This is the second 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.
“I always remembered what my father told me, to obey him in everything and that if I did I would always meet with success. When Herrera knocked me down the first time I could hear my father say: ’Get up, Kid Broad, get up!’ And I got up. The second and third times he knocked me down I was taking the count. I could hear father say ‘Get up, Kid Broad, get up!’ So I got up and fought. When Herrera hit me on the chin the fourth time and knocked me down I could hear father’s voice above all the cheering, saying ‘Get up, Kid Broad and fight on!’ Well, I couldn’t see any good reason why I should take his advice any longer so I just said ‘Father, you can go to hell. I’ll not get up any more.’” KID BROAD, Featherweight Contender
“The greatest one-punch knockout artist I ever saw. And I’ve been watching fights for almost 60 years. Herrera and I became quite chummy when I took Sam Langford to California after the first of the century. To be perfectly honest about it, had I been offered a match for my Sam Langford against Herrera, even though Sam outweighed him by about fifteen pounds, I would have found some excuse to wiggle out of it. Sam in all probability would have beaten Herrera, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Not when a man could hit so damned hard as that little Mexican.” JOE WOODMAN, Manager of Sam Langford
“Herrera has an awful wallop. I never felt anything like it in my ring experience.” BENNY YANGER, Featherweight Contender
Benny Yanger, the “Tipton Slasher,” was considered one of the top three featherweights in the game, having scored knockouts over Abe Attell and Young Corbett II and winning a decision from George Dixon. He was a scrappy, iron-chinned battler known for fast hands, clever boxing and hard punching. Herrera knew not to take a dangerous fighter like Yanger lightly and he trained diligently for their bout. But he also remembered from their six-round fight in Chicago months earlier that Yanger’s forte was infighting, a proclivity which would play right into his hands in a longer fight. Their draw had been fast and furious, but Aurelio knew that Yanger, unlike Abe Attell, would not be an opponent he was going to have trouble locating. The Slasher would fight in the danger zone at all times, right where Herrera wanted him. They were matched for June 13, 1904, exactly one year to the day of Aurelio’s brutal knockout of sturdy Kid Broad. The bout was scheduled for twenty rounds-plenty of time for Herrera to find Benny with his deadly right hand.
A crowd of 8,000 packed the Broadway Theater that night, shouting wildly as the two went at it. Staying true to his nickname, Benny came right at Herrera and whaled away with both fists. Herrera bided his time, answering his foes faster blows with occasional thumps of his own while looking for the chance to land a bomb that would end the fight. Yanger was ahead on points going into the eighth round when the opening Herrera had been looking for finally showed itself. After exchanging lefts, the Californian crossed with a right that exploded off Yanger’s jaw. The dazed Chicagoan attempted to fight back but was quickly felled by another right hand smash. Benny rolled around on the mat, finally arising at the count of nine. Herrera pounced and landed a final right which knocked Yanger out, the latter having to be carried to his corner by his seconds where he remained completely unconscious for several minutes. It was only Benny’s second official career loss in some sixty fights, the first by knockout.
Herrera was once more a sensation, the write-ups universally positive and full of praise for his abilities (though disdain for his “Mexican” heritage was never far from many sportswriter’s pens). Aurelio reiterated his long-standing challenge to fight any top man from featherweight to lightweight, his defi soon reaching the ears of yet another Chicago slugger—Battling Nelson, the “Durable Dane”. Nelson was just coming off an impressive knockout over Eddie Hanlon and saw the potential for a big money fight against Herrera while waiting for a title shot. When he sent word out of his willingness to meet Aurelio at 130 pounds it made national sporting headlines.
A bidding war to secure the bout erupted between Los Angeles and Butte which, on paper anyway, seemed a mismatch. But the little mining town displayed its salt as well as loyalty and passion for their adopted son by winning the bid in an unlikely David and Goliath upset over the much larger “City of Angels.”
A twenty-round fight was arranged to take place on September 5, Labor Day. The buildup in the weeks leading up to the bout was considerable and the attributes of both fighters were endlessly expounded upon in the press. It promised to be a battle of mythic proportions, the proverbial “Irresistible force” (Herrera) meeting the “Immovable object” (Nelson).
