PHILLY BOXING HISTORY                                                                     December 17, 2011


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Douglas Cavanaugh


"I can lick Battling Nelson a good deal easier than I can Dave Holly. I have met Holly three times and I know he is a hard man to beat.“  - - Joe Gans  


In every professional sport there exists the story of the athlete whose contribution gets overlooked; whose own accomplishments are eclipsed due to the charisma or achievements of his more flashy contemporaries. The most famous example of this phenomenon would be baseball great Lou Gehrig, who found it next to impossible to come out of the long shadows cast by his Yankee teammates Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. In pro football Tommy Nobis was considered by insiders to be one of the greatest linebackers of his era. Unfortunately, his “era” also featured Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier and Jack Lambert; four Hall of Fame linebackers, each of whom have a claim to being the finest ever to play the position. Speaking of football, fans remember well the exploits of the Ram’s “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line, but how many realized that in addition to high-profile members Deacon Jones, Merlin Olson and Rosey Grier, there was also Lamar Lundy, who was considered an outstanding lineman in his own right?

If the sadly-neglected career of Dave Holly proves anything it is that boxing is not exempt from this same phenomenon; that even the finest of fighters can get “lost in the shuffle” and be overlooked by history, irrespective of achievements. In the case of Holly many factors contributed, not the least of which is that he was a big fish in a huge pond, as vast and deep as it was wide. He fought during one of the toughest stretches in the history of the lower weight classes (1900-1910), a period during which could be found a disproportionately large number of outstanding ringmen plying their trade. Among them were fighters destined for greatness in boxing’s pantheon, their names reading like a veritable who’s-who of the Hall of Fame: Joe Gans, Battling Nelson, Packey McFarland, Abe Attell, Jack Blackburn, Sam Langford, Joe Walcott, Dixie Kid, Freddie Welsh, Jimmy Britt and Ad Wolgast. With opposition of that caliber battling for the same spotlight, it is little wonder that Holly’s star has been eclipsed; his career overlooked and underappreciated.

Dave Holly was born on March 2, 1881 in Westchester, Pennsylvania. Though later domiciled in Camden, New Jersey Holly fought almost exclusively out of Philadelphia, where he fought 100 of his 128 recorded bouts and possibly more. He was a clever boxer-puncher who fought out of a crouch and possessed a shell-like defense opponents found difficult to penetrate. He began his career in the no-decision era with a string of kayos and newspaper victories over largely forgotten local fighters. But since the “City of Brotherly Love” was a major fight Mecca (then as now) it must be assumed that these men were far from being pushovers. His most frequent opponents in the early years were a pair of toughies named Vernon Campbell (eight bouts) and Jimmy Hill (five bouts). He also fought a six-bout series with famed iron man Joe Grim who, staying true to form, managed to finish every one of their skirmishes defiantly on his feet.

            In 1902- his second year as a pro- with less than fifty fights under his belt, Holly travelled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to take on the great Joe Gans, World’s Lightweight Champion and a veteran of over one hundred career bouts. Their ten-round engagement on October 13 resulted in Holly being floored three times and thoroughly outclassed throughout. Knowing he was in over his head Dave ran, crouched, clinched and did everything in his power to stay the distance with his legendary opponent.  Afterward he announced to the crowd that he was “only an amateur” compared to Gans, whom he called “A scienced (sic) man and a champion.” (1) This bout was significant in Holly’s career because not only did it signal the beginning of a series of fights between himself and Gans, but also heralded the start of his battles with several of the outstanding “colored” fighters of the era. The second series began five months and ten fights later when he was matched against a fellow up and comer named Jack Blackburn. The tall, rangy Blackburn, who would do time in prison for murder and later gain fame as the trainer of Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, took a six-round newspaper win in what would be the first of five hotly contested fights between the two over the next several years.

