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Jack Dempsey Revisited
By Thomas Hauser
September 22nd will mark the eightieth anniversary of the famous “long count” fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. The two men are remembered as adjoining links in history’s chain of heavyweight champions. But Dempsey was more than just another champion. He was one of the most charismatic fighters in ring history and the bridge between boxing’s old and modern eras.
Boxing’s most popular heavyweight champions have reflected the age in which they reigned. Joe Louis was perfectly juxtaposed with the trials of the Great Depression and World War II. Rocky Marciano mirrored the simple optimism of the 1950s. Muhammad Ali was inextricably intertwined with the turmoil of the 1960s. Mike Tyson embodied the excess and wanton greed of the late-1980s.
Jack Dempsey personified the “Roaring ‘20s.” It was a time when Red Grange was synonymous with college football, Bill Tilden epitomized tennis, and Bobby Jones dominated golf. Even a horse got into the act with Man O’ War winning 20 of 21 races entered. But two giants bestrode it all: Dempsey and Babe Ruth.
In the ring, Dempsey attacked with unrelenting ferocity. Ruth swung for the fences every time he stepped to the plate. Dempsey fought like Ruth played baseball, and Ruth played baseball like Dempsey fought. Millions of Americans thrilled to their exploits as they led the way to a previously unimaginable commercialization of sports.
At decade’s end, Ruth signed a contract that paid him $80,000 a year. When asked if it was appropriate for him to make more money than the president of the United States, The Babe famously replied, “Why not? I had a better year than he did.” Dempsey, by then, had made ten times the president’s annual salary for one night’s work.
The 1920s are thought of as a “Golden Age of Sports,” but they were also a golden age of sportswriting. Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan, Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Hype Igoe, and Westbrook Pegler were among the many who contributed to the Dempsey legend. Thus, it’s surprising how few books are devoted in their entirety to him.
Jack Dempsey by Randy Roberts (published in 1979) remains the most reliable repository of information about the fighter. Dempsey himself contributed to four autobiographical works. The other biographies (and there aren’t many) are, for the most part, hagiographies that contain nuggets of information but also recount incidents that seem less real than apocryphal.
William Harrison Dempsey (the fighter’s original name) was born in Manassa, Colorado, on June 24, 1895. His parents were Irish, although both had Cherokee blood. A great-great-grandmother on his father’s side of the family (Rachel Solomon) was Jewish.
The life expectancy for a white male born in the United States in 1895 was 47 years. For a child born into poverty in the American West, it was considerably less. The Dempseys were poor. “I had only one toy; a spinning top that my father whittled out of wood,” the fighter later recalled. “I didn’t know any other toys existed.” Of eleven children born to Hyrum and Celia Dempsey, two died in infancy, one died of tuberculosis at a young age, one committed suicide after shooting his wife, and another was stabbed to death.
Dempsey was schooled through eighth grade. At age sixteen, he left home. Roberts observes, “Pictures from this period show William Dempsey as a beetle-browed dark-haired youth with dirty hands and long taut muscles on a large-boned but thin frame. One’s attention, however, is immediately focussed on his face. The nose, broken in several places, the expressionless mouth, and the cold haunting eyes suggest a childhood that had been less than kind. The reasons for leaving home are written everywhere on that hungry face.”
For five years beginning in 1911, Dempsey was a wandering man. “There was no romance in the life,” Roberts writes. “He lived in mining camps and hobo jungles, rode the rods, and more than once begged for food. What separated him was his willingness, even eagerness, to work. He accepted any type of employment from washing dishes, cutting lawns, and scrubbing floors to the harder work of coal-mining, digging ditches, and picking fruit.”
Dempsey later elaborated upon that theme. “On the banks of the railroad tracks,” he recalled, “generally near a fresh-water stream, hobos, tramps, and others who had fallen on hard times would gather, bundled up in layers of old clothing and newspaper, warming themselves and whatever food they pooled over a fire. As long as you threw a donation in the pot, you were welcome to eat. Moving was part of the business of survival. When all the peaches had been picked in one town, we’d hear that the beets were coming in a hundred miles away. Or the sheriff might drop a gentle hint; something like, ‘Get outa here, bum.’ I was a dishwasher and a miner; I dug ditches, punched cattle, and shined shoes. I went hungry for days rather than steal. I begged for any kind of job to earn a flop and a meal.”
As for riding the rods (the two narrow steel beams on the underside of a train car), Dempsey remembered, “Sometimes it got real cold under the train. You’d be hanging on with your eyes shut to avoid the hot blinding cinders and trying to keep warm at the same time. It wasn’t easy, especially when exhaustion set in. When that happened, I would ties my hands and feet to the train’s lower rungs. You have to be desperate to gamble like that. But if you weren’t desperate, you wouldn’t be on the rods.”
“Sure, I was a hobo,” Dempsey said, summing up. “But I was never a bum.”
Dempsey had always loved to fight. “At the age of eleven,” he later recalled, “I was preparing to be a prizefighter.” From that time on, he’d bathed his face and hands in beef brine to toughen them up and chewed resin from pine trees in the belief that it would strengthen his jaw.