Decades later, Nelson, who in his younger days had been a sparring partner for Herrera when the latter came to Chicago, recalled his pre-fight mindset in an interview with journalist Stanley Weston:
“I knew Herrera’s style perfectly because I had made a study of him during the sparring partner days when that crazy Mexican gave me $10 a week and figured that it gave him the right to kill me. I felt I could beat him if I could stand off his terrible rushes. I respected his power and felt that if I could lick him I could lick anybody in the world. As there was some danger of the bout being stopped by State authorities I arrived at the big arena early, reaching there at 2 o’clock or fully three hours before the fight was scheduled to begin. I went into the promoter’s office and was surprised to see Herrera, sitting behind the big desk, smoking his inevitable cigar. I hadn’t seen him for some years and we shook hands warmly. He was never too friendly with anybody but we got along good in the Chicago days and he evidently remembered. I wished him luck and he just shook his head and said ‘best man win. Eh, Bat?’ The promoter assured us that the State officials would not interfere but that it would be best if we started the fight as soon as possible. Herrera and I both agreed to get into ring togs immediately and wait for the signal to put in an appearance. He seemed coldly confident and disinterested. His air, I confess, bothered me.”
“I knew Herrera’s style perfectly because I had made a study of him during the sparring partner days when that crazy Mexican gave me $10 a week and figured that it gave him the right to kill me. I felt I could beat him if I could stand off his terrible rushes. I respected his power and felt that if I could lick him I could lick anybody in the world.
As there was some danger of the bout being stopped by State authorities I arrived at the big arena early, reaching there at 2 o’clock or fully three hours before the fight was scheduled to begin. I went into the promoter’s office and was surprised to see Herrera, sitting behind the big desk, smoking his inevitable cigar. I hadn’t seen him for some years and we shook hands warmly. He was never too friendly with anybody but we got along good in the Chicago days and he evidently remembered. I wished him luck and he just shook his head and said ‘best man win. Eh, Bat?’
The promoter assured us that the State officials would not interfere but that it would be best if we started the fight as soon as possible. Herrera and I both agreed to get into ring togs immediately and wait for the signal to put in an appearance. He seemed coldly confident and disinterested. His air, I confess, bothered me.”
The fight didn’t disappoint and the crowd of 10,000 witnessed what would go down in history as one of the great battles of the first half-century of Queensberry boxing.
Nelson and Herrera met in mid-ring at the first bell and slugged away. The indestructible Dane showed his usual form, seemingly impervious to any punishment meted out to him. The strategy of moving in close so as to smother Herrera and not allow him the range necessary to get maximum power into his swings, which had failed Benny Yanger previously, was proving effective for Nelson. He consistently beat Herrera to the punch and got an early lead. But in the fifth round Aurelio saw an opening and exploded an overhand right through Nelson’s guard, spinning him around as he sailed through the air. The capsized Nelson landed in a heap on the floor. He took a nine count and when he arose Herrera rushed him. The crowd cheered wildly as Herrera desperately tried to put the finishing touches on Nelson, but the Dane fired right back and the two traded nonstop until the end of the round. The rest of the bout was nip and tuck with Nelson landing the more frequent blows and Herrera the more powerful. At the end of twenty rounds both were cut, bruised and exhausted but the decision in Nelson’s favor was a just one. Both battlers received plaudits by sportswriters the following day and Nelson was generous in his praise for his opponent.
As for Herrera, he kept up a busy schedule while clamoring for fights against any top man who dared face him. In 1905 he again headed east where he scored a fifteen-round decision victory over previous conqueror Kid Goodman and a win over the formidable Charles Neary, whom he considered to be his toughest opponent.
That fall he returned to Los Angeles, where he hadn’t fought in several years. It was the city where he’d gotten his first important press notices, and he wanted to make his homecoming memorable. He did so on November 10 by fighting an exciting 20-round draw with top ranking lightweight Eddie Hanlon. Though he didn’t get the KO result he was looking for, Herrera’s effort was impressive enough that he was able to secure a match with former featherweight champion Young Corbett II, who was looking to regain his sullied prestige after back to back losses to Battling Nelson. Though perhaps just a tad past his prime (as was Herrera), Corbett was still a dangerous puncher and not to be taken lightly. The fight was set for the Pacific A.C. on January 12, 1906.
Aurelio was installed as a slight favorite but it was generally agreed that it was within the realm of possibility for Corbett to pull out a victory. The only thing everyone seemed to agree on was that with two punchers of this caliber trading bombs, there was no way this fight was going the distance.
