October 4, 1923 was a day that stirred up a great deal of commotion in the town of Columbus, Ga. The cause of it all was a bout for the world light-heavyweight championship between Mike McTigue, the champion, and William Lawrence (Young) Stribling, the 18-year-old schoolboy of Macon, Ga. Harry Ertle, the referee and sole judge, handed down three decisions amid one of the loudest controversies that ever cropped up in the boxing game.
The McTigue-Stribling bout in Columbus was sponsored by the Charles S. Harrison Post of the American Legion, and was held outdoors in the afternoon. Major John Paul Jones, an Army man with a sea-going name, was the promoter. McTigue had won his title from Battling Siki in Dublin, Ireland, on St. Patrick's Day 1923, outpointing Siki in 20 rounds. It was said of Siki that he, indeed, had the height of gumption to fight an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick's Day.
McTigue and his manager, Joe Jacobs, arrived in Columbus a week ahead of the fight date, and the champion trained at nearby Fort Benning, Ga.
The tumult got an early pitch when during the hours before sunrise on the day of the fight, McTigue issued the announcement from his hotel room that he would be unable to go through with the bout because of aggravation of an old injury to his left hand. Major Jones and his committee and Columbus boxing officials haggled and haggled with the champion. Newspapermen found him in bed, nursing the ailing mitt in bandages and reiterating that there would be no fight. Doctors called in to examine McTigue's hand could find no condition to warrant a cancellation of the bout.
Word of McTigue's withdrawal created a mob scene in the street in front of his hotel. Angry fans, many of whom had traveled long distances to attend the fight, clamored to get McTigue in their clutches. They accused him of trying to run out on Stribling and using the hand as a hoax. Only three days before, popular Georges Carpentier had knocked out Joe Beckett in the first round in London, and it was rumored that an offer of $50,000 had been cabled from London for McTigue to defend his title against Carpentier. Therefore, it was alleged, he wanted to get out of the Stribling fight, fearing that Stribling would beat him and spoil his chance for the big money battle with Carpentier.
The crowd outside taunted McTigue until he could stand it no longer. At last, he appeared on a balcony overlooking the street. "Cold feet!" one of the mob shouted. McTigue blew his top. He shook a fist at the crowd.
"I'll fight him!" the champion roared. "I'll fight him with one hand and beat him!"
Shortly after noon, Stribling and McTigue were in their corners, ready for battle. Harry Ertle, the referee, called them to the center of the ring for final instructions. Ertle was a celebrated boxing official. He was third man in the ring at Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City, on July 2, 1921, when Jack Dempsey knocked out Georges Carpentier in boxing's first million-dollar gate attraction.
For the most part, the Stribling-McTigue bout was a dawdling affair with very little action coming from either fighter. It was hardly worth all the ruckus it engendered. Two guys sitting in the ring and playing a game of checkers would have produced as much excitement. Stribling forced what fighting there was in the infrequent exchanges. His left jab pecked at McTigue's face, and at infighting he matched the champion on even terms. In the third round, a light trickle of blood started from a small cut on the bridge of McTigue's nose. Other than this, there was no mark of battle visible on either contestant at the finish of 10 rounds.
The crowd cheered Stribling, especially in the seventh round when he rushed McTigue to the ropes and clipped the champion with a right to the jaw. Newspapermen covering the fight had Stribling ahead on points when it ended, but Ertle indicated a draw decision and placed himself right smack in the middle of a tremendous furor. Ertle tried to duck out of the ring, but the angry crowd surged forward and pushed him back. Major Jones clambered through the ropes.
"You've got to give a decision!" Jones barked at Ertle. "The crowd wants to know who won."
"I've given my decision," Ertle said. "It's a draw."
For half an hour, the squabble went on with Jones at Ertle's heels in the ring, and hotheads all around on the outside blocking the referee's exit. Ertle could see that he was in a tough spot. For his safety, he had to do something to pacify the mob. Changing his decision, he gave the bout to Stribling. After that he was permitted to leave the ring. An hour later, when he felt relatively safe, Ertle issued a statement in which he again reversed his decision, declaring the bout a draw. Thus McTigue's title was saved.
Accompanied by an escort of military police from Fort Benning, Ertle, McTigue and the champion's manager, Joe Jacobs, slipped out of Columbus during the night and were conveyed by automobile to Atlanta to make connection with a northbound train.