Wednesday, June 28, 2017

1920s: Fight Club in downtown Huntington Beach

ABOVE: Huntington Beach, circa 1920s, when downtown boxing was reaching its heyday. The Pacific Electric Railway line ran along the beach and oil wells dotted the landscape. (City of Huntington Beach archives, circa 1920s)

   Orange County boxers in the 1920s had names like Walloping Wilson, Kid Africa, Buzz Saw Burrows, Spike Kelley, and Kid Mack of Wintersburg.  In Huntington Beach, the boxing world centered around Kid Mexico.
 
RIGHT: Todd Faulkner, aka Kid Mexico, shown in a 1922 feature, was of Scots-Irish ancestry.  In a history on Latinos in U.S. Sports by Jorge Iber in 2011, it was noted that "Mexican spectators were rather surprised to see a blond kid entering the ring". (Image, Santa Ana Register, August 22, 1922)

   Referred to by the Santa Ana Register in 1922 as "the pride of Huntington Beach", Kid Mexico--aka Todd Faulkner-- wasn't from Mexico and he wasn't Mexican American.  Faulkner reportedly was born in Hope, New Mexico, and was dubbed with the nickname at around age fourteen when a fight announcer called him the "kid from New Mexico".  Along the way, it was shortened to Kid Mexico by boxing announcers.

   Todd Faulkner is reported to have earned the titles of bantamweight champion in 1914 (when he was fourteen years old) and welterweight champion in 1925.  The Signal Tribune newspaper reported in 2014 that out of 387 career fights, Kid Mexico lost only 11. His rise to the top was part tenacity and part showmanship, and a lifelong tendency to gamble on himself, and, well, gamble in general. More on that later.

   "He isn't very old, but his experience far outstrips that of his opponent. He began fighting when he was a little kid," explained the Santa Ana Register in 1922. Kid Mexico had "battled his way up" from a bantam weight to middleweight and "hasn't much of a punch but he is always digging in."

LEFT: An advertisement in the Santa Ana Register in 1922 promoting Kid Mexico as the "big feature" at a boxing event in Delhi. This same year, Huntington Beach trustees decided Delhi shouldn't have all the action and revenue from boxing, and directed a City ordinance be amended to allow it for a fee. (Santa Ana Register, June 14, 1922)

   For a couple years between 1922 and 1923, the big rivalry was between Kid Mexico and the "Santa Ana mauler" Jack Iman.  At their first match in Delhi (now part of Santa Ana) in 1922, the Santa Ana Register's Drew Moffat wrote it was a "torrid, goofy main event" with a sold-out crowd.

   By 1923, Kid Mexico was promoting fights--and fighting in matches--at a boxing arena in downtown Huntington Beach.  The Santa Ana Register reported on a "Clash in Oil City Pavilion" in October 1923 wherein the "blond battler" Kid Mexico would take on "the dusky" Ted Frenchie.  At that time, Kid Mexico had a reported 275 fights of which he had lost only eight.

   At first, the City of Huntington Beach wasn't sure boxing was a good fit for a beach town in the middle of an oil boom with oil workers who had a bit of cash in their pocket.  There was plenty of rowdiness already.

   A proposal came before the Huntington Beach trustees (city council) in 1921 for "boxing contests within the City under the auspices of the Huntington Beach Athletic Club".  The board of trustees took it "under advisement" but denied it  at their next meeting.  

   The next year, another proposal came before city leaders to allow boxing matches to be held on July 4th in the Airdome at Huntington Beach "in accordance with the laws of the State of California".  The trustees were advised by the City attorney that this was prohibited by Ordinance No. 141 and the request was denied.  

RIGHT: Huntington Beach Ordinance No. 141 was amended on July 21, 1922, to allow for "athletic or sparring exhibitions" by permit and fee. The Board of Trustees reserved the right to determine if the event was not "detrimental to public morals". No alcohol allowed and peace officers would be allowed to attend any exhibition free of charge with powers to stop an event that became "boisterous, brutal or improper". (City Charter and Ordinances 1909 - 1940, Published as a project of the Works Project Administration, City archives)

   As one does in Huntington Beach when there is the possibility of revenue, the City trustees--just moments later during the same meeting--directed the City attorney to "draw up an ordinance amending ordinance No. 141 to permit boxing contests as provided by the laws of the state upon special permit from the Board of Trustees and the payment into the City treasury of a fee of $5.00 for each such exhibition."  Each boxing match would require a special event permit and fee. Cha-ching!

