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Dayton’s big role in boxing history — and 3 unforgettable moments

Dayton History Fight Night returns to historic Memorial Hall on Saturday, Feb. 24.

But Fight Night isn’t the first time boxing was held at Memorial Hall. Numerous boxing legends once graced its historic stage. For much of the 20th century, boxing was the king of sports, and Dayton was a premier Midwest boxing city.

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Dozens of hard-hitting fighters, both amateur and professional, hailed from the Gem City and traveled the boxing circuit from New York to California. Local legends like Buddy Knox, Joe Sekyra, Joe Marinelli and Marion Condi duked it out at numerous Dayton arenas during the early 1920s and 1930s.

In 1935 the Dayton Daily News began hosting Golden Glove Tournaments, broadcasted across the city on WHIO radio. The Dayton Gymnastics Club and the Fraternal Order of the Eagles held weekly fights. Popular venues included the Fairgrounds Coliseum, the Patterson Boulevard outdoor arena, the Dayton Opera House, the Lakeside Park Pavilion, and the Westwood Field Gym.

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But Memorial Hall was the crown jewel of Dayton venues. Founded in 1910, it came of age during the heyday of boxing. Here are three famous moments in Memorial Hall boxing history:

Jack Dempsey meets Gene Tunney, October 1925, in Dayton. CONTRIBUTED (Dayton History)

Jack Dempsey meets Gene Tunney, October 1925

Jack Dempsey was an international sports legend in 1925. When he arrived at Memorial Hall in October of that year, it had been six years since he pummelled Jess Willard for the world heavyweight boxing title. It seemed no one could take The Manassa Mauler off his throne.

Eight months earlier, Dempsey had married Estelle Taylor, the silent film star famous for her roles in “Don Juan,” “Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall,” and “The Ten Commandments.” Their marriage fell apart in 1931, but not before Dempsey’s reign as world champ.

Gene Tunney snatched the belt from Dempsey in September 1926. While campaigning for that future fight, he followed Dempsey to Dayton to witness his Memorial Hall appearance. Throngs of cheering fans erupted as Tunney, the famed World War I Marine boxer, entered the venue in a black suit.

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Dempsey fought two exhibition matches against Ray Newman and Marty Cutler, but it was Tunney who stole the show. He entered the ring, shook hands with Dempsey, and the pair posed for a now-famous photo. It was the first time the renowned boxers entered the ring together. And it happened in Dayton.

Joe Louis, world heavyweight champion, visited Dayton in early 1935, when his star was still rising. CONTRIBUTED (Dayton History)

Joe Louis vs. Biff Bennett, April 22, 1935

Hellbent on breaking free from a life of hardship, Joe Louis became a professional boxer on Independence Day 1934. The man they called the “Brown Bomber” held the world heavyweight boxing championship for a record-setting 12 years, and he held the love of the American public forever. Louis was king of the ring from 1937–1949. But when he visited Dayton in early 1935, his star was still rising.

Louis faced Biff Bennett at Memorial Hall on April 22, 1935. With a 75-second first-round knockout, the crowd was witnessing a legend on the cusp of greatness. With the Dayton victory, Louis had amassed an incredible 19–0 record in less than one year of professional boxing. A bigger stage was on the horizon.

Considered by many to be the greatest boxing heavyweight of all time, Louis went 68–3 in professional fights, scoring 54 knockouts, including five in the first round. Poor Biff Bennett became one of Lewis’ first-round KO’s that April evening at Memorial Hall. Louis himself was on his way to becoming one of the greatest boxers of all time.

Boxing hall of fame member William Landon “Gorilla” Jones fought at Memorial Hall in Dayton on April 22, 1930. CONTRIBUTED (Dayton History)

Gorilla Jones vs. Tiger Roy Williams, April 22, 1930

William Landon Jones had a rough-and-tumble Memphis upbringing. It was one that taught him to fight. In later years, he used this skill to chauffeur and protect legendary actress Mae West, but it was his own legend as two-time world middleweight boxing champion that got him the gig.

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Nicknamed the “Gorilla” for his extraordinary 75-inch reach, Jones was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame posthumously in June 2009. He fought in 138 professional bouts, won 101, lost 24, drew 13, and knocked out 52 opponents. At Memorial Hall on April 22, 1930 — five years to the day before the great Joe Louis graced the same stage — Jones would suffer defeat.

Represented by Joe Glaser, a showbiz insider who also managed Louis Armstrong, Chicago boxer “Tiger” Roy Williams was a tough all-around contender. The Tiger had taken down Sammy Slaughter, Patsy Perroni, and many of the top middleweight contenders of the time. In Dayton he took down Jones — the man who would snatch the world middleweight title less than two years later.

From January to May of 1930, Williams went undefeated in eight consecutive Memorial Hall matches (one being a draw against Dayton’s own Joe Sekyra on Feb. 24, 1930). When Williams faced Jones, he would deliver the great fighter his second consecutive 10-round loss.

Gorilla Jones’ name would come to be more widely remembered, but that night in Dayton it was Williams, not Jones, who was the star.

ABOUT THE EVENT

Dayton History Fight Night is sponsored by Steve R. Rauch Inc. After training at Brown Institute of Martial Arts, amateur boxers go three rounds at the 108-year-old venue, and beer, wine, soft drinks, and snacks are available.

For the first time ever, Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers will be playing Dayton History Fight Night. Guests are encouraged to dress in their best 1920s outfits to match the theme of this historically inspired boxing event.

After the final bell tolls, the Fight Night Speakeasy After Party starts swinging in Memorial Hall’s lower level. Featuring a full-service bar and live entertainment from Funky G & The Groove Machine, attendees can mingle with fighters and dance the night away. All proceeds benefit Dayton History in its mission to bring the past to life to understand the present and inspire the future.

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