This is the first of two parts on the tumultuous life and career of Aurelio Herrera, the first prizefighter of Latino descent to make a name for himself in America.
There was nothing special about the shrunken, sad little man who stood before the judge, nothing that set him apart from the rest of the group of homeless ne’er-do-wells whom the police had rounded up and were now being sentenced, one by one, on vagrancy charges. This particular fellow, of obvious Hispanic lineage, was no stranger to what was happening to him. He knew the drill; he’d been arrested and jailed on vagrancy charges before. There was no point in protesting, resisting, or fighting his fate. There was no more fight left in him.
The judge sentenced him to 90 days for his crime. With no visible reaction, the little bundle of rags turned to be led back to his cell. But a spark of recognition lit in the brain of a court reporter named William Trafts, who had been eyeing the proceedings closely. “Didn’t you fight Battling Nelson in 1904?” he asked the vagabond, who paused and admitted that indeed he had. The judge, obviously aware of that famous prizefight as well as the former glory of this pitiful wreck of a man before him, showed mercy. “You’ve taken some hard wallops from life since then,” he said. “I’ll reduce your sentence to 10 days.”
The judge had no way of knowing that his merciful adjudication was, for the most part, tantamount to a life sentence. Ten days…it meant that Aurelio Herrera would be free for forty-nine of the fifty-nine days that he had left on this earth.
“He could hit as hard as Jim Jeffries although he was only a lightweight. He landed one of his famous punches that almost tore the top of my head off. I have never been hit as hard before or since. I turned a complete somersault and fell flat on my back. I looked up and saw Herrera standing over me with murder in his eyes. That happened in the fifth round. Around the seventeenth round my head cleared…but I could not recall anything that happened in those 12 rounds. I really think Herrere was the greatest man I met.” BATTLING NELSON, Lightweight Champion
“The toughest man I ever fought was Aurelio Herrera. I don’t believe any lightweight ever lived who could hit as hard. He hit me on the head and I thought the building had caved in.” KID HERMAN, Lightweight Contender
“That Mexican is a sure enough demon of a fighter. He hits like a horse kicking and is as quick as a big mountain cat. He can lick all the McGoverns and Corbetts that you can stick up in front of him. Yes and such fellas as Britt and Erne would be pie for him.” KID BROAD, Featherweight Contender
Though not the force in pugilism it once was, California nonetheless has a long history of being an epicenter for boxing as well as a fertile breeding ground for top flight ring men. The scene out West–historically speaking–is inarguably not as celebrated or high profile as those in New York or Chicago. Still many great early practitioners of the Sweet Science emerged from the dust and resin of California’s rings, among them such luminaries as Jim Corbett, Jim Jeffries, Joe Choynski, Abe Attell, Willie Ritchie and Jimmy Britt. Mostly pugs of Irish and Jewish extraction, these left-coast mitt-slingers operated mainly out of San Francisco, which was a major fight Mecca at the turn of the century.
Boxing promoters and matchmakers have long realized that in order to get the working citizens to part with their hard earned wages that it was wise to develop talent that best reflected the racial or ethnic flavor of whatever area they were operating in. Thus on weekends in California port cities like San Francisco the arenas, rented halls, and athletic clubs would be packed on one side with Irish seamen and dockworkers cheering wildly for their neighborhood’s ring-tailed terror while on the other an equally vociferous Jewish contingency of merchants and businessmen would be boosting their latest Hebrew hopeful. The result was a box office bonanza almost every time.
But just a few hours south of the Bay City, in Central and Southern California, the ethnic landscape altered a bit; the predominant European influence of the North fading and then ultimately merging with a culture that was top heavy in its Latino origins. The resultant need to produce fighters who represented this racial demographic in order to attract ticket buyers was a key undertaking for promoters and matchmakers in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas during the 1900s. Their ultimate success is evidenced by the many outstanding fighters of Mexican heritage who have emerged from Southern California prize rings over the years; proud warriors, revered by their rabidly loyal fans as much for their ability to imbibe muchos cervezas as don the gloves in the morning and blast an opponent to pieces, hangover be damned.
In recent decades, men such as Julio Cesar Chavez and Ruben Olivares were the standard bearers of this hard partying, hard fighting tradition. Before that it was Art Aragon and Manuel Ortiz who wore the fistic garland for Latino fans. Even as early as the 1910s-1920s Mexican and Mexican-American audiences came out in droves to support local heroes Bert Colima and “Mexican” Joe Rivers. But before any of them there was one man who stood alone, one diminutive figure, wrapped in a Navajo blanket, defiantly facing the racial fires that were roaring against him and who blazed the trail for all Latino fighters who followed in his wake. He was Aurelio Herrera, the first Latino superstar of the prize ring.