LEFT: Fidel La Barba, former flyweight champion of the world, came to Huntington Beach in 1925 to fight in Kid Mexico's "arena" on Fifth Street, inside the City Garage. Like Kid Mexico, La Barba--who later attended Stanford to obtain a journalism degree--began boxing young, at around age 12 or 13. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of fame in 1996. (Photo, Wikicommons) 

   Now that the dam broke and boxing was mainstream in the downtown, more permit applications followed. The respectable Antlers Club requested a permit to hold a boxing contest in the Odd Fellows Hall, permit application and fee in hand. Boom. Permit granted.  More boxing matches were held in the City Garage on Fifth Street by the Nonpareil Athletic Club.

   By 1925, boxing was so much part of the local culture that the American Legion organized an exhibition at "Kid Mexico's arena" on Fifth Street with Fidel La Barba, flyweight champion awarded the gold medal at the 1924 Olympic games. We were kind of a big deal.

   Sports columnist Eddie West commented that Kid Mexico spent his "busier moments at his Huntington Beach arena collecting ducats from Orange County boxing enthusiasts."  If Kid Mexico was making money off boxing matches--he later commented he averaged $10,000 per event--so was the City.

RIGHT: Striking a familiar pose, Kid Mexico is featured as "back from 'Frisco to promote scraps at Oil City House" in Huntington Beach.  The 158-pound Faulkner--reported as "in the best condition of his career and prepared to battle any man his size in the West"--would headline a grudge match fight against Young 'Dynamite' George who had bested him "for the count of ten" three years earlier. (Santa Ana Register, March 22, 1924)

    Kid Mexico won his March 26, 1924, grudge match against Young "Dynamite" George, who had bested him three years earlier. But, the fight conditions and the crowd in Huntington Beach wasn't  the stuff of boxing dreams and there were only "a handful of cash customers in the barn."  

   The Santa Ana Register's report about the fight the next day--Mexico Gets Lucky Decision at Beach--was more blistering than the fight.  The writer was apparently disappointed "there were no hard blow struck, no gore spilled or anything like that."

   "With rain oozing down through the roof to make the ring slippery enough for skiing and a chilly Westerly blowing breezes along the rafters, the setting at the Huntington Beach boxing arena wasn't right for thrillers last night," reported the Santa Ana Register. "So there just wasn't any cauliflower ear melodramas."

   Three years later in September 1927, Kid Mexico dropped by the sports desk at the Santa Ana Register to announce he was dropping the nickname and would be going by Todd Faulkner and focusing on boxing promotions.  

   Register sports writer Eddie West, explained in his West Winds column, "he has banished that fistic pseudonym forever for his more legal, rightful and dignified handle Todd Faulkner."  The back story to this is that Faulkner was suspended indefinitely by the State Athletic Commission in April 1926 for "failure to keep in condition".  

   The Santa Ana Register noted at the time that Kid Mexico "was a popular main-eventer here during the heyday of the Delhi arena and at one time was considered one of the best middleweights on the Pacific Coast."

LEFT: Santa Ana Register columnist Eddie West fueled the local boxing scene with gossipy tidbits and personal observations. In one column he noted that "Todd Faulkner's best friend's first name is Todd". (Source, Santa Ana Register)

   He did make a comeback in 1928, although by then the newspapers were calling Kid Mexico the "old Huntington Beach warhorse".  He makes yet another comeback in 1930, challenging his old nemesis Jack Iman via proxy with Santa Ana Register sports columnist Eddie West (who seemed to enjoy his part in stirring the pot). Kid Mexico wrote a letter to be published in the June 5, 1930, West Winds column challenging Iman.    

   Kid Mexico wrote, "I'm sure Iman would be kayoed in--oh, say three rounds--but he and I will cram more action into those three rounds before I stop him than these other fighters give in 10 full rounds."  

LEFT: An excerpt of the response from boxer Jack Iman to a letter written by Kid Mexico to Santa Ana Register columnist Eddie West. This served the same purpose as television-era interviews with boxers challenging their opponents: to generate public interest in a future match-up. (Santa Ana Register, June 10, 1930)   
  
   Local boxing enthusiasts grabbed their popcorn and waited for the response from Iman.  It came a few days later in Eddie West's June 10 column.  Iman, reported as a man of few words, wasn't having any of it.