It was during his wandering period that Dempsey began fighting as a source of income. “From the time Dempsey left home,” Roberts writes, “he fought to earn money whenever he could. He battled in barrooms, mining camps, wherever men gathered. Sometimes he was beaten; for in the world of miners, cowboys, railroad workers, and lumberjacks, there was frequently someone who could maul a 130-pound sixteen-year-old. But he was at ease amidst violence. He wanted desperately to leave the world of poverty. He was certainly not afraid of being hurt or of injuring other men.”
Dempsey estimated that, fighting under the name “Kid Blackie”, he had a hundred fights in Colorado, Utah, and Nevada between 1911 and mid-1914. “There were days when fighting only got me a buck or two,” he recalled. “I was knocked down plenty. I wanted to stay down; I couldn’t. I had to collect that two dollars for winning or go hungry. I had one fight when I was knocked down eleven times before I got up to win. I had to get up. I was a hungry fighter. When you haven’t eaten for two days, you’ll understand.”
It was also during this time that Dempsey developed the fighting style that would serve him well throughout his ring career. He moved forward, chin tucked in, throwing punches from the opening bell with all-out aggression with both hands. Every punch had the power to hurt his opponent. If he was knocked down, he got up and started punching again. As Paul Gallico later wrote, “He recognized no deadlines on the body of his opponent and asked for none to be enforced upon his.” He hit low and on the break. Ray Arcel put things in perspective saying, “Dempsey was a saloon fighter. With Dempsey, every part of your body was a legal target. And when he hit you, you stayed hit.”
Dempsey himself would acknowledge, “Many said I was ruthless in the ring. How I’d stand over a fellow who was down and clout him as he tried to rise; how I would get behind an opponent staggering to his feet and flatten him with a sucker punch as he turned to face me. I did all those things and more, and I did them well. I learned those tricks from men who flattened me as I struggled for footing or threw brain-shaking sucker rights as I turned groggily to face them. It was part of the rules through many of my ring years. I could hit and I had fast hands. I took them out as quick as I could. Anytime a man is in front of you, regardless of who he is, he’s always got a chance. You may get your eye cut; you may break your hand; you may get your jaw broken. So the main thing is, the sooner the safer.”
Dempsey’s first recorded bouts as a professional were in Colorado and Utah in 1914. Then he dropped the name “Kid Blackie” and became known as “Jack” Dempsey in tribute to the great nineteenth-century middleweight who had fought under that name. In 1916, he journeyed to New York but was unable to earn enough fighting to cover his expenses. In old age, he would reminisce, “Only later did I realize that New York never wants you. It’s only you that wants New York.” After three months in the big city, he rode the rods back west.
Then Maxine Cates entered his life. “I love women,” Dempsey said decades later. “An awful lot of women have been kind and generous and magnificent company. I spent some time [In Salt Lake City] with the girls along Commercial Street. They were, let’s say, named for the street. We got along well.”
Cates played piano in a saloon on Commercial Street in addition to performing other tasks. She and Dempsey were married on October 9, 1916. He was 21; she was 36. “I knew about girls,” Dempsey said later. “I didn’t know about women.”
Once they were married, Dempsey traveled and fought while Maxine continued to do what she did best. They saw each other occasionally and he sent her money from time to time. In February 1919, they were divorced. She died five years later in a dance-hall fire in Juarez.
Meanwhile, Dempsey’s ring career took a quantum leap forward in 1917, when he fell under the managerial guidance of John Leo McKernan (better known as “Doc Kearns”).
Kearns knew the boxing business, was well-connected, and came to his task unencumbered by ethical considerations of any kind. By 1919, thanks to good match-making, better publicity, and his fighter’s skills, he’d built Dempsey into an attraction of modest renown.
But boxing in the early decades of the twentieth century was at low tide. The sport hadn’t produced a popular heavyweight champion since James Jeffries retired in 1904. Moral “reformers” (who enjoyed the upper hand in American life) regarded the sweet science as sinful, and their efforts to abolish the sport had gathered steam as the hated Jack Johnson emerged as champion in 1908 and continued his reign.
Finally, on April 5, 1915, Jess Willard defeated Johnson in Havana. A new champion was poised for stardom. After winning the title, Willard was paid $10,000 for a two-week theatrical engagement in New York. Then he went on tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Unfortunately, what he didn’t do in the ensuing years was fight. Instead, he took the championship into semi-retirement, defending it only once in four years.
In 1919, George Lewis “Tex” Rickard (America’s premier boxing promoter) lured Willard back into the ring with a $100,000 guarantee to fight an opponent of the promoter’s choosing. Rickard wanted a challenger who could beat Willard and would be a marketable champion. Kearns talked him into designating Dempsey. New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Nevada refused to host the bout because of anti-boxing sentiment. Ultimately, Willard-Dempsey settled in Toledo, Ohio. It was the first major outdoor prizefight held in the United States since James Jeffries had come out of retirement to be battered by Jack Johnson on July 4, 1910 (exactly nine years earlier).
The pre-fight build-up to Willard-Dempsey marked the first time that the public was charged to watch a boxer train. Willard charged 50 cents for admission to his workouts; Dempsey, a quarter. On the day of the fight, the challenger weighed in at 187 pounds; the champion at 245.
The match was contested in a temporary arena constructed from unpolished pine boards replete with splinters and oozing sap. The temperature was over 100 degrees. “You always think you’re going to win,” Dempsey said later. “That’s one thing a fighter must have. Otherwise, there isn’t any use fighting.” But in the minutes before the bout began, there were doubts.
“Willard kept me waiting,” Dempsey