Want to participate in an old local New Year's Day tradition that doesn't involve freezing your butt off in Lake Michigan?
Sometime on Jan. 1, take a poke at somebody.
Fisticuffs were a staple on the first day of the new year – "Boxing Day" in Milwaukee – for much of the front half of the 20th century, as world champions, top contenders and local ring stars were featured in the long-running holiday series at the Auditorium (now the Milwaukee Theatre) at 500 W. Kilbourn Ave., that started when former lightweight champion Ad Wolgast scored a fifth-round TKO over Jack Redmond on Jan. 1, 1914.
[The very first local New Year's Day bout was actually in 1907, when local lightweight favorite Charlie Neary fought a 10-round draw with Dave Dreshler at the Schlitz Park Pavilion, on the site of what later became Lapham Park.]
After Wolgast-Redmond, there were no New Year's Day fights here again until 1919, and from 1922-'24. But then boxing was the big enchilada on the local holiday menu for the next 25 years in a row (except when Jan. 1 fell on a Sunday; boxing on Sundays was illegal, so then the bouts were held the following day). Other major U.S. cities had New Year's Day boxing in the early 1900s, but only in Milwaukee did it become such an ongoing and popular tradition.
Among the worthies who put up their dukes at the Auditorium on Jan. 1 (or 2) were:
Pinkey Mitchell, who won a newspaper decision (official verdicts weren't allowed here until 1928) over Dennis O'Keefe in 1921. The following October, the Milwaukee-born Mitchell became the only boxer in the history of the ring ever elected world champion, when readers of the magazine The Boxing Blade voted him in as the first junior welterweight (140-pound) titlist. Pinkey's electoral success didn't transfer to local politics. After his fighting days ended he was defeated twice in campaigns for county sheriff.
Joey Sangor, who headlined New Year's Day cards in 1926 (a 10-round newspaper win over Billy Bortfield), '27 (a draw with Johnny Hill), '28 (decision over Phil Zwick) and '29 (10-round decision loss to junior lightweight champion Tod Morgan in a non-titlefight). The freckled, spindly Sangor didn't look tough enough to knock a kid off his rollerskates, but was so fearsome in the ring that champions wouldn't fight him with their title on the line. Sangor is one of only two boxers in the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame (the other is Richie Mitchell, Pinkey's older brother and a great early 20th century lightweight contender).
"Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom, light heavyweight champion of the world from 1930-'34, who lost a 10-round decision to local hero Dave Maier in a 1932 non-title bout. "Maxie fought as though he delighted in losing and clowning," wrote Sam Levy in The Milwaukee Journal. "Not once did he land a punch with a closed glove." In fact, Rosenbloom got his nickname from sportswriter Damon Runyan because he usually slapped with an open glove instead of punching with a closed fist. After the last of his almost 300 fights, Rosenbloom appeared in 100 movies, mostly portraying guys who had been hit in the head a lot (and not with an open glove), and operated a popular Hollywood nightclub.
William "Gorilla" Jones, who won the National Boxing Association middleweight championship in Milwaukee in 1932 (not on New Year's Day), and returned (as former champion) on Jan. 1, 1936, to KO Tait "The Cudahy Adonis" Littman in one round. On Jan. 1, 1937, Jones lost a 10-round decision to 160-pound champion Freddie Steele in a middleweight title bout at the Auditorium that was, Jones later admitted, a put-up job. An extraordinarily gifted black fighter, Jones often was forced to fight against white opponents with "the handcuffs on," as the saying went. "I had to make some money," he told Journal sports editor R.G. Lynch after the Steele fight. "I did a couple of favors for them" – Steele's managers – "on the coast and they were doin' me a favor here." Post-boxing, he became a chauffeur for one of his biggest fans, movie siren Mae West.
Tony Zale, middleweight champion who was headed for defeat in his 1941 10-round non-title fight with Milwaukee's Tony Martin until Martin's left eye was closed and he couldn't come out for the eighth round. That night the thick steak that was supposed to be Martin's holiday dinner was put on his swollen eye, instead. Martin – whose real last name, Cianciola, was changed to distinguish him from all the other Italians boxing in the 1940s – did better on the next New Year's Day card, knocking out Bobby Milsap in five to defend his state middleweight belt.
Jackie Darthard, an 18-year-old phenom known as "The Kansas City Slicker" who knocked out local middleweight Jerome Frazier in five rounds in 1948. It was the popular Darthard's sixth win in a row in Milwaukee, and his managers envisioned him growing into a heavyweight and winning that title after he'd swept through the middleweights. But the following Feb. 16, Darthard was knocked out by middleweight contender Bert Lytell in six rounds at the Auditorium and he died of massive brain trauma the next day. Lytell headlined the Jan. 1, 1949 card here, knocking out Jerome Frazier, Darthard's New Year's Day victim, in five.
Beau Jack, whose best days were far behind him when he lost a 10-round decision to Fitzie Pruden in 1951. The native of Augusta, Ga. got his start in boxing in the "Battle Royals" held for the entertainment of golfers entered in the Masters Tournament, whereby a group of blindfolded black youngsters went at it in the ring and the last one standing was the winner. Jack held the lightweight title twice in the 1940s and fought a record 21 main events at Madison Square Garden. Like Rosenbloom, Jones and Zale, Jack is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Other local stars that headlined New Year's Day fight cards included welterweight Tommy Lemmon (1943), lightweight Juste Fontaine ('45, '47 and '49), and featherweight Doll Rafferty ('46 and '50, when he beat Fontaine).
The Rafferty-Fontaine bout was actually held on Dec. 28, 1949, because New Year's Day, 1950 fell on a Sunday, and the Auditorium overseers, reported The Milwaukee Journal, "leased the house to an ice show, starting Jan. 2, forgetting that the law prohibits boxing shows on a Sunday."
"It is too bad that Milwaukee boxing fans had to be deprived of their New Year's show this time," lamented promoter Billy Mitchell, "but we decided that there ought to be a holiday boxing card so we got the nearest date available ... between Christmas and New Year's."
They were deprived of it for good after the 1951 Jack-Pruden card. Attendance at what Journal sports editor Lynch called the annual New Year's Day "mayhem matinees" was falling off because "with so many football games on the radio, too many sport-minded men want to stay home and listen."
For the next few years there was an annual "Holiday Boxing Card" held sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day, but boxing itself was fading out locally, leaving ring fans with only memories of when, as promoter Mitchell exulted in 1945, "Boxing Day in Wisconsin has become synonymous with New Year's Day."
Auld Lang Syne.