Some could say that Boston MMA started with cow-punching. Or one could say that MMA in general wouldn't be where it is today had it not been for a Texas cattle farmer. George "Tex" Rickard was born on January 2, 1870 in Kansas City, MO. He would move to Sherman, TX just a few years later where his family owned and operated a cattle farm and he started working as a hand. He became a cowboy at the age of 11 then was elected Marshall in Henrietta, TX just twelve years later. That's when he earned the nickname "Tex."
After the tragic death of his wife and son he moved to Alaska in pursuit of a "Golden Dream" where he made his way to Klondike during the famous "Klondike Gold Rush." He befriended Harry Ash and together they would lay claims then sell their stakes for $60,000 which would be their capital to start the Northern hotel, saloon and gambling hall in the town of Dawson City in Yukon Canada.
In a different tragedy Tex would lose everything through gambling "in one bad night." For the next 15 months, Rickard tended bar in the Monte Carlo Saloon, which was established the year before by Swiftwater Bill Gates. Rickard worked for $20 a day, and lost it just as quickly gambling. According to Rickard biographer Charles Samuels, Tex, “even while surrounded by larceny in Dawson, remained both honest and also true to his westerner’s code of live and let live.”
Tex was known to be a better listener than talker so it was no mistake when he paired up with a man by the name of Walter Mizner during his dealings in poker (and I men as a poker dealer). The two came up with a scheme to promote boxing.
Tex and Mizner put together a "trumped up match" between an Australian champion in Frank Slavin and his close friend and business partner Joe Boyle.
To generate buzz the new promoting partners would bring the two soon to be fighters around town and face them off and let them trash talk each other about their coming fight. It worked as they charged $25 a ticket after each standoff.
It wasn't sustaining though and Tex found that there wasn't much to be had in boxing promoting so he, like many others in his area in 1899 moved to Nome Alaska amidst shouts of another gold rush. He arrived with $21 in his pocket.
It was in Nome where he would meet a lifelong friend and boxing fan by the name of Wyatt Earp. Some say that Earp re kindled Tex's fire for boxing after he talked about how he officiated a few matches, one being the infamous bout that saw Bob Fitzimmons against Tom Sharkey. Though it's controversial as many of Earps' biographers say that the bouts that he officiated always left him in bad standing. So one would find it hard to believe in him glorifying them. Though he was, like many in those days, a gambler.
In 1906 Tex saw success in peaks and valleys and by 1920 he secured rights to promote fights at Madison Square Garden in NY. Four years later he put money together to rebuild MSG. Hockey was another hot sport and in 1926, he secured an NHL franchise for the New York Americans, which quickly became known as the Rangers.
In 1928 he built the "Boston Madison Square Garden" which was ultimately shortened to the Boston Garden.
Tex had a key business partner in this period who was a concert and boxing promoter named Jess McMahon. He was the grandfather of current World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) promoter Vincent K. McMahon. Rickard and McMahon teamed up to promote boxing matches like the December 11, 1925, light-heavyweight championship match between Jack Delaney and Paul Berlenbach. Though Tex was reported to have disliked wrestling.
During the early years of the Boston Garden, the building's main draws were boxing, wrestling, and Bruins hockey. Johnny Indrisano, Lou Brouillard, Ernie Schaaf, Al Mello, and Jack Sharkey ( a Lithuanian immigrant who changed his name to Sharkey after following Jack Dempsey and Tom Sharkey, Dempsey himself would step in to save the day for him by promoting his fight that almost got called due to the untimely death of Rickard) were among the boxers who fought at the Boston Garden.
Wrestling became big due to the popularity of Gus Sonnenberg. Sonnenberg defeated Ed "Strangler" Lewis at the Garden in 1929 in a fight that set an attendance record for a wrestling match (19,500) and drew a record gate ($77,000). Paul Bowser promoted wrestling in Boston at this time and when the sport began to lose popularity, he brought Danno O'Mahony from Ireland to Boston. O'Mahony became a popular draw at the Garden.
The Garden's first event was on November 17, 1928, a boxing card headlined by Boston Native "Honey Boy" Dick Finnegan's defeat of Andre Routis. The first team sporting event was held three days later, an ice hockey game between the Bruins and the archrival Montreal Canadiens, won by the Canadiens 1–0. The game was attended by 17,000 fans, 2,000 over capacity, as fans without tickets stormed their way in. The game started 25 minutes late. Windows and doors were broken by the fans in the action.