Herrera was the prototype for the hard hitting, hard drinking Latin prizefighter, noted in his day for having the heaviest punch (and heaviest thirst) of any fighter at or near his weight. His hitting power was generated by his enormous thighs and delivered through huge hands, which appeared to be of light-heavyweight proportions. Like heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, Herrera fought out of a crouch but with his gloves open in order to parry and look for openings to land his devastating right. His violent knockouts were the stuff of legend and his stoppages of two fighters who had never been KO’d- Benny Yanger and Kid Broad- so awed sportswriters that two decades after his death he was still being spoken of by many as being the hardest puncher pound-for-pound who ever lived.
“A strange, wild sort, reckless and totally unmanageable.” HYPE IGOE, Sportswriter
Herrera’s rise to fame began among the sprawling grape orchards of Central California. He was born on June 17, 1876 in San Jose but relocated with his family to Bakersfield when he was still a boy. Bakersfield was a wild and woolly town in the late 1800s, and Aurelio had to learn very quickly how to use his fists. It didn’t take many altercations for him to garner a reputation among the other kids as someone who was not to be trifled with. When he wasn’t fighting, Aurelio and his brother Mauro worked long, hard days alongside their father Anselmo, a street vendor who hawked tamales, enchiladas and other assorted Mexican cuisine from his pushcart. To help supplement their meager income, Aurelio worked as a bootblack and later as a poker and faro dealer at one of the various gambling parlors in Bakersfield. According to lore it was while working at one of these establishments that an incident took place which would alter the course of Aurelio’s life.
Frank Carrillo was a founding member of the Bakersfield Athletic Club. He was also a businessman and a “sport” who ran a saloon/theater that counted gambling and prostitution among its attractions. Legend has it that one night a man came in brandishing a pistol and threatened to kill Carrillo, only to be slugged and knocked unconscious by Herrera, who was dealing nearby. A grateful Carrillo was impressed by what he saw and realized that there was money-making potential in his young employee’s fists. The accuracy of this account will always be open to debate, but what is not is that Carrillo was the man who became instrumental in Herrera’s early development as a prizefighter. He began matching Aurelio against other fighters in the cellar of his saloon and made good money on the bets of these contests. After Aurelio had cleaned-out all of the aspiring young boxers in Bakersfield Carrillo began taking him to nearby towns to challenge their best, the resultant knockouts fattening both of their bankrolls as well as spreading Herrera’s reputation as a real “comer” on the pugilistic scene.
Herrera’s early record is hazy, many bouts fought in obscure and out of the way towns and mining camps making them hard to verify. Even the exact year of his professional debut is unclear. The current record shows that his first fight took place in 1895, but local newspapers indicate that he may have begun his professional career as early as 1893. Irrespective of dates and locations, what is clear is that under Carrillo’s guidance Aurelio quickly ran up a string of KO’s at a time when extensive knockout streaks were rare, his record only matched by similarly destructive contemporaries like Terry McGovern and Sailor Tom Sharkey. As of this writing his ledger stands at an impressive 22 wins with no losses and 20 knockouts at the turn of the century. The record for 1900 has him racking up nine more victories without a defeat, all by the KO route.
“In the fourth round he hit me two wallops on the neck, and up to the gong-tap I didn’t know whether I was on my feet or sitting down. Any other man who wants to challenge him can do it, but they can take a tip from me that Herrera can out a punch nearly as hard as Tom Sharkey. I think he could whip Joe Bernstein and Kid Broad easily.” TERRY McGOVERN, Multi-division Champion
“He was of a peculiar, surly disposition and made few personal friends.” BATTLING NELSON, Lightweight Champion
The trail of battered, supine bodies that Herrera left in his wake from Bakersfield to Los Angeles and back was soon picked up by the press and news of his bouts began to appear in newspapers across the country. But a Latino prizefighter was something new and it was clear from the write-ups at the time that sportswriters didn’t quite know what to make of Aurelio. In some quarters he inspired fear, a fact best exemplified by a newspaper report stating that Herrera “comes of a race who fight with knives.” His image was of some dark invader from the West who had emerged out of the desert to wreak havoc upon a sport heretofore dominated by white-skinned fighters.
In other quarters he was given less-flattering reviews, mostly writing him off as nothing but a “greaser” and an “Indian”, as if placing him into the same racial classification as that recently conquered people somehow presaged Herrera’s own imminent defeat. His response- published in the Los Angeles Times and most likely penned by his management- was eloquent, incisive and no doubt a reflection of Aurelio’s feelings about the criticism being leveled at him. “I may be an Indian,” he said, “If so I command a certain respect as a scion of an ancient race. I am no ‘low-brow.’ I maintain that my knowledge of the world and command of language is certainly up to the standard observed by the average knocker who is flattening my name on his anvil.”
