite, but the betting netted a paltry $230.
Where exactly the fight would take place wasn’t clear to most onboard. “Word often was spread about the fights the day of — the location, the time, when the betting would start,” says Aris Pina, a boxing historian and CompuBox operator (CompuBox is the computerized system for tabulating punches in boxing matches). Around 3 a.m. the steamer arrived at a broken-down wharf about 30 miles from Portland on the Washington Territory bank of the river (Washington didn’t become a state until six years later). As the clouds dispersed, the correspondent from Portland’s newspaper, The Oregonian, reported that the moonlight shone “so bright a party climbed the bank with the stakes and ropes for the [makeshift] ring.”
The two men assigned to set up the ring couldn’t agree on its measurements. But eventually the job was completed, “with much funny business,” according to The Oregonian. The fighters emerged from their staterooms and took a riverside walk together to shake off the effects of the night on the steamer as their teams unloaded stools, water bottles and towels. A referee, timekeeper and other officials were elected by those assembled. Once they had confirmed the rules, the sleepy spectators crowded around the ring, the boxers shook hands and the fight began at the ungodly hour of 6:35 a.m.
“The fight moved briskly, with each round being only about 60 seconds in length,” wrote Barney Blalock, author of Oregon Prizefighters: Forgotten Bare-Knuckle Champions of Portland & Astoria. Manning dominated from the outset due not only to his physical advantages but also to Morgan’s poor decision not to use spiked footwear and his aversion to serious milling. Rounds often ended without much damage done because Morgan would slip in the mud or fall intentionally to avoid punishment.
Morgan’s left eye eventually began closing, though, and by the 60th round he was being carried to and from his corner. For several rounds Morgan was unable to land a single punch and was frightfully beaten in return. After the 99th round, his corner threw in their sponge, signaling the end of the fight. Someone passed around a hat, and the two exhausted combatants collected $250 each for their trouble.
Organizers pulled up the ring and cleared the field, and within five minutes the Traveler was heading upstream, the passengers tired and numb from the chilly air. Manning mingled with fight fans on the way home to Portland, while Morgan retired to his stateroom to recuperate. The newspaper reporter wasn’t impressed with the prizefight, writing that he went “without a wink of sleep, and with only a cup of coffee and a sandwich, to stand in the wet grass for an hour and a half.”
An anticlimactic ending didn’t sour Stump Town on prizefighting. A disappointing financial take was still a take, and the moonlight excursion had been a romantic adventure. Boxing went on to develop a significant following in the Pacific Northwest, in large part due to the popularity of legendary heavyweight John L. Sullivan. But the region’s interest in the “sweet science” all started with Manning’s wilderness victory over Morgan in Portland’s first genuine prizefight.
- Patrick Connor, OZY AuthorContact Patrick Connor