            Spike Sullivan, brother of Featherweight Champion Dave Sullivan, was next on the list. A seasoned pro, Spike was a fan favorite, a tough little Irishman who had fought top level opposition such as Dal Hawkins, Tommy White and George “Elbows” McFadden and gave as good as he got against all of them. But what had really endeared him to fight fans was his gallant stand against Lightweight Champ Joe Gans. Hopelessly outclassed, Spike had nevertheless torn after Gans from the first gong and never stopped trying to batter his elusive foe. The referee stopped the bout in the fourteenth round, declaring Gans the victor but at the same time making Sullivan something of a hero to everyone.

            The two met on September 13th in Philadelphia. Spike was installed as the favorite and for the early rounds it seemed justified, as he got the better of the action, jabbing Holly and going hard to the body. But Dave bided his time and in the fourth round opened up on his opponent, belting him about at will. In the fifth Spike was dropped by a body blow and floored three more times in the sixth and final round. (2)This bout, though a no-decision affair, was an obvious win for Holly, who’s stock in the lightweight ranks was raised considerably as a result. It was his most high profile fight to date and newspapers gave it considerable coverage, thus insuring that he was now regarded as a serious contender for the lightweight crown.

Gans no doubt heard about Holly’s victory and was impressed enough to again try out this kid whom he’d bested so easily the previous year. He agreed to a six-round bout to be fought in Holly’s adopted Philly home on October 23, 1903. It proved to be a far cry from their first encounter. The vastly improved Holly had learned his trade and this time forced the action on Joe, who fought a careful, defensive fight. The end result was a newspaper draw, though some reported a close win for Holly. (3) Sportswriters praised both men for the high level of skill displayed and called the bout “a revelation to those gathered at ringside.” (4) A rematch was fought six weeks later, December 7, again in Philadelphia. This time Holly’s aggression cost him as he suffered two flash knockdowns in the first two frames. But he was up quickly and went after Joe with such liveliness that he managed to shade most of the remaining rounds. The Philadelphia Item scored it as a win for Gans, but other sources thought Holly deserved a draw despite the knockdowns. (5)

            The year concluded with a six-round newspaper win over Jack Blackburn and a twelve-round beating administered to tough Belfield Walcott, brother of Welterweight Champ Joe Walcott. Then on April 11, 1904 he traveled to Cambridge, MA to meet a hot young local who was beginning to make some noise in fistic circles. His name was Sam Langford, “The Boston Tar Baby”. Despite having only been a professional a mere two years, Langford was already giving a good account of himself against the game’s top lightweights, having twice fought Jack Blackburn and dueling with Joe Gans a mere twenty-four hours after Holly last fought him. In fact he had scored a convincing fifteen-round decision victory over “The Old Master” in the non-title affair. So Holly made a rare foray out of his native Pennsylvania to deal with this newcomer.

            Langford was made a pre-fight favorite and from the first gong the long-armed Boston boy fought aggressively, snapping his jab and hooking hard at his more experienced foe. He was successful for the first few minutes of action, but his now-seasoned Philly opponent had an answer. He began boring up under Langford’s reach and working from the inside with sharp counters, his crouching, shell-like defense blunting Langford’s return volleys. Ultimately Holly proved too difficult a puzzle for young Sam to solve. In front of his hometown admirers Langford was served a thorough ten-round lacing, losing a clear-cut decision to the invader from Philly. The final round saw him holding on for dear life as Holly poured it on in an attempt to finish him. (6)

            Joe Gans was taking note of all the commotion and once again emerged from his native Baltimore to do battle with the man who was quickly becoming the most obvious opponent for his crown. The fight, in Philadelphia on June 27, 1904, took up the usual pattern of Gans on the defensive and Holly forcing matters. Dave slipped most of Gan’s leads, hammering him with uppercuts and never allowing the champ to get set. Holly’s onslaught was so fierce that he had Gans bewildered, the New York Evening World noting Gans’ clinching at the finish to be so intense that “the referee could hardly separate the two men.” (7) The Philadelphia papers gave the decision to Holly, noting that it was his fight “from beginning to end”. Furthermore, based on the last few bouts between the two it appeared that Holly had managed to “solve Gan’s clever style.” (8) Still, a title bout would not be forthcoming. The Philadelphian was still too dangerous and would have to wait another two years for his shot. “I can lick Battling Nelson a good deal easier than I can Dave Holly,” Gans said later, “So you can see what I think of Holly. I have met him three (sic) times in limited bouts and I know he is a hard man to beat.” (9)