Despite his impressive knockout string and growing reputation, Herrera was still looked upon in many circles as being not yet world-class and definitely not prepared to challenge for the world featherweight title. For one, “Terrible” Terry McGovern was the champion and coming off his finest year on record. In 1900 alone he’d knocked out the legendary George Dixon for the crown in addition to kayoing top ring men such as Eddie Santry, Oscar Gardner, Tommy White and Joe Bernstein. Add that he had also knocked out lightweight champions Frank Erne and Joe Gans (the latter under questionable circumstances) and it appeared that Aurelio was out of his league when comparisons were made. But Frank Carrillo realized that two knockout punchers of this magnitude in the same ring could only mean fireworks and a lot of money for everyone involved, so the ambitious manager made sure the fight was set.
A large crowd of 10,000 turned out at the Mechanics Pavilion in San Francisco on May 29, 1901 to see the “mysterious” Californian try and lift the crown from the head of the most feared fighter in the game. At the first bell McGovern tore out of his corner in his usual fashion, pumping both fists into Herrera’s head and body. Overwhelmed by the savagery of the champion’s attack, Aurelio clinched often and looked for opportunities to land his money punch. But “Terrible Terry” never let him get set and continued to drive him all over the ring round after round. Herrera did manage to shake McGovern down to his heels with a right sock in the fourth frame, but Terry recovered and battered him mercilessly before scoring a knockout in round five.
Following the bout, both McGovern and Referee Phil Wand were generous in their praise of Aurelio and his abilities. The West Coast sportswriters on the other hand, who had for the most part been supportive of their native son, were not so kind in their post-fight assessment. The San Francisco Call printed an especially vicious write-up, accusing Aurelio up and down of having a “yellow streak.” The Examiner dismissed him altogether as an “exploded phenomenon” and many accused McGovern outright of carrying Herrera for betting purposes. Frank Carrillo himself lost a lot of money on the fight and he and Aurelio parted ways soon afterward.
“Herrera was the hardest hitting lightweight who ever lived. And I bar nobody right up to this day [June, 1956]. He hit me solidly only once in the 21 rounds we boxed together. I was pulling out of a clinch and he dropped a right cross to my chin. The punch landed about an eighth of an inch too high or it would have knocked me dead. As it was the left side of my body went numb. My left eye started to twitch and I couldn’t control it. Herrera had the uncanny knack of hitting. He didn’t learn the secret in the gym- it was born into him.” ABE ATTELL, Featherweight Champion
“Herrera, the Mexican Greaser, wants to be a champion. Not on your life.” The Pittsburgh Press, January 1906
The loss to McGovern apparently rattled Herrera’s confidence and perhaps gave some credence to the view expressed in The Examiner when he only managed a single win out of his next five fights. But 1902 saw a return to form and from February to October Aurelio scored six knockouts in six wins and a close draw with top-ranking Tim Hegarty. These impressive feats were convincing enough evidence to Herrera- who was now being managed and trained by former KO victim Biddy Bishop- that he was indeed back into his destructive rhythm. The word was sent out that he was more than ready for any man at or near his weight and that they would all fall under the massive power he carried in his oak-hued fists.
Abe Attell–already considered the cleverest featherweight in the game–expressed an interest in facing off against the Bakersfield battler, a fight which would put the winner in a secure position to challenge the new featherweight champion Young Corbett II, who had recently copped the title by knocking out Terry McGovern. They met on October 15 in Oakland with Abe regarded as a slight favorite but Herrera, with his acknowledged advantage in power, was given an excellent chance to win. From the first bell Aurelio stalked his man, looking for an opening to land his big right hand. Abe knew that he could afford no mistakes and remained on his bike, ducking, slipping and jabbing before sliding away. Wary of his adversary’s prodigious punch at all times, Attell fought a safety-first fight and won a fifteen-round decision. It was reported as being an exciting bout and both were praised in the newspapers the following day. Herrera gained a measure of revenge weeks later in Point Richmond when he knocked out Attell’s brother Caesar in two rounds.
In January of 1903 Aurelio and Biddy Bishop ventured up to Butte, Montana, a copper mining town that had over the years been slowly developing a lively fight scene. Bishop had connections there from his own fighting days and knew his little slugger would be a big hit in that region. He did his part by arranging the bouts and Aurelio did his by scoring five knockouts in three weeks. Bishop’s calculations proved correct- the crowds were impressed with his fighter’s power and dark, “bad hombre” image (which Herrera played to the hilt) and Aurelio soon had an eager local following. His formidable reputation grew exponentially as he began to rack up KO after KO against some of the best men around, his most impressive being over top contenders, Eddie Santry and Kid Broad.
