Cloche hats, bobbed hair, and bow ties will deck historic Memorial Hall once more as boxers slug each other for charity on Saturday, Feb. 23, at Fight Night — Dayton History’s one-of-a-kind 1920s-themed amateur boxing exhibition.
But Fight Night isn’t the first time boxing was held at Memorial Hall — legendary pugilists once graced the venue’s storied stage. Boxing was king of sports for much for much of the 20th century. And Dayton was a premier Midwest boxing city.
Dozens of hard-hitting Gem City fighters once 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 Dayton arenas during the early 1920s and 1930s.
In 1935, the Dayton Daily News began hosting Golden Glove Tournaments, broadcasted across the Miami Valley on WHIO. The Dayton Gymnastics Club and the Fraternal Order of Eagles held weekly fights. Popular venues included the Fairgrounds Coliseum, Patterson Boulevard outdoor arena, Dayton Opera House, Lakeside Park Pavilion and Westwood Field Gym.
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
Jack Dempsey was an international sports legend when he arrived at Memorial Hall in October 1925. For six straight years, Dempsey had successfully defended his heavyweight title — it seemed no one could dethrone The Manassa Mauler.
Earlier in 1926, 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.
Famed World War I Marine boxer Gene Tunney snatched the belt from Dempsey in September 1926. While campaigning for that fight, Tunney followed Dempsey to Dayton to witness his October 1925 exhibition match-ups against Ray Newman and Marty Cutler.
Throngs of cheering fans erupted as Tunney strolled into Memorial Hall in a jet black suit. Gene Tunney entered the ring, shook hands with Jack 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 vs. Biff Bennett, April 22, 1935
Joe Louis became a professional boxer on Independence Day 1934 — after a rough Detroit upbringing, he was hellbent on freeing himself from a life of hardship. The man they called the “Brown Bomber” held the world heavyweight boxing championship for a record 12 years. And he held the love of the American public forever.
Louis was king 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 victims that April evening at Memorial Hall. Joe Louis himself was on his way to becoming one of the greatest boxers of all time.
Gorilla Jones vs. Tiger Roy Williams, April 22, 1930
William Landon Jones’ tough Memphis upbringing taught him to fight. In later years, the two-time world middleweight boxing champ used his talent to chauffeur and protect legendary actress Mae West.
Nicknamed the “Gorilla” for his extraordinary 75-inch reach, Jones was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame posthumously in June 2009. Of his 101 victories, 52 were won by knockout.
At Memorial Hall on April 22, 1930 — five years to the day before the great Joe Louis graced the same stage — Jones would fall to Chicago boxer “Tiger” Roy Williams.
Represented by Joe Glaser, a show biz insider who also managed Louis Armstrong, The Tiger had taken down Sammy Slaughter, Patsy Perroni, and many of the day’s top middleweight contenders. And 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.
Jones may be more widely remembered. But that night in Dayton, it was Tiger Roy Williams, not Gorilla Jones, who became 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 109-year-old venue.
Arrive early to hear Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers kick things off with their tremendous blend of jazz, blues, and small band swing music. With influences ranging from Louis Armstrong to Jelly Roll Morton to Bing Crosby, the Classic Jazz Stompers channel music from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks are available, and guests are encouraged to dress in their best 1920s outfits at this fun Flapper era event.
After the final bell tolls, the Fight Night Speakeasy After Party starts swinging downstairs. Featuring a full-service bar and live entertainment from Funky G & The Groove Machine, attendees mingle with fighters and dance the night away.
All proceeds benefit Dayton History in its mission to inspire generations by connecting them with the unique people, places, and events that changed Dayton and the world.
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