History in Focus: Death in the ring
The courage, athleticism, stamina, and tenacity required of boxers made it one of America’s most popular spectator sports in the early 20th century. In Craig, amateur, professional, and even high school boxing matches were a popular attraction held at the Armory (today’s Museum of Northwest Colorado). On New Year’s Day, 1929, an exciting spectacle of pugilism suddenly turned into a tragedy as a young 22-year-old man suddenly died in the ring.
The event featured five bouts, with the final match between Dick “Kid” Williams and William “Wild Bill” Marks touted as the “lightweight championship of Northwest Colorado.” After three previous bouts, the fighters were evenly matched at 1-1-1 (Craig Empire, 1/26/1928). The highly anticipated grudge match would surely bring out the best in both fighters.
Richard Williams was born on August 24, 1906 on the family homestead at Powell Park, just a few miles west of Meeker. The eldest son of a pioneering family, he attended the Powell Park school, graduated, and worked on the family ranch and repairing county roads. Perhaps, seeking an outlet for his competitive energy Williams fought in the local amateur boxing circuit. (Meeker Herald, 1/4/29)
Williams had just recovered from a serious case of influenza and was not at all in shape for the fight. A few years earlier he also suffered a severe case of pneumonia and required surgery to drain his left lung. (White River Review, 1/5/29).
Dick’s family had also faced double tragedy in July of 1928. His father suffered a stroke, crashed his car, and died. His mother passed away just a few weeks later. The oldest of six siblings, this sudden loss placed enormous responsibility on Dick’s shoulders. (White River Review, 1/12/29).
Meanwhile, “Wild Bill” Marks was training hard at a club in Denver and focusing on the upcoming fight. According to The Craig Empire, Marks believed he was “in excellent shape for the scrap.”
Williams’ corner man and close friend, Joe Clinard, noticed Dick appeared weak and exhausted. “In fact when we were in the dressing room and he had stripped and I looked over his body I knew he wasn’t in condition.” By the second round, Williams was struggling and told Clinard between rounds, “Joe, I’m afraid I won’t make it. I feel myself slipping.” (Moffat County Jury, 1/2/29). Absolutely no one anticipated what happened next.
Without warning, the grim reaper suddenly and stealthily made his appearance. In the fifth round, the two boxers became entangled, and the referee called for them to separate. At the moment the two fighters broke away, Williams suddenly fell backwards and slumped onto the mat.
Clinard rushed to his friend and noticed Williams’ eyes were firmly rolled into the back of his head and he was not breathing…the young boxer had already left this world. Doctors started artificial respiration and continued for an hour. Even “heart stimulants were also injected into Williams’ blood stream, but without avail” (Craig Empire. 1/2/29).
Remarkably, a jury investigation of the coroner’s report started AND concluded the very next day! Members of the American Legion, the referee, doctors, and fans were interviewed to determine if Marks attempted to hurt Williams with an illegal punch. However, several witnesses testified the two fighters were good friends and had even been chatting amiably before the fight.
The jury concluded Williams died of heart failure caused by overexertion. Filled with grief, “Wild Bill” Marks attended Williams’ funeral and organized a boxing benefit to aid the family’s finances. Just a tad spooky, the benefit matches were held at the Armory a mere six weeks after the tragedy.
Even with the death of Williams, boxing matches continued at the Armory throughout the 1930s and 40s, and if you visit the Museum of Northwest Colorado, you won’t find a plaque commemorating this sad event. However, if you stop, stand, and unwind your imagination you might rekindle a single devastating night in the life of our small town.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Dan Davidson, Director of Museum of Northwest Colorado, for this topic and his research.
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