What was it that made someone like me, born without the “sports gene,” to become interested in the bare-knuckles prizefighting of yesteryear? It was the people: brash, naïve youths, wracked by passions, ruined by limelight. Then there is the model Portlander, Dave Campbell, for many years “Our Dave,” beloved chief of the Portland fire department. He was self-educated, intelligent, measured, and fearless, and gave up a sure championship career as a boxer to fight Portland’s fires. Add to the mix the original all-time champion, Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey (died 1895), and “Mysterious” Billy Smith—both legends in the world of boxing history—and you soon begin to wonder why these fellows aren’t at least well known in Portland and Astoria.
|A publication by the New York Police Gazette||1888|
Both places were big on boxing, and in those days the two cities were joined at the hip due to the shipping business and the shallowness of the rivers in dry season. Much business had to be conducted from Astoria when the waters were too low for deep ocean vessels.
I spent about 3 years researching these men, and have managed to dig up a lot of fascinating detail (fascinating to me, at least), and hard to find material. One of the great finds, for lithograph images, at least (the info is a little sketchy) was The Life and Battles of Jack Dempsey, published by the New York Police Gazette in 1888, while Dempsey was still a champion “nonpareil.” This my daughter, Molly Gunderson, helped me obtain from Tulane University in New Orleans. It comes in handy to have a wife that is an editor, a daughter that is a librarian, and a cat that keeps my chair warm.
It would be more than ironic if this book were to become more popular than my other two Portland history books, and I became known as a sports writer. I prefer either "historical biographer" or "time travel writer."
|"Mysterious" Billy Smith lived in Portland most of his adult life. He was once world famous, but he is buried in a pauper's grave in the county cemetery on Southeast 82nd and Holgate.|
|David Campbell gave up a prizefighting career to fight fires. He became Portland's favorite son, "Our Dave."|
|This illustration, called "The Champion" shows the awe commanded by prizefighters at the end of the 19th century. Boston Sunday Supplement, 1906|
Oregon Prizefighters: Forgotten Bare-knuckles Champions of Portland and Astoria goes on sale October 19, 2015. Anyone extremely anxious to get a copy can preorder now.
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