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Original Issue

'I am the Law'

So said Roy Bean, who defied authority and staged a fight

The perversity of antiboxing laws in 1896 turned the historic February match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Pete Maher (who held the heavyweight title presented to him by Corbett) into a highly touted traveling carnival that had little to do with boxing. That the fight finally took place can be credited to the ingenuity of Judge Roy Bean, an irrepressible opportunist who dispensed both justice and liquor with equal aplomb from his saloon in Langtry, Texas.

Impresario Dan Stuart had originally chosen El Paso for the match. By January hundreds of fans, gamblers and pickpockets had poured into the town. Suddenly a reform governor convened the state legislature and in 48 hours had boxing banned in Texas. Arkansas, Arizona and New Mexico, anticipating a move by Stuart to hold the fight within their boundaries, acted quickly to block him. Mexico's President Diaz immediately issued an official pronunciamento against all prizefighting. For Stuart, this last blow was crushing. His hopes of staging the bout in southwestern United States appeared effectively stymied. But this was without figuring on Judge Bean who, it soon became obvious, could make money squeezing water out of barrel cactus. His last-minute telegram saved the fight, INVITE YOU, he wired, TO HOLD FIGHT IN LANGTRY. I AM LAW WEST OF PECOS AND GUARANTEE PROTECTION. JUDGE ROY BEAN.

Stuart, like everyone else, had heard incredible tales about the judge. The only recognized fact was that Roy Bean had personally named his Texas village Langtry and his saloon the Jersey Lilly (sic) in honor of his idol, Actress Lily Langtry. A typical story told about him was that he had fined a dead man for the sum found on the corpse. Another said he let a known murderer go free. But whether or not he was an incorrigible scoundrel, the judge was the one man who could hold the outlawed fight.

Into El Paso, with his Texas Rangers, stalked Adjutant General Mabry. "The governor has ordered us to stop the fight," he told newspapermen, "assuming it's held in Texas." Dan Stuart kept mysteriously silent about the site and then put up a notice outside his office: PERSONS DESIROUS OF ATTENDING PRIZEFIGHT REPORT AT THESE HEADQUARTERS TONIGHT AT 9:45. ROUND TRIP FARE WILL NOT EXCEED $12.


By shortly after 9 o'clock, 300 excited fans had jammed the 10 extra coaches the Southern Pacific had added to its regular train. General Mabry and his Rangers squeezed on board, to make sure Stuart didn't hold the fight within the state. The fight special pulled out at midnight, and some 16 hours and 400 miles later it disgorged a disheveled crowd at ramshackle Langtry. The judge, a heavy-set man with a grizzled beard covering most of his face, sported his usual battered Stetson. He welcomed his guests loudly, shouting, "This way to the fight of the century, gents, and there's cold beer at ringside." Between towering bluffs on each side of the Rio Grande River along the United States-Mexican border was a cleared-out space on a river sand bar. This was Judge Bean's "ringside." No seats, just a circle enclosed by a wall of canvas circus tenting.

High on the U.S. bluffs the general yelled at his Rangers: "Damn Roy Bean! He's staging the fight outside the United States!" The sand bar was in Mexican territory and so isolated there weren't any of Porfirio Diaz' troops or police within several hundred miles of the scene.

Finally, the great Fitzsimmons strode confidently into the ring. Maher emerged nervously. The crowd applauded and the timekeeper banged the bottom of a tin bucket for Round One. Fitz moved out of his corner and threw a left and, after a few blows, Maher hit the canvas. That, in all its sadness, was the entire fight. The referee raised Ruby Robert's hand, and the stunned crowd realized they had come 400 miles and paid $20 to see 95 seconds of virtually nothing.

"Have some nice cool beer at the Jersey Lilly while you wait for the train," comforted the charitable judge. Bean had thoughtfully provided an extra carload of beer for which he charged the spectators $1 a bottle, only 100% more than his usual price. By the time the disillusioned fans had left on the El Paso train, Roy Bean had done a good day's business.

The real loser, however, was Dan Stuart. He emerged unvictorious and shirtless, partly because many spectators had enjoyed a free view from the bluffs. But the crafty judge had made a killing in beer and had focused the eyes of the sport-loving world on his beloved town of Langtry.