Wyatt Earp, the legendary gunslinger whom readers of Western history have grown to love or hate, was not known in his lifetime for the famous shoot-out at the OK Corral, writes Jack DeMattos. That piece of mythologizing only occurred two years after his death in 1929, when Stuart N. Lake published "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal." In his lifetime, Earp did become a household word, but he did so because of a controversy over his decision as referee of a world heavyweight title fight. "The Earp Decision" chronicles this colorful episode in Western history through contemporary newspaper accounts.
On Dec. 2, 1896, boxers Robert Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey met in Mechanics' Auditorium in San Francisco. Sharkey won the fight--and the $10,000 purse--on a foul called against Fitzsimmons in the eighth round. Fitzsimmons called the decision "bare-faced robbery"; Sharkey, on the other hand, had to be carried out of the ring, but "did not act like a man who had been knocked out by a blow above the belt." Earp, the referee chosen by the National Athletic Club when the contestants had been unable to agree on a referee, had been relieved of a Colt .45 before the fight began. He was arrested afterwards for carrying a concealed weapon into the ring, and it was suggested that he had been paid to throw the fight to Sharkey. A raging public battle ensued, in which reporters and cartoonists from the three San Francisco papers took active part.