Just four days after his 59th birthdayTex would succumb to appendicitis in Miami, FL while promoting a fight between Jack Sharkley and Young Stribling. Though his legacy lives on through his cherished Gardens and the hockey team he founded over 90 years ago, his visions and dreams have evolved into something that continues to evolve and gain popularity in today.
Boxing and wrestling were two of the three big draws to the arena so it would just be a matter of time before anyone would come up with the brilliant idea to combine the two sports together in "No Holds Barred" grudge matches.
It was the start of an era and because Boston had a venue i.e. a giant venue to not only showcase great full contact sports but to also generate some serious revenue in doing so. Which in turn would bring on investors and also spawn more boxing gyms in local areas.
Boxing remained the premier combat sport and continued to generate sold out shows and Boston made its contribution through great fighters in the likes of John "The Boston Strong Boy" Sullivan, Rocky "The Brockton Brawler" Marciano, Paul Bender, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, and of course "The Quiet Man" John Ruiz. It was these men that brought attention to local gyms in Boston, as well as the north and south shores.
"Muni" or Municipal McDonough Gym in South Boston became a well known boxing hotspot in the 80's. It would serve as a hang out where Monday morning quarter backs could criticize the bums but also serve as a stomping grounds for fighters proving their worth. Echoes of great fights, hard sparring sessions and future champions hung in the air and clung to the walls right along side the smell of stale sweat and dank leather. The infamous 1976 fight in Japan between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki was sure to have gotten laughs in that gym. Though one man might've laughed all the way to the bank with the same concept.
Dana White was introduced to Peter Welch at "Muni" and the two became friends as they went on to open their own boxing gym. Some success followed only to be curtailed by lurking sharks in form of Whitey Bulger's Gangsters. White not wanting to pay for protection bought a one way ticket to Las Vegas with little to his name. Ultimately he befriended to martial arts fans and practitioners in Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. He would then convince the casino clad brothers to invest in a drowning fight promotion that clashed all forms of combat and saw very little to no rules and sanctions and was banned in many states. Dana brought in the investment of going against everything the promotion stood against; regulations.
The rest is history. White definitely shares some similarities with Rickard the one thing Rickard didn't get to see is how the Boston Garden evolved not just as an event complex but how it evolved team sports, fight gyms and the dawn of broadcasting mega fights for the world to see. First with boxing, wrestling, hockey then came basketball and of course MMA.
On January 20, 2018 in a packed TD Garden arena, the Bruins locker rooms were vacant of the famous oversized jerseys, padding and skates. They were replaced with mats and Thai Pads, fight-team corners and managers. The thwack of shins on leather thumped like a battle drumb, the exit of breaths tore through the atmosphere with every strike and easy takedown. It seemed to solidify the fact that Dana White is finally pulling more talent from a place that has earned its keep and not just from a few exclusive academies. Boston would not disappoint with exceptional performances from all the local fighters but two explosive knockouts delivered by Calvin Kattar and Rob Font.
This was the UFC's third PPV title event at the TD Garden and this time the bigger presence of a local fighters sent a bolt of energy through the crowd. It truly was a testament to the fighters, the local gyms, the coaches, the local managers and the local fans in advancing this still-evolving sport.
We'll never know if Tex Rickard would've embraced MMA but at least we do know that Dana White, the modern day mogul, is investing in his roots. Maybe he'll branch out and start breaking ground with efforts for new and improved venues that cater to the needs of the sport just like Rickard did.
From John "Boston Strong Boy" Sullivan to Charles "Boston Strong" Rosa the Boston combat sports scene has evolved to encompass the two forms of combat that were always the most popular: boxing and wrestling (of course kicks are always exciting too but Wyatt Earp wasn't officiating Muay Thai bouts in the early 20th century). We love to generalize the MA capital because of its character and energy but it's really the heart, grit and resilience it represents from the way back to pre-revolution to the Boston Marathon tragedy. It's such a powerful plat form to represent not just professional fighters but the every-day fighters; the parents, the coaches and the friends, the family and the fans that shell out a portion of their hard earned paychecks to come and cheer on their fighter, Boston and New England has tremendously grown it's combat community.
On November 20, 1928 The Boston Bruins hosted the arch-rival Montreal Canadians in the Boston Gardens' first team event ever held. The Bruins would lose 1-0. Ninety years later, on January 20th, 2018 the Bruins would be away this time but still facing the Montreal Canadians. Though the TD Garden was very much alive for UFC220. The Bruins would ultimately go on to beat the Canadians this time 4-1. At the TD Garden Boston mixed martial arts would also win and make a statement to the biggest MMA promotion in the world.