With the Davis Cup in Reno for the very first time, I started thinking about the coolest sporting events to hit Reno/Tahoe. We have annual events like the Reno Rodeo, Barracuda Championship, and American Century Championship, but I was looking more for one-time events, things that have only happened once in our area. Things like the Davis Cup this weekend. Here is my list of the 18 coolest sporting events to be held in the Reno/Tahoe area (listed in no particular order). Honorable mention at the 2003 ESPN Great Outdoor Games, because who likes dogs that long jump in water and chop logs?
* Fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries: One of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century happened on July 4, 1910 in Reno when Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, bludgeoned Jeffries, the Great White Hope, for 15 rounds in a lopsided affair. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” Johnson’s victory uplifted many in the African-American community. It also sparked race riots in the United States, with some cities and states banning the release of the footage given the one-sided nature of the fight.
* 1960 Winter Olympics: The VIII Winter Games were held at Squaw Valley Resort (now Palisades Tahoe). It was a stranger affair than the modern Games with athletes from 30 nations competing in four sports and 27 events with biathlon and women’s speed skating making their Olympic debuts. The Soviet Union won the most medals with 21, although Team USA pulled off a stunning upset to take gold in men’s hockey. Tahoe won the Olympic bid by just two votes over Innsbruck, Austria.
* Nevada-Boise State Football 2010: That 2010 showdown between the longtime rivals has been dubbed Reno’s biggest sporting event since the Johnson-Jeffries fight as Nevada’s No. 19 hosted Boise State’s No. 3. It didn’t just live up to the hype. He passed it. Nevada rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit to score a 34-31 overtime victory behind Colin Kaepernick as Boise State kicker Kyle Brotzman missed two field goals, the one at the end of the settlement and the other during the extension period.
* NHL plays in Tahoe: It’s not often you see a hockey game being played on a golf course, but it happened in February 2021 when the NHL played two games on the 18th fairway at Edgewood Tahoe. The Vegas Golden Knights faced the Colorado Avalanche and the Philadelphia Flyers faced the Boston Bruins. Things didn’t go smoothly when the Tahoe sun melted the playing surface, causing delays, but the NHL got its share of Instagram-worthy photos with the lake in the background.
* Three legends play at Virginia Street Gym: Nevada’s Virginia Street Gym is now home to the Wolf Pack volleyball team, but before that it was the hub of campus basketball. While many great college teams have played there, the arena’s high point came in 1963 when Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor – three of the top 20 players of all time – played an exhibition with the Warriors beating the Lakers, 112-95. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also played exhibitions in Reno in 1973, 1977 and 1978.
* Muhammad Ali fights in Tahoe: In November 1972, the world’s biggest sports star Ali fought Bob Foster in the Sahara-Tahoe Hotel theater room at Stateline (now the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino), winning by knockout in the eighth round. Ali knocked down Foster seven times in the fight, although Foster, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, gave Ali the only cut he suffered in the ring. It was also one of the first matches officiated by Mills Lane, the former UNR and legendary judge.
* The 1919 Chicago Cubs: In 1919, the Chicago Cubs played an exhibition game in Reno, with the city closing for the event since all of Major League Baseball at the time was played east of St. Louis (it would still take nearly 40 years before the Dodgers and Giants moved west). The Cubs were going 75-65 that season (third in the eight-team National League), its fourth season playing at Wrigley Field (then known as “Weeghman Park”). Reno has a population of around 12,000 for this game.
* 1968 Olympic Trials: Most locals are familiar with the 1960 Winter Olympics being held in Tahoe. Fewer remember the 1968 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials, which were also held in town at a purpose-built track at Echo Summit, west of South Lake Tahoe, Sept. 6-16. At least the men’s trials were held there. The women’s events were held at Mt. San Antonio College in the Bay Area. A month later, John Carlos and Tommie Smith made their famous salute to black power on the Olympic podium.
* Jack Dempsey fights in Reno: Dempsey went on to become one of the greatest boxers of all time (he was named the greatest fighter of the first half of the 20th century), with the start of his career tied to Northern Nevada. The former Reno resident fought in Nevada 11 times, first doing so in 1915 in an arena built on the corner of Third and Plaza streets in downtown Reno, a third-round knockout of Anamas Campbell. In 1918, he knocked out Jack Moran in the first round at Moana Springs.