   "I hope in the near future to give him a chance to learn that it is harder to k.o. me with a boxing glove than it is with a pen," wrote back Iman. "Let's say it with leather."

  Faulkner is frequently reported in local newspapers as putting together fight "cards" or matches in the 1920s and 1930s in both Orange and Los Angeles counties. They still called him Kid Mexico, often never referencing his real name.  Faulkner knew the value of promotion.  But as the years passed and despite his resiliency, the heydays of loosely regulated local boxing were passing.

   His friend and Santa Ana Register columnist Eddie West lamented the fading of Kid Mexico from the boxing scene in 1931, writing that Faulkner "who refers to himself as a perennial gigolo is doing one of his annual fistic 'comebacks'" at the Wilmington bowl.   

   "The Kid was the best fighter Orange County ever produced," wrote West. "The rest promise much, never get anywhere."

RIGHT: A token from Kid Mexico's bingo parlor in Signal Hill. His entertainment businesses in Signal Hill included a taxi dancing hall, saloon and movie house. (Source: TokenCatalog.com)

   What makes Kid Mexico's story even more interesting is what he did later in life, after he closed up shop at his Huntington Beach boxing arena.

   Faulkner was working as an oil driller in Long Beach, still fighting the occasional fight, and still promoting boxing matches into the 1940s...sometimes without a license (a problem for the boxing commission).

   In reality, the 32-year-old Faulkner was just catching his second wind. In 1932, he met 16-year-old Edna, his future wife, who was half his age at the time.  He began successfully investing in entertainment-related enterprises, calling on his boxing promotions experience.

ABOVE: Kid Mexico, then only 48, was wealthy, having invested in oil property and entertainment enterprises.  Meeting his wife, Edna, seems to have been a turning point. (Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1949)

    Faulkner moved with his bride to Signal Hill, where he built Edna a 14-room house and they raised two children.  He is remembered as a larger-than-life character, opening an eight-lane bowling alley, taxi-dancing hall, restaurant, cocktail lounge, and movie house.  He also ran a bingo parlor that "was ignored by the local police for many years", according to his obituary. 

RIGHT: Todd Faulkner, aka Kid Mexico, in 1938, six years after he met his wife, Edna, at the Long Beach Pike. (Image, geni.com) 

   Faulkner was referred to as the "Baron of Signal Hill" in a feature by the Los Angeles Times in 1949, which noted he was "a guy with a less than grammar school education" who made it big and hosted parties at his house every weekend for local children. His wife, Edna, was named "Woman of the Week" by Eleanor Roosevelt for her work on behalf of juvenile delinquency.

   In 2014, Ashley Fowler wrote of Faulkner in the Signal Tribune newspaper, "in 1951, he was accused of registering voters who didn't live in Signal Hill to defeat an anti-gambling initiative that would put an end to his bingo parlor. He plead guilty to the charges, was fined $500 and given three years' probation. The initiative passed and, without the gambling, his business quickly dried up." 

   Fowler reports Faulkner and his wife moved to Laguna Beach in 1952, but she was lost to cancer at age 36 three years later.  Faulkner would return to Signal Hill, to the oil fields and friends he knew, opening a private Kid Mexico museum and charging a few bucks to visitors.  As of the posting of this feature in June 2017, a framed photo of Hopalong Cassidy from the Kid Mexico museum is selling for $499.00 on eBay.  Kid Mexico would have loved it.

   In 1949, decades before his death in 1985, the Los Angeles Times' Cal Whorton reported, "there's a rumor that Kid Mexico's life story is beginning to interest several motion picture companies. Whether the flicker moguls go for the story, I can't say. Chances are they won't because it's so fantastic.

ABOVE: Boxing was still part of Huntington Beach culture at the time of the annual Twins Convention in 1940.  Old timers in Huntington Beach may remember Latka's Golden Gloves Tavern at 5061 Warner Avenue, owned by former professional boxer George Latka, who opened it in 1975. The Los Angeles Times wrote of the tavern in 1991 that "your first instinct is to hit the deck before the coppers bust the joint" and that "a fern would still probably die a fast death here".  The Times conceded that while the tavern was "rough around the edges", it was full of nice people. (Photo, Twins Convention, City of Huntington Beach archives, circa 1940)

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