Calgary Herald

THE FATAL SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD

1913 slugfest lives in infamy 99 years later

- BRYAN WEISMILLER AND TONY SESKUS

He turned toward the two boxers and told them not to forget in their chase of fame that they had a creator — and to prepare to meet him

HERALD

REPORT

Calgary’s new Manchester arena was packed to the rafters with fight fans, the air thick with hubbub and cigar smoke as the city basked in the spotlight of the boxing world.

No one was more excited than promoter Tommy Burns, the famous former world champ who had moved to Calgary in 1910.

Here was the slugfest he knew would put the city on the map: Canadian brawler Arthur Pelkey versus Luther McCarty, a handsome, fleetfiste­d Nebraska boy touted as the next “Great White Hope.”

Spectators and sports writers travelled from near and far to attend. A $10,000 purse and a potential title shot were on the line.

What happened in the ring the afternoon of May 24, 1913, would indeed change fortunes, but not as expected.

A deadly knockout, a mysterious arson and a dramatic manslaught­er trial delivered a transcende­ntal sucker punch.

Next month, UFC 149 may well be the biggest fight event Calgary has witnessed in a long while, but no one should forget Pelkey vs. McCarty — the “fight of the decade” that lives on in infamy 99 years later.

“It changed the whole landscape of heavyweigh­t boxing,” said sports historian Kevin Wamsley at the University of Western Ontario.

Burns’s goal was to hold a heavyweigh­t bout that people would long remember.

The stocky Ontario pugilist had once been one of the top boxers on the planet.

Standing 5 feet 7, Burns was the shortest man to ever hold the world heavyweigh­t title and the only Canadian-born fighter to claim it. But in 1908, he lost his crown to Jack Johnson, the first African-American to hold the championsh­ip.

The Canuck was harshly criticized — not just for losing — but for letting a black man challenge for the title. Burns had said he’d fight anyone, regardless of race.

But boxing expert Stephen Brunt suggests Burns wasn’t just being a good sport.

“Burns gave Johnson the shot because he got the huge payday in Australia,” said Brunt, who writes for Sportsnet Magazine. “He was a savvy guy and obviously an overachiev­er given his size.”

There was no end to the bigotry and bad press after the fight. But when Calgarians learned that Burns was moving to their city in 1910, a couple thousand people turned out to give him a hero’s welcome.

This was no sleepy prairie town. Immigrants poured in off the train, with the city’s population soaring to 40,000 from 4,000 in a decade.

“There was this boundless optimism,” said local historian Blane Hogue of the Lougheed House Conservati­on Society. “Calgary was going to be the greatest city.”

At the peak of the boom, Calgary was still buzzing from the inaugural Stampede. It was brimming with entreprene­urs looking to bring in the next world-class event.

“It was attracting people like Tommy Burns, Guy Weadick and others who saw themselves on the world stage,” Hogue explained.

Burns capitalize­d on his fame, opening a popular gents clothing store. Boxing remained his passion. He put on a few sparring exhibition­s and promoted a few local bouts.

Pro boxers started to migrate to the city. Burns built a $7,000 arena outside city limits — beyond the reach of local bylaws that banned matches where admission was charged.

The ex-champ figured that if he was going to seize the title back from Johnson, it wouldn’t be in the ring.

He found his protege in Arthur Pelkey, a square-jawed, steel-eyed bruiser from Ontario. From 1910 to 1913, Pelkey punched his way to 17 victories, one draw, one no-decision and one loss.

“Burns figured that all the 23-yearold giant needed for a shot at Johnson were a few well-publicized bouts and some headlines in the major papers,” author Brian Hutchinson wrote in the historical book series, Alberta in the 20th Century.

This led him to Luther McCarty, considered the “white” champion of the world. Pelkey would be a good stepping-stone fight for him, with Johnson the ultimate target.

The bout was set for Victoria Day, 1913. At $2 for general admission and $5 for a sweat-spattered ringside view, it wasn’t cheap. Still, seats sold fast.

The Herald declared it “without a doubt the most important day of all as far as boxing is concerned in Calgary.”

The fight captured the city’s imaginatio­n. “They were fighting (to become) the Great White Hope,” said historian Harry Sanders.

Some didn’t share in the enthusiasm. Churches, temperance leagues and anti-boxing reformists protested against the contest without success. Finally, fight day arrived. Burns stopped by to see McCarty in the morning and noticed the boxer couldn’t turn his head. McCarty said his neck was stiff from sleeping next to an open window.

A different account surfaced years later. Reportedly, McCarty fell off a horse while staying at a local ranch, but apparently told his manager it would “take more than a fall off a horse to kill me.”

While McCarty covered his tracks, a crowd of 7,000 fight fans gathered at the arena.

McCarty entered the ring to welcoming applause. The reception was even louder for Pelkey, the local favourite.

Before the fight, the fighters met in the ring to receive the referee’s instructio­ns. They were also given an eerily prophetic prayer from Rev. William Walker.

“He turned toward the two boxers and told them not to forget in their chase of fame that they had a creator — and to prepare to meet him,” the Herald reported.

As the first round began, Pelkey and McCarty crept toward the middle of the ring. McCarty took aim with a couple of heavy blows, but missed. Pelkey countered with a pair of shots. The pair clinched and broke. McCarty smiled.

As the seconds continued to tick away, the two re-engaged and, as they did, Pelkey moved inside with a quick left to the jaw, a textbook wake-up call.

He followed it up with a right to McCarty’s chest.

The crowd thought nothing of it. But, according to one ringside witness, a queer look passed over McCarty’s face and his smile vanished.

“McCarty paused, raised his fists in the classic boxing pose, and winked at his cornermen,” Hutchinson wrote. “Then he turned halfway around, dropped his arms to his side, and fell to the mat with a heavy thud.”

The crowd leaped to its feet and cheered, “He’s out! He’s out!”

Some thought the fix was in.

The referee, a seasoned official from Chicago, didn’t immediatel­y begin the count, expecting McCarty to bounce back up. As the ref made his way through the numbers, it became clear something was dreadfully wrong.

A strange beam of sunlight appeared through a hole in the arena ceiling, illuminati­ng the body of the prostrate fighter.

His trainers stormed the ring, followed by several doctors in the audience who began futile attempts to revive the boxer. When Pelkey later got word that McCarty had died, he was speechless.

Pelkey turned himself over to police. He was held as a material witness and released on $10,000 bond.

The following night, as rumours of McCarty’s death spread, fire gutted the arena. There was no question in Burns’s mind it was deliberate.

“Whoever started the fire knew his business,” Burns told the Herald. “In my opinion, it was a clear case of arson.”

When the celebritie­s left town, the ability to draw a fight card like that also left town

KEVIN WAMSLEY

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 ?? Courtesy, Glenbow Archives NA-2941-10 ?? Luther McCarty was knocked out by Arthur Pelkey and died after the fight on May 24, 1913. Pelkey was subsequent­ly charged and tried for manslaught­er.
Courtesy, Glenbow Archives NA-2941-10 Luther McCarty was knocked out by Arthur Pelkey and died after the fight on May 24, 1913. Pelkey was subsequent­ly charged and tried for manslaught­er.
 ?? Courtesy Glenbow Museum Archives ?? The poster advertisin­g the McCarty vs. Pelkey match.
Courtesy Glenbow Museum Archives The poster advertisin­g the McCarty vs. Pelkey match.

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