* N°1 North Carolina in Lawlor: The nation’s No. 1 men’s basketball team has only played at the Lawlor Events Center twice. Either game would fit this list. I opted for the 2008 New Years appearance in North Carolina over the 1990 UNLV team coming to town because UNLV regularly plays Lawlor and not the Tar Heels. Coached by Roy Williams and coached by Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina cruised to an 84-62 victory over the Wolf Pack before claiming the national title later that season.
* All-Star Triple-A Game: Las Vegas hosted the NHL All-Star Game and NFL Pro Bowl last month, so that pales in comparison, but it was pretty cool to see Greater Nevada Field (then named Aces Ballpark) host the Triple-A All- Star Game 2013, an International League 4-3 victory over the Pacific Coast League in front of a sold-out crowd of 10,135 fans. Pirates prospect Tony Sanchez (IL) and Cardinals prospect Michael Wacha (PCL) were named MVPs of the game.
* Jesse Brinkley vs. Joey Gilbert: More famous boxers have fought in Reno including Evander Holyfield, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar de La Hoya, but this fight is close to my heart. Gilbert, from Reno, and Brinkley, from Yerington, won acclaim after starring on the NBC reality show ‘The Contender’. Brinkley dominated the February 2009 affair at the Reno Events Center, breaking Gilbert’s nose while nearly sweeping all 12 rounds.
* UConn No. 1 women play at Lawlor: Arguably the best team to ever play in Reno was the 2017-18 UConn Women’s Basketball. It was a homecoming for Gabby Williams, a native of the Sparks, a star of the Huskies. A record 7,815 fans flocked to Lawlor to see UConn win 88-57 as the Huskies built a 20-point lead in the first 6 minutes and 11 seconds of the game. Williams had 18 points, six rebounds, five steals and three assists. UConn started the season 36-0 before losing to Notre Dame in the Final Four.
* Nevada-UNLV Football 1995: I tried to avoid repeating games for this list, but this Nevada-UNLV Fremont Cannon game in 1995 must have made the difference. It was the first time Jeff Horton returned to Reno after leaving Nevada to become the head coach of UNLV after the 1993 season, the so-called Red Defection. A record 33,391 fans showed up at Mackay, including a few fights and Chris Ault getting a helmet thrown at him. Final score: Nevada 55, UNLV 32.
* Edgewood holds the US Senior Open: Edgewood Tahoe hosts the annual American Century Championship Celebrity Golf Tournament, and it would make the list if it wasn’t an annual thing. But in 1985 Edgewood hosted the US Senior Open with Miller Barber winning his third title at the event in four years. He finished 3 under, four strokes ahead of Roberto De Vicenzo. It was the sixth US Senior Open held and featured legends Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper, among others.
* Ben Hogan wins in Reno: In 1948, golfing legend Ben Hogan won his second Reno Open at Washoe County Golf Course, posting a course record 65 in his third round (he finished 19 under par). He also won the tournament the previous year. Hogan is considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, so having an athlete of his caliber in Reno in the early part of the 20th century was rare. Hogan’s prize money for winning the 1948 Reno Open was $3,500, one of the highest numbers on the tour that year.
* Bizarre fight between Lewis and Akinwande: Lennox Lewis’ WBC heavyweight title belt defense against undefeated Henry Akinwande was scheduled for Atlantic City, but legal issues in New Jersey for promoter Don King led to a location change to Caesars Tahoe. at Stateline. Things got weirder from there as the 6ft 7in Akinwande kept grabbing the 6-5 Lewis. After several warnings and a 19 second hold from Akinwande in the fourth round, referee Mills Lane disqualified the contestant.
* Land speed record established: We’re going to take this one away from Reno/Tahoe and expand to Black Rock Desert for the final entry. In October 1997, Thrust SSC under RAF Wing Commander Andy Green set the world land speed record at 763.035 miles per hour, becoming the first car to break the sound barrier. This land speed record remains one of the benchmarks of technological development. And if that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight into northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.