Santry, a clever boxer and hard hitter, made a good showing for most of the bout but ultimately couldn’t survive the bombs Herrera repeatedly detonated on his chin. He was stopped in thirteen rounds. Broad was a rugged battler who could boast of never having been stopped despite going 102 total rounds against such formidable opposition as Terry McGovern, George Dixon, Abe Attell, Young Corbett II and Oscar Gardner. Herrera knocked him unconscious in four.
“At the bell Tommy (Mowatt) rushed out of his corner. It wasn’t an equal match, for Herrera flattened him with a punch the like of which no little man ever had launched before–or since, if you ask me. The tales we had heard in Chicago of Herrera’s punch hadn’t done it justice.” JACK CURLEY, Promoter
“Drink! That Mexican made John L. Sullivan look like a temperance leader. Even his training camps were well stocked with booze. He took a drink whenever he felt like it–which was always. And when he would go out on the road, which was seldom, he always had a cigar stuck in his face. Many was the time I watched him go to sleep with a black stogie between his teeth.” BATTLING NELSON, Lightweight Champion
“The dark skinned little boxer does not love the hard grind of training any too well…he would much rather hear the pop of champagne corks than the swatting of gloves in his training quarters.” The Milwaukee Journal, August 1904
With his many ring successes Aurelio was beginning to realize both a swelling bank account and a swelling ego. He spent his considerable ring earnings slaking an ever-growing thirst for whiskey, black cigars and fine clothes. The big sombrero that he often wore while carousing the streets of Butte was upstaged only by the diamonds that now adorned his fingers. He cut quite a figure as he took in his pleasure during his late nights on the town.
While popular with most locals, some looked on his swagger as a threat and his meanderings often resulted in street fights that made the newspapers the following morning. Aurelio wasn’t the sort who took “cheek” from anyone when he was a poor kid in Bakersfield and he wasn’t about to start accepting it now that he was a prosperous adult in Butte. When challenged he knew to strike first and ask questions later. Kid Broad had learned this firsthand when Herrera slugged him in a hotel lobby during negotiations for their bout. The two were quickly separated by their managers and friends before any more blows could be struck.
Aurelio’s laissez faire career approach and lax training habits particularly irked Biddy Bishop. The manager no doubt enjoyed the considerable money they were making together. But as a seasoned boxing trainer he realized that it could only last for so long if Herrera didn’t take care of himself. Like many big hitters who came after him, Aurelio eschewed rigorous training, trusting that his power would always be enough to see him through any situation in the ring. Bishop’s fears ultimately bore out when Herrera suffered a twenty-round loss on November 17, 1903, to Jack Cordell, a capable lightweight boxer who was not considered in Herrera’s class as a fighter. Bishop would later point to this bout as reason for his quitting (“in disgust”) as Aurelio’s manager and trainer. But his move was more likely the cumulative result of being unable to deal with an undisciplined fighter who refused to listen to any counsel but that of his own whims and caprices.
The loss seemed to once again throw Aurelio into a tailspin. Without Bishop to train and guide him he was rudderless, going 0-2-3 in his next five fights, including a disastrous four-round knockout loss to Louis Long. He had only been in the national spotlight for three short years, but by the beginning of 1904 the newspapers were already referring to Aurelio Herrera as a “has-been.” So in an attempt to inject new life into his flagging career he pulled up stakes in Butte and headed east. He landed in Chicago, where he was again out-boxed in losing a six-round nod to Abe Attell. He then ventured south to St. Louis and lost a listless twenty-round decision to Abe “Kid” Goodman.
Discouraged, Herrera returned to Montana where on May 11 he earned a measure of revenge by beating former conqueror Louis Long in a twenty-rounder. It was not an overly impressive performance but a victory nonetheless and the packed house was proof that his drawing power hadn’t waned during his absence. Aurelio was no doubt glad to be back in familiar surroundings and among friends, one of whom was a lightweight fighter named Maurice Thompson. Thompson was a close pal and had been Herrera’s corner man on several occasions as well as fighting on his undercards. On this particular night Thompson fought in the preliminaries, winning a six-round decision by out-boxing a relatively unknown, unheralded fighter named Stanley Ketchel.
A return to Butte meant a return to his old ways and Aurelio once more dove headfirst into his favorite dissipations in the form of late nights, fine cigars and strong alcohol. His proclivity for never backing away from trouble also reasserted itself shortly upon arrival in town when he tackled and slugged Louis Long after exchanging words in a hotel saloon. Later that same evening he got into it twice with Long’s manager Doc Flynn, Herrera clouting Flynn before bystanders interceded. Extracurricular activities notwithstanding, Aurelio Herrera was back and firing on all cylinders. He would follow up on his latest victory with two important bouts; bouts that would reestablish him as a viable contender as well as cement his legend as one of the most lethal punchers in boxing history.