Things unfolded as they usually did whenever Herrera faced a fellow slugger: Herrera waited, looking for an opening while his foe swarmed, trying to take Herrera out before the latter found what he was looking for. For four rounds Corbett rushed, trying to land but having trouble penetrating the Mexican-American’s crouching, shell-like defense. But in the fifth Herrera hit Corbett with a right-handed wallop that sent him to the canvas. Two knockdowns later Corbett, like so many before him, lay unconscious, his corner men having to carry him to his stool to be revived. It was a scene that had replayed itself with almost monotonous regularity over the years. Little did he realize as he exited the ring that evening that it would be his last significant win as well as the final knockout victory of his career.
“People talk of him as “The Mexican”. As a matter of fact, he is as good an American as any of us.” The Day (New London, Connecticut), January 15, 1906
1906 would be a year of extremes for Herrera as far as his public image was concerned. His stellar showings versus Hanlon and Corbett put him once again in the public esteem and made him a hot number in Los Angeles. A rugged 20-round draw with top-rated Kid Herman on February 9 further whetted the appetites of fans and promoters, and offers for his services poured in. A rematch of the now-legendary battle between Herrera and Battling Nelson was suggested and soon a bidding war once more erupted between cities as promoters Tom McCarey in Los Angeles and Tom O’Rourke in New York battled to secure the rights. It was a battle ultimately won by McCarey. The fight was set for May 26.
Nelson and his entourage arrived in California in April and opened training camp on Catalina Island, while Herrera trained in downtown L.A. Their names appeared daily in the press, the public being fed a steady stream of individual quotes from the fighters and their camps as well as frequent updates on how their training was progressing. Interest in the bout was reaching a fever pitch, and all eyes were focused on the upcoming event.
Then, in the early morning hours of April 18, the great San Francisco earthquake struck, killing thousands. An emergency benefit was hastily put together and held a week later at McCarey’s Pavilion. Herrera, Nelson, Abe Attell, Kid Herman, Jack Root, Tommy Burns, and Jim Jeffries all came together and did their part to aid in the disaster relief. Herrera and his brother Mauro stole the show with their four-round sparring session, which for all intents and purposes may as well have been a prizefight. The audience roared its approval as the two brothers tore into each other as only sibling rivals can. Aurelio battered Mauro, dropping him in the third round and the referee had to pry them apart at the final bell. The benefit was a huge success but would prove to be Herrera’s final hurrah as a popular fighter in Los Angeles. The following month his approval rating, as well as his life, would begin a nosedive from which it would never recover.
The events that took place on May 26, 1906, before the scheduled Nelson-Herrera fight were as confusing as they were controversial. Jim Jeffries was at ringside and McCarey’s Pavilion was packed to capacity as the crowd waited for the principals to appear. Herrera stepped through the ropes on time, but Nelson was nowhere to be found.
After an anxious hour had elapsed, “The Battler” finally appeared to boos and hisses from a now hostile crowd. In an attempt to sway sympathies his way Nelson announced that Herrera had ditched the weigh-in and insisted that he do so at ringside or there would be no fight. Apparently the Nelson camp was convinced that the Herrera camp had tampered with the scales during the weigh-in at Tom McCarey’s office earlier in the evening. Nelson’s manager insisted on a second weigh-in an hour later, which Herrera appeared at but refused to step on the scale. He stated that he’d already fulfilled his contractual obligation at McCarey’s office and that was that. But with an impatient crowd now clamoring for a fight and Nelson’s seemingly simple request for a ringside weigh-in the only thing keeping it from happening, the onus shifted to Herrera, who reiterated his earlier position, stubbornly refusing despite the mounting pressure all around.
Neither side would budge, the Los Angeles Times commenting that Herrera “…looked a typical Indian, his little pig eyes twinkling wickedly, and his face set and immovable and expressionless.” Both fighters eventually left the ring. The audience waited a full two hours before the fight was officially cancelled, costing promoter McCarey a fortune and Herrera his reputation among the L.A. sporting public. The backlash against Aurelio would be severe. In addition to the professional disgrace, he would be facing legal action by none other than William Randolph Hearst, who had been a stakeholder in the fight (Hearst later dropped the suit).
