By Jose Corpas
May 13 th was the birthday of the man who promoted Mexico’s first championship match. Jimmy Carroll was born in England in either 1852 or 1856 and was a former bareknuckle champion who later became trainer and manager of boxing’s first three division champion, Bob Fitzsimmons. In the 1890s, he moved to Mexico and lived among the Cornish community that had been in place in Pachuca and Real Del Monte since the early mining days of the 1830s. By the time Carroll had arrived, parts of Real Del Monte looked like Cornwall. A cemetery with tombstones that faced England and bore names like Julio Smith and Pancho Ludlow sat atop a nearby hill and the smell of baked meat pies was more common than that of holiday tamales. Today, because of the Cornish, “Football” is played in the region, and a clock tower that chimes like Big Ben along with a museum honoring the British pastries stand not far from where Carroll promoted that championship match.
Called Professor Carroll by the locals, he owned a bar and an athletic club where he taught boxing. At first, he catered to the Cornish residents, occasionally staging public demonstrations.
Forget what you may have read online about boxing in Mexico originating around 1915 in bars throughout Tampico with drunken sailors wrapping their hands in napkins. That wasn’t boxing – that was drunken sailors fighting with tissues on their hands. Promoter H.C. Laflin was granted a permit to stage boxing exhibitions in Mexico City in 1887. Public sparring matches between the Davis Brothers became a well-known “act” in theaters alongside can-can dance routines. But it wasn’t until an American gymnast and wrestler named Billy Clarke made his way up north from Guatemala that interest in the sport began reaching the mainstream.
Sometimes billed as “Jimmy” from New Orleans, or Billy “Clark” from New York, Clarke was a Philadelphia native who had spent the better parts of 1893 and 1894 staging boxing and wrestling exhibitions in Guatemala City. The Guatemalan president at that time- Jose Maria
Reina Barrios – dreamed of turning Guatemala into the “Paris of Central America.” He had wide boulevards built, started construction on a national railroad system, and solicited foreign investors. He attended at least one of Clarke’s exhibitions and was onboard with Clarke’s idea of staging a match featuring the great Nonpareil Dempsey or Jack McAuliffe.
It turned out Reina Barrios was spending money he didn’t have and would soon resort to defaulting on payments, selling junk bonds, and stealing from the wealthy. By 1897, the country had run out of cash. A few months later, Reina Barrios told his pregnant wife that he was going for a walk. He left out the part about visiting his girlfriend. On his way back, a young man posing as an enthusiastic supporter approached him to say hi, then fired a fatal shot through the smiling president’s front teeth.
Clarke packed his bags, put a leash around his pet bear’s neck, and made his way to Mexico. He opened an athletic club, declared himself the Champion of Central America, and soon after issued a challenge to Carroll. I’ll take on your best, he told him, for the championship of Mexico. Set for November 24, 1895, in Pachuca, Carroll reserved ten coaches including a buffet car and had 500 mostly English-speaking spectators travel north from Mexico City for the event. Several hundred more Mexican locals joined them according to reporters present. For the first time in an organized boxing match, the punches were real, and the stakes were high.
The show started with a punching bag demonstration, a sparring match amongst children, and then Professor Carroll put on a “scientific” exhibition designed to show the spectators that there was much more to boxing than simply throwing punches. As for the main event, Carroll chose the experienced Billy Smith to go up against Clarke. Billed as an Englishman and champion of Texas, Smith really was Australian Billy Smith, a fighter with world class experience.
The muscular Clarke got off to a fast start. Powerful and energetic, he won the first round. But Smith was biding his time. Clarke was really an amateur and no match for Smith, who began taking control of the fight in round two. Smith won by knockout in either the fourth or eighth
round, leaving Clarke flat on the ground and unable to rise.
As a gift, Smith was given a baby pig wrapped in purple ribbons. Clarke spent the rest of the week visiting with reporters and explaining why he lost and making claims that he was fouled repeatedly. With a revolution brewing, the spread of boxing in Mexico was delayed. Carroll sold
his gym to Mexican Pedro Quintero, who named it the Mexican National Athletic Club. He then headed north to work with Bob Fitzsimmons, who was set to fight Peter Maher on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande in the coming months.
Clarke stayed in Mexico for a while, married a Mexican woman and wasn’t heard from again in the boxing world. He and Smith were sort of immortalized in an unnamed Don Chepito sketch depicting the match drawn by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. As for Smith, he eventually headed back north to Texas. Immediately after the fight with Clarke, he went to the nearest bar to celebrate. But he forgot to close the balcony door. Before the night ended, his pet pig got too close to the balcony railings and tumbled to the ground, flat and unable to rise.