THERE is a saying in boxing that if a promoter wants to make a small fortune out of the sport, then he had better start with a large one. Major Arnold Wilson was one promoter who gambled everything on one big event, and he lost everything in doing so.
Wilson was a first world war hero. He had won the Military Cross after crawling out into no man’s land, while under fire, to save the lives of two of his wounded soldiers. He had been part of the original Liverpool consortium that had opened the famous Pudsey Street Stadium in 1911 and, from 1920, he worked closely with promoter C.B. Cochrane on some of the major London shows. After learning his trade, he branched out on his own as a big-time promoter. Amongst the many big shows that he promoted was the farcical match between Georges Carpentier and Joe Beckett at Olympia in 1923.
Wembley Stadium opened its doors for the first time in the same year. Primarily a football stadium, Wembley was also used for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, and it was during this festival that Wilson leased the premises to stage an international heavyweight contest that, he hoped, would fill the place to capacity and make himself a fortune. The Exhibition was drawing in huge crowds from all over the country and Wilson sought to capitalise on this captive audience.
At that time the stadium seated seat more than 100,000, and Wilson thought that a heavyweight contest between a top-flight American and Jack Bloomfield would arouse sufficient interest to fulfil this plan.
Tommy Gibbons was brought over to take on Bloomfield and, on paper, this looked like a winner. Gibbons had gone the full 15 with Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight title the year before and Bloomfield, as the reigning British light-heavyweight champion, and a man with a big punch, was popular with his fellow-Londoners. But this was not a guaranteed money-spinner nor thriller. After all, Gibbons was 33 years old and his contest with Dempsey was an awful one whereas Bloomfield had boxed for the British heavyweight title in 1923 against Frank Goddard only to be disqualified in two rounds for hitting his opponent while he was on the canvas. Bloomfield had put Goddard down twice before that and looked a certain winner. The boxing public was unimpressed, both with the fight and with Bloomfield’s stupidity.
Nevertheless, Wilson took the chance, and he was willing to pay Gibbons £10,000, a huge purse at that time, for his troubles. Bloomfield was to be paid £6,000 and the total outlay for the event was around £27,000. Wilson kept his ticket prices low, gambling that this would attract large swathes of casual observers, the very people he needed if he was to have any hope of filling 100,000 seats.
The weather on the day was gloriously sunny but only 27,000 people turned up and whole sections of the Wembley stadium were completely empty. Whatever optimism there may have been that Bloomfield could beat Gibbons was also suddenly thin on the ground. After an even first round, in which Bloomfield had defended effectively and traded blows equally, the second round was a disaster. He was floored three times and, after being saved by the bell, he was quickly finished off in the third.
The day after the contest, Gibbons, who had only received £3,000 of his purse, stated that he would not demand any of the balance due to him until the preliminary fighters, including Phil Scott, Tommy Milligan and Alf Mancini, had all been paid. He left for the States five days later, and his final act before boarding the ship was to issue Wilson with a writ of summons for £8,000. This did not prove successful as, four months later, Wilson was declared bankrupt with assets of £300 and liabilities totalling £17,000.
Wembley Stadium was not used again for boxing until 1935, and nothing more was to be heard from the unfortunate Major.