            The next six months would be a whirlwind for Holly and an entire career’s worth of hard fights by modern standards as he faced practically every top black lightweight and welterweight around, including Jack Blackburn, Dixie Kid, George Cole and Rufe Turner. His bout with Jack Blackburn (their third) on August 26 was a close affair, Jack getting a shade by using an educated left to control the fight. Nonplussed, Holly immediately went after former welterweight champion Joe Walcott, the famed “Barbados Demon.” He had already trounced Walcott’s brother Belfield and didn’t figure Joe, now long in the tooth, would pose much more of a problem. The bout took place on September 10, 1904 in Philadelphia.

            Showing little respect for the aging great, Holly tore after him at the opening bell. Walcott bided his time, letting his opponent expend his energy while he looked for openings and opportunities to exert his advantage in experience. But after several clinches in which his ribs were ceaselessly pounded the old champ became irritated over his foe’s aggression and lack of respect. Summoning the old strength that had allowed him to battle heavyweights, Walcott grabbed Holly in a clinch, threw him backward to the floor and then took a vicious swing at his fallen antagonist. Dave got the message and though he continued to force matters he now focused as much on making the still-dangerous Walcott miss as working his body. Most sources reported it as a close win for Holly, but some thought that the old warhorse deserved a draw. (10)

            Three fights versus Sam Langford and two against Dixie Kid followed in close succession, the first Langford bout taking place a mere two weeks after the Walcott set to. Sam showed marked improvement since their initial encounter, using a sharp left jab to close Holly’s eye and control him from the outside, while Dave continued to be the master in the trenches. It was judged a draw after fifteen fast and furious rounds. Their next bout, a six-rounder in Philadelphia, was also judged a draw by the newspapers- now referring to Sam and Dave as “bitter rivals.” (11) The final bout, held in Salem, Massachusetts in 1905, saw Langford finally get the best of the series. Outweighed by thirteen pounds, Holly was given a thorough trouncing in fifteen rounds.

            The bouts with future Hall-of-Fame welterweight Dixie Kid saw each man take a six-round newspaper decision in what were described as bloody encounters. The Philadelphia Item reported Holly as giving his larger foe a “sound beating” in their first fight. (12) The return bout five weeks later was reported as a win for the Kid. Both were all-action fights, which pleased the fans greatly and elevated the status of both combatants.

            But the fight Holly really wanted- a title shot against champion Joe Gans- still evaded him. Gans had been clamoring for a bout against Battling Nelson (who had been inexplicably claiming the lightweight championship) for some time. Since there was a plethora of viable contenders for both men the Nelson camp was content to avoid Gans. Joe decided that the best course of action was to eliminate all possible roadblocks to a bout with Bat and when Holly beat the highly regarded Rufe Turner he became the next obstacle to be dealt with. This time the Baltimore native would make clear the answer to the question of superiority between himself and the muscular Philadelphian.

The lightweight championship title fight between champion Joe Gans and challenger Dave Holly took place in Seattle, Washington on July 23, 1906. The opening rounds looked promising for Holly as he pressed the “Old Master,” opening a gash over his eye and eventually swelling it shut. Undeterred, Joe remained focused on blunting the body attack, which he knew from experience was Holly’s main weapon. He did so by offering nothing but elbows and forearms whenever his antagonist went to the midsection. By the middle rounds Gans’ sharp punches began to exact their toll. Holly’s left eye was swollen shut and his right badly gashed. In a reversal of tactics he reverted to a defensive stance while Joe took on the role of stalker. The bout dissolved into a dreary affair with an estimated 145 clinches throughout. Though his blows had done damage, Gans saw that his iron-jawed opponent was not going to fall from headshots. In yet another role reversal the champion became the body puncher, raking Holly’s ribs and kidneys with deadly precision.

