Some figures of history are so indicative of a time and place their reality becomes enveloped by the myth of their surroundings. This is wholly the case when it comes to Wyatt Earp.
His is the silhouette of the quintessential cowboy. A hulking figure clad in spurs, stetson, with a mustache almost as wide as his hat and a six shooter of frankly absurd size, it’s no wonder Hollywood chose his image for TV westerns.
His life, as well as his likeness, led to his infamy. Gambler, drinker, lawman, rustler, vagrant, womaniser, gold miner, brothel owner, prison escapee and gun fighter, Earp’s reputation made the west as much as it had made him.
His myth became legend when his faction; Wyatt, his brothers and Doc Holliday, became embroiled in a long running feud with a gang called the cowboys. This would lead to the infamous ‘gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ as well as the ‘Earp Vendetta Ride’ where he and his gang fought and killed their rivals.
This meant that when he arrived in San Francisco, on the run from the law, intent on becoming a boxing man, few impeded his progress.
He ran bookmaking operations at boxing matches, trained in boxing gyms and occasionally refereed fights. This meant that when promoter Jim Coffroth wanted a celebrity referee to add publicity to the upcoming Heavyweight title fight between contenders Bob Fitzimmons and Tom Sharkey, Earp was chosen.
By the time this bout took place in 1896, Jim Corbett, the second ever Heavyweight champion had been inactive for over two years, so it was assumed he had relinquished the crown and the two top contenders were pitted to face one another to decide a new champion.
Bob Fitzimmons was the obvious choice. “The Blacksmith’ was 74-6-14 having beaten top contenders like Nonpareil Jack Dempsey, Peter Maher and Joe Choynski and started a wide betting favourite.
His opponent was to be ‘the Sailor' Tom Sharkey, a young up and comer who’s brawling style and sailing background had made him a hit with the public.
Fitzimmons strongly disagreed with the choice of Earp as referee, hearing rumours he’d placed a bet and would benefit if the underdog, Sharkey, were he to win.
He also protested that in Earps previous bouts as a referee, including the high profile John Shassey v Mike Donovan had been conducted under the only bare knuckle ‘London Prize Ring Rules’. These allowed for more holding, wrestling and throwing than the new ‘Marquess of Queensbury Rules’, under which this fight was to take place.
His protests were ignored, but come fight day it became clear Bob had been right all along. Earp stepped into the ring with his trademark enormous .45 caliber pistol stuffed under his jacket. (The same one pictured in the header of this article)
Upon spotting this, the regulating police captain, Charles Witman, jumped into the ring demanding Earp surrender the weapon. Although he did so, his suitability as an impartial adjudicator was under scrutiny before the first bell.
When the fight did get underway Fitzimmons dominated. Taller and far quicker he imposed himself on Sharkey throughout the bout with stiff jabs and body punches.
In the eight round though, all hell broke loose. Sharkey leaned into Fitzimmons and the two exchanged at close quarters, then Bob unleashed his infamous solar plexus punch, dropping Sharkey to the canvas.
The crowd cheered in reaction to the knockdown but as soon as they glanced down and the felled fighter they say, Sharkey was gesturing to his groin, suggesting a below the belt punch.
Earp did nothing, he didn’t even count. Fitzimmons celebrated a knockout. The crowd looked around in stunned silence and confusion, the moment just hung in the air.
After a brief discussion with each corner Earp had made a decision, Fitzimmons was to be disqualified. Tom Sharkey was the winner.
The mechanics pavilion erupted. Boo’s and Insults reigned down, starting from the front and moving backwards. Like at the OK Corral years earlier Earp needed to make a quick exit. Not even stopping to try and get his gun back Wyatt dipped through the ropes and made a run for it as the limp Sharkey was carried out on a stretcher.
The San Francisco Examiner reported; “The information became general by a slow trickling process, and tier to tier so that by the time the full significance of the situation had reached the throng, Earp was gone."
In the days following the bout he became a figure of derision and ridicule in the press caricatured as the ‘bad man’ referee.
He may have disappeared from the scene but this didn’t last long. Fitzimmons’ Lawyer HL Kowalsky had an injunction placed on the $10,000 prize money (worth over $300,000 today) citing “clear and dirty theft” on the part of Earp.
This injunction sparked a trial at Oakland court, where witness testimonies played like a modern courtroom drama. Gamblers testified they heard Earp had rigged the fight for a $2,500 cut of the winnings. Sharkey testified the blow was illegal, Fizimmons testified the opposite.
Earp stated he had acted honourably throughout, and despite receiving a $50 dollar fine for bringing a concealed handgun into the ring, the rest of the case was thrown out, leaving Earp in the clear and Fitzimmons in the lurch.
Public perception though, moved to right this wrong.
People flocked in support of Fitzsimmons, supporting his claim he had been the victim of a great injustice. They called on the legitimate heavyweight champion James J Corbett to come back and face him in a fight, believing Sharkey, like Earp, couldn’t be trusted.
This publicity worked and when the fight eventually came about Bob Fitzimmons would knock out Gentleman Jim with the exact same punch with which he floored Sharkey. This made Bob the third ever heavyweight champion, securing the legitimacy of the heavyweight lineage, a concept that would govern championship succession for decades. It also allowed him to earn far more than he lost against Sharkey.
Earps fate was less fortunate. Newspapers continue to mock him, changing his narrative from maverick cowboy to crooked con man. He spent the rest of his life chasing gold rushes, gambling, owning saloons and occasionally consulting for silent films, all the while living with the black mark of dishonesty against his name.
It was not until 1931 when Stuart Lakes' semi fictionalised biography of Earp, ‘Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall’, was published that America fell back in love with the stories of Earps pre boxing days in tombstone. This didn’t much help though as Wyatt had died in relative poverty two years previously.
Well as Earp himself once said “Destiny is that which we are drawn towards and fate is that which we run into”.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx