Dan Stuart’s Fistic Carnival
by Leo N. Miletich, Texas A&M University Press, 240 pages
Texas was still a rough state in 1895, but it did not formally sanction prizefighting. Still, the Dallas sportsman Dan Stuart could not have known the crisis he would cause when he announced he would hold a bout between James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons for the world’s heavyweight championship. As a nod to the law, he advertised the match not as a fight but as a “fistic carnival.” The power struggle that followed, with Texas’s governor, Charles A. Culberson, makes terrific reading. The Dallas Pastors’ Association denounced the “brutalizing” event, and the governor threatened to shoot the “felons” who gathered to see it. Stuart considered moving his “exhibition” to Mexico or to the Indian Territory that would become Oklahoma. Corbett volunteered to paint himself red and wear feathers.
The October match was pushed back until February; Congress passed and President Cleveland signed legislation outlawing boxing in the territories; and a boxer named Peter M‰her stood in for Corbett, who retired from the ring in disgust. After the fight was rescheduled for El Paso and a sandstorm wiped out its chances there, Texas Rangers searched for Stuart’s secret next location, while President Porfirio D²az of Mexico ordered up the cavalry in case the carnival drifted south. At last Stuart settled on a large sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande.
The fight itself was over in less than two minutes, but that’s only a coda to the saga. The El Paso writer Leo Miletich has uncovered a tragicomic story of frontier politics, business, and American sport, and he tells it with appropriate exuberance.