            The challenger was in deep water now and both men knew it. Gans had been a veteran of twenty round fights before his opponent had even had his first pro bout; Holly had gone twenty rounds only once and that being in his previous fight with Rufe Turner. He was fading fast and in the final round Gans tried to finish him. He unloaded heavy blows, which staggered Holly, but Dave fought back hard unleashing volleys of his own. At the final bell the decision was clear-cut in the champion’s favor. (13)In one final ironic note to a fight that was full of ironies, Gans drew the color line afterwards stating that he didn’t want to face black opponents like Dave Holly anymore but instead wanted Bat Nelson and the paydays concomitant to fighting white opponents. (14) He stayed true to his word and never fought another black fighter again.

            His title hopes dashed, Holly spent the rest of his ring career losing more than he won. In his very next bout on October 11 he once more faced Jack Blackburn, who by now was at the zenith of his powers and claiming the lightweight championship for himself. Though a dubious claim at best, what was not questionable was that he had developed into one of the deadliest fighters in the game (15) which he proved by administering a savage six-round beating to the faded Holly. It was a newspaper decision and the last time these two greats would face each other in the ring. Holly then faced Sailor Burke, a fighter who had the distinction to be the first to ever knock out iron man Joe Grim. The much larger Sailor, who would go on to fight heavyweight champion Jess Willard, would also have the distinction of being the first to ever stop Holly, flooring him twelve times in three rounds until the police finally intervened. Subsequent kayo losses to Jeff Clark- the celebrated “Joplin Ghost”- and unheralded Heywood Briggs convinced Holly to finally hang up the gloves for good.

The fact that he could boast wins over such incredible opposition as Joe Gans, Sam Langford, Joe Walcott, Jack Blackburn and Dixie Kid probably did little to soothe the disappointment Holly felt over never having won a world title. Thus he retired to his home in Camden, New Jersey and quietly went into the sign painting business. Two years after he left boxing on July 15 1912 Holly was bitten by a stray dog. He was treated at the hospital and released, thinking little of it. On July 19 he traveled to Philadelphia to second for his friend, heavyweight contender Joe Jeannette in his bout with Battling Jim Johnson. A few days afterward he suddenly took ill, dying the following morning on July 25 from blood poisoning. He was 31 years old. (16)



  1. “The Boxing Show,” Lancaster Daily Examiner, October 15, 1902
  2. “Dave Holly Beat Spike Sullivan.” Evening World (NY),
    September 11, 1903
  3. “Gans and Holly in Fast Bout,” Philadelphia Bulletin, December 8, 1903
  4. “Gans vs. Holly.” Philadelphia Public Ledger, October 23, 1903
  5. “Holly and Gans Draw,” Philadelphia Bulletin, October 24, 1903
  6. “Dave Holly Won From Langford,” Evening World (NY), April 12, 1904
  7. “Gans Goes Up Against A Surprise In Holly,” Evening World (NY),
    June 28, 1904
  8. Holly Outpoints Gans,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 27, 1904
  9. “This Match Has Class,” Seattle Sunday Times,  July 22, 1906
  10. “Holly and Walcott Draw,” Philadelphia Record, September 11, 1904
  11. “Langford and Holly Fight a Draw at Baltimore,” New York Sun,
    October 2, 1904
    Accessed January 18, 2010.
  13. “Gans is Master of Dave Holly,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 24, 1906
  14. “Joe Gans is Here Ready for Match,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
    July 11, 1906
  15. “Blackburn a Good One,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1906
  16. “Dave Holly Dead,” Philadelphia Record, July 26, 1912



Douglas Cavanaugh contributed this story which is part of the book
"The First Black Boxing Champions: Essays on Fighters of the 1800s to the 1920s"
(by Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott)

The book is available on

Philly Boxing History posted this story with Cavanaugh's permission on
December 17, 2011. The photos are from our own archive.