By jim zbick
On Sept. 12, 1911, the Tamaqua Courier ran a front page story on how the coal regions had become a fertile area for boxing talent. The article, titled "Coal Regions a Boxing Nursery," was written by William H. Rocap, a fighter himself who decided to become a writer instead for the Philadelphia Ledger.
After covering a polo match in 1906, Rocap became the story himself when the New York Times reported that he was "shocked by lightning" while telephoning his office with the results. The "vivid flash of lightening" rendered him unconscious for several hours but he made a full recovery.
In his 1911 article on coal region boxers, Rocap said that, given the amount of talent in the coal regions of Pennsylvania, he wouldn't be surprised to see a real "white hope" emerge from the area.
The tough environment had much to do with his projection.
"With such a mixture of nationalities, there are sure to be daily scraps around the iron and steel mills and the collieries," he said. "It is always survival of the fittest. No elimination white hope tourney can develop a candidate any better than daily tests of brawn, strength and skill."
Rocap made his observations after getting a good sampling of the coal region boxing talent while traveling from Pottsville to Wilkes-Barre.
"While the writer flitted through Pottsville, Tamaqua, Nesquehoning and other towns enroute to Wilkes-Barre he could not help but be impressed with the enthusiasm of the men at the steel mills and around the coal breakers," the Tamaqua Courier noted. "Each place had its champion and each place thought its man the best breathing."
Rocap was impressed not only by the boxing talent but the fan loyalty he found.
"Any boxer from Philadelphia in any class who travels to the coal regions in quest of a 'go' must expect to travel at a fast pace," he said.
Rocap noted that several boxers, including Summit Hill's Jack Bonner, were not only popular with coal region fans but talented enough to put the area on the map, if given the chance.
"Featherweights, lightweights and middleweights are being graduated from the wholesome pugilistic nursery with astonishing rapidity," he stated.
Rocap went on to explain how then-Gov. John Tener, a former professional athlete as a baseball player and "a lover of pure, clean amateur and professional sport," had lifted a boxing ban on a number of counties where the sport had been inactive.
"These counties will be placed on their good behavior," he said. "Boxing contests, the governor believes, will furnish an outlet for much pent-up enthusiasm. It is much better for two fellows to go to a regularly organized club and settle their difference of opinion regarding strength or skill with the gloves than to terminate it with gun or stiletto."
In the ring, he noted, there was no place for a "cowardly assassin" to hide.
Rocap believed that the governor's lifting of the boxing ban would also increase the chances of a future champion emerging from the Keystone State.
"Boxing is a diversion for the men and boys who work at the coal breakers, in the mines and the steel mills," he said. "Many of them work 12 hours a day, peel off their clothes, take a shower bath and in the evening, as a sort of appetizer for sleep, go over a six, 10 or 15 round bout with the gloves."
Rocap's advice to boxers from outside the area was not to "go up in the coal regions and expect an easy scrap."
"The boys there are just bubbling over with pluck and can give and take a lacing," he said.
For years, Jack Bonner, the lightweight champion of Pennsylvania, had been proving Rocap's very point in the ring. Toughened by scraps with coal region boxers like Steve Latzo of Hazleton, and Wilkes-Barre fighters like Battling Gates, Al Dewey and Joe Burke, Bonner took on all comers in hopes of gaining a shot at some of the better fighters in the division.
One of those was Knockout Brown, a veteran New York fighter whose outstanding 25-2 record included a pair of decisions over world lightweight champion Adolphus Wolgast.
In early September 1911, a headline in the Courier announced some blockbuster news for local fans: "Tamaqua gets the Big Fight." Both Brown and Bonner had agreed to a 10-round fight at Walker's Hall on Tuesday evening, Sept. 26.
"The Athletic Club is already making arrangements to accommodate one of the largest crowds that ever witnessed a boxing match in this section and daily many requests are coming in from out-of-town residents for seat accommodations," the writer stated.
Reserved seat tickets soon went on sale at all the leading hotels. A ring was constructed in the center of the auditorium in Walker's Hall so that fans could get "a good view from all sides."
Next: Bonner vs. Knockout Brown