Book Review: Boxing in New Mexico 1868-1940
By: Chris Cozzone and Jim Boggio
Pages: 440 Pages
Boxing fans can be forgiven if the idea of another regional boxing history book doesn’t excite them right off the bat. Most tend to fall into two categories: an over glossed pamphlet that rehashes well known boxing stories or a book long on facts but short on drama. A book that people buy only to look in the index to find what page “Uncle Charlie” appears on. But to lump the newest regional boxing book in that category would be a tremendous mistake. Boxing in New Mexico 1868-1940 isn’t just the best regional boxing history book to come out this century…it may very well be the best boxing history book period.
Boxing in New Mexico 1868-1940 mixes the drama of a bare-knuckle brawl with an attention to detail that makes this not only one of the most entertaining boxing books out there, but also one of the most informative. Fightnews feature writer Chris Cozzone, who took over the project form the late Jim Boggio, has a writer’s touch and a storyteller’s knack that makes this book feel like a novel of the Old West; all the while telling tales of long forgotten warriors who helped make the sport what it is today.
From the opening chapter the reader is hooked as we learn about the birth of boxing in New Mexico just three years after the end of the Civil War. A Denver Post writer on his way home to Colorado would notice a large group of men on the side of the road. He would soon document the first known “prize fight” to occur in New Mexico: a bare knuckle war between a popular Colorado fighter named Barney Duffey and a man only known as “Jack”. After 185 rounds, fought over 6 hours, Duffey emerged victorious in a fight that saw “Jack” die from his injuries. Boxing in New Mexico was born in typical Old West fashion, and Cozzone continues the book with fascinating tales of men like John H. Shanssey. Shanssey was a Civil War veteran who fought in the mining town of Elizabethtown in 1867 against a nondescript opponent. Although Shanssey would lose badly in an 1869 fight to legendary Mike Donovan, he ended up befriended the referee in the fight: Wyatt Earp. Nine years later the Baltimore brawler who put Elizabethtown on the boxing map would introduce Earp to another Wild West legend: Doc Holliday.
Each fighter is profiled in incredible detail. Hugh McSparron, the lightweight champion of New Mexico who helped put Gallup on the map in the late 1800s, only to abandon the territory after an ugly divorce. He would settle in Tombstone, Arizona where legend has it he would be buried in the famous Boot Hill cemetery.
What is sometimes forgotten today, and what Cozzone and Boggio do so effectively is to establish how New Mexico was not only a major boxing hub in the early 20th century, but how it began to emerge as a major hub for the sport. In fact, for one day in 1912 it was literally the center of the world’s attention. African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson took on “Fireman” Jim Flynn in the dusty town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The profile on Johnson was one of the most informative ever written on the controversial former champion, and it is in many ways the highlight of this already excellent book. Not only do Cozzone and Boggio carefully reconstruct the careers of long forgotten local fighters like Raton’s Ray “Young Wallace” Kinney but they also weave amazingly detailed and entertaining summaries of legendary fighters like Johnson.
Boxing in New Mexico 1868-1940 gives readers a glimpse of not only the history of the sport of boxing in New Mexico, but of the American West and the role prize fighting played in it. More than just another regional boxing history book, Boxing in New Mexico: 1868-1940 may be the best book you read this year.