Sunday, June 26, 2016

On This Day: Mexican Joe Rivers: World Lightweight Contender

By Peter Silkov

‘Mexican’ Joe Rivers was one of  boxing’s first Mexican-American stars, and one of the forerunners for the many great Mexican, and Mexican-American fighters who would find fame and glory in the ring after him.  Rivers was born Jose Ybarra, on March 19, 1892, with Castillian and Native American Indian ancestry in Los Angeles, California.  Beginning his professional boxing career in 1908 and starting out as a featherweight, Rivers proved to be a fast and strong, with an abundance of heart, and quickly rose up the rankings. 

On July 4, 1912, at just 20 years of age, Rivers took part in the most famous and infamous fight of his career, when he moved up to the lightweight division, and challenged ‘The Michigan Wild Cat’ Ad Wolgast for Wolgast’s World lightweight championship. It proved to be one of the most savage and vicious title fights ever seen in modern times, with Rivers taking an early lead in the action, before a battered Wolgast started to turn things around in the later rounds.  The match came to a abrupt and controversial conclusion in the 13th round, with the fight evenly poised, as both men fought toe-to-toe, swapping punch-for-punch, when suddenly, each man landed simultaneous blows, which sent both tumbling down onto the canvas, in a heap. 

Faced with both fighters laid out upon the canvas, the referee, Jack Welsh, who had handled a number of Wolgast’s fights previously, reached down and picked up the dazed Wolgast, who had fallen on top of Rivers, before proceeding to count out Rivers, as he lay prone on the canvas.  Welsh then declared Wolgast the winner and still champion, before fleeing the ring as the crowd threatened to riot after what they had seen.  Welsh was later to say that he had helped Wolgast up, as he was the last to hit the canvas.  In the aftermath of the controversial fight, both fighters would claim that they had been fouled.  The controversy surrounding the Wolgast vs. Rivers title fight continues to this day. 

Rivers would have one more shot at the world title on July 4th, 1913, when he challenged Willie Richie for the World lightweight championship. Again Rivers made a bright start, but after the tough and clever Richie had figured out his style, he turned the fight around, and knocked Rivers out in the 11th round.

‘Mexican Joe’ would continue to fight at the top level until 1924.  During his career, Rivers met the best featherweights and lightweights of his time, fighters such as Johnny Kilbane, Frankie Conley, Ad Wolgast, Joe Mandot, Leech Cross, Knockout Brown, Willie Richie, Freddie Welsh, Johnny Dundee, and Richie Mitchell.

Out of the ring, Rivers was a bright and colourful character, who spent the money he earned, as quickly as he threw his punches in the ring.  Rivers wore expensive rings, the best clothes, and drove one of the earliest cars.

Rivers’ final fight was a 4 rounds point's defeat to Young McGovern on July 30, 1924. He retired with a final record of 38(20koes)-24-13. Although, he is likely to have had many other fights that haven’t been recorded.

Despite earning around £250,000 during his career, the money soon ran out for Rivers in retirement, and in his later years, he was reduced to living in a windowless hotel room, with his only possession being a 200 year old violin, that had belonged to his Father.

Fate was not kind to Ad Wolgast either, who had been confined to a sanitarium, after losing his mind due to the blows that his head had taken during his great, but savage fighting career. One of the few people to visit Wolgast regularly, was his once bitter opponent, Mexican Joe Rivers. 

Mexican Joe Rivers died on June 25, 1957, aged 65.

Copyright © 2016 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to

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