In retrospect, Nelson may have been correct that Herrera’s people tampered with the scales. Such a thing was not uncommon in those days. It was speculated later in the Los Angeles Times that Herrera had perhaps been paid to sabotage the event by San Francisco promoter “Sunny Jim” Coffroth in an attempt to ruin Tom McCarey and usurp his Southern California promotional operations. Whatever the reasons, the fact remained that Aurelio Herrera was now persona non grata in Los Angeles and would never fight there again.
“Score one for grim fate and for fortune, the fickle jade. They’ve downed Aurelio Herrera. Herrera the wildcat! One of the greatest fighters of his day, the toast of every Mexican on either side of the border. All that was a quarter-century ago. Now, Aurelio Herrera, a slouchy, grubby little Mexican, sits in a cell of the Orange County Jail, a “vag.” He is serving a sentence of thirty days for “roaming from place to place without visible means of support.” His glory isn’t merely faded, it is gone.” Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1926
An attempt by Herrera to resume his career back east some months later proved futile when he was stopped by archrival Charles Neary in Milwaukee. His years of hard battles, hard liquor and black cigars were finally taking their toll and he lost three of his final four fights before retiring for good. He raised sheep for a time and tried his hand at fight promotion in Bakersfield, but for the most part his post-pugilistic years were not kind to him. Alienation from his family, failed business ventures, a failed marriage, and arrests for such infractions as drunk and disorderly dogged his steps.
Nothing seemed to work for him. He disappears from census reports in the early 1920s, apparently becoming something of a homeless drifter, wandering aimlessly from town to town throughout Southern California. He resurfaces in December 1926 when newspapers report him jailed for vagrancy in Santa Ana. The appalling circumstances surrounding the fall of the former ring hero were not lost on the reporter for the Los Angeles Times:
“Herrera would not talk of his brilliant past. He lacks the garrulity of most has-beens. Maybe it hurts him too much. Perhaps it’s a touch of pride still struggling in the gutter. But the records of the prize ring talk eloquently for him. And the memory of the old-timers still recall the flashing trail he blazed across the sports pages when this century was new. His was a glorious rainbow career that reached its zenith twenty years ago when he knocked out Young Corbett in 1906. But the end of his rainbow rests on the floor of a cell. The wildcat has been thoroughly tamed, beaten down by the sledgehammer blows of time, fortune and foolishness.
For Herrera, they say, fell like many of his ilk who couldn’t stand prosperity. When he rode the tide of fortune he was a hard and reckless rider who finally lost his seat. Once he was the hero of his Latin fellows, might almost have displaced Diaz. But Herrera, with his vanished laurels, now sits in his cell a broken-hearted man.”
His name would reappear in the press the following year when he was once again arrested for vagrancy in San Francisco. He died in a hospital mere weeks upon his release from jail- age 50- on April 12, 1927.
Unless a fighter had been a world champion rarely did his death make much of a stir in newspapers during the first half of the 1900s, especially a sub-heavyweight fighter. From his final bout in 1909 until his passing 28 years later Aurelio Herrera had been largely forgotten in the sporting press. But when news of his death hit the wires it was written about for weeks. Accolades began to appear in newspapers and magazines across the nation as journalists, many of whom were eyewitnesses to his triumphs inside the ring, remembered what Herrera meant to a generation of fight followers.
“Perhaps the hardest hitter for his weight and inches that ever breathed, this dark-skinned terror of the early nineties, is no more,” commented renowned sportswriter Hype Igoe. Promoters, managers, trainers and former opponents would all pay tribute to his prowess in subsequent years; Battling Nelson spoke of him often in interviews and Kid Broad never failed to give a comedic account of the knockout he suffered at the hands of the “Wildcat Mexican” in Butte decades earlier.
Several articles acknowledged his importance to the sport as a trailblazer. A piece that ran in many newspapers summed up his contribution thusly: “His success made fight fans out of thousands of Mexicans and injected the boxing virus into the blood of many Mexican youths, who were attracted by the glamour-and the greenbacks—of a leather-pushing career.” The Syracuse Herald, which at times had reviled and even branded him a coward (and would continue to do so post-mortem), now saluted Herrera as “the first concrete example of the fact now proved beyond question that the Latin is a fistic battler equal to the Celt or the Saxon.”
For all the slander he’d had to bear in the press during his career Aurelio Herrera could nary have imagined or asked for a more satisfying legacy.