On July 4, 1931, on an extremely hot summer day, a long expected boxing match took place in Reno, Nevada: Max Baer vs. Paulino Uzkudun. The “Sagebrush Battle,” as the Nevada State Journal titled it, was a tough twenty-round fight between heavyweights Baer, from California, and Uzkudun, the professional Basque boxer from Errezil, Gipuzkoa. Not risking anything, both fighters resisted each other and tried to avoid falling to the burning ground until the very end. Finally, Uzkudun was victorious over Baer after Jack Dempsey, in his dual role as referee and promoter, raised the Basque boxer’s hand.
The fight was greatly hyped. The match between Max Baer and Paulino Uzkudun in 1931 generated huge interest at both the local and national levels. Next day, on July 5, the New York Times reported the battle round-by-round as follows:
Grinning, gold-toothed Paulino Uzcudun out-roughed Max Baer, rangy Californian,…
Clubbing, butting, heeling, and wrestling marked the battle from the opening gong until [the very end]… The two warriors violated most of the rules of ring etiquette in efforts to beat each other down in the resin of the sun-scorched battle pit.
Cautions by Referee Dempsey had only momentary effect. When Paulino quit cuffing, Baer started heeling. The Californian missed a couple of pivot punches, but not intentionally. On occasions, they butted like goats. Baer started wrestling and Uzcudun retaliated by twisting his rival half way out of the ring.
…Kidney and rabbit punches, therefore, were countenanced.
For a twenty-round bout, the big fellows set an unusually fast pace. The last five rounds developed the more furious exchanges. As they struggled along, mauling and planting solid punches in swift rallies, the advantage see-sawed from one to the other.
At no time was either out in front and at the end of the nineteenth Referee Dempsey told newspaper men the last round would decide the fight. Paulino had the better of the last session. He tore into his bigger rival and rushed him into the ropes, meanwhile scoring heavily with hard punches to the midsection. Baer’s occasional rallies were weak-hearted.
Baer went into the bout with most of the physical advantages on his side, but Paulino was the favorite from the start. Ignoring Baer’s superior reach, the sturdy Basque bobbed in and out to thump the Californian regularly with solid lefts to the body.
In the fifth round, Paulino scored with some heavy blows to the jaw and Baer appeared in distress. But by the time the eighth round rolled around, the Californian was leading with his stocky rival retreating around the ring.
Uzcudun’s greater experience stood him in good stead. He fought cooly, whereas Baer lost his head at times to beat the air with wild swings…
The match attracted around 18,000 people. This fight went hand in hand with the legalization of gambling in Nevada as means of economic development during this critical period in the American history in the early thirties. The Baer-Uzkudun match of 1931, according to historian Richard Davies, revived the fusion of the western athletic hero and economic promotion in Reno.
Furthermore, the victory of Uzkudun over Baer resulted in a great deal of pride on the part of the Basque-American community. Unsurprisingly, Basques living in Reno and surrounding areas took an active interest in the fight during the days before and after the event. Almost the whole Basque immigrant community of northwestern Nevada attended this big fight, including a large number of sheepherders who absented themselves from their work on the rangelands. Indeed, this fight provided a historic opportunity for this immigrant group to express pride in its roots and reaffirm its Basqueness in the American West.
- “Fighters Ready For Sagebrush Battle,” Nevada State Journal, July 4, 1931.
- “Paulino Defeats Baer in Reno Bout,” New York Times, July 5, 1931.
- Richard O. Davies, “A ‘Fistic Festival’ in Reno: Promoting Nevada’s New Economy,” Mariann Vaczi, ed., Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion in Sport (Reno: Center for Basque Studies, 2013), 295-314.
- Richard O. Davies, The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2014).
To learn more about this story, check out the book Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion in Sport, in which you can find an interesting chapter on the Baer-Uzkudun match by Richard Davies entitled “A ‘Fistic Festival’ in Reno: Promoting Nevada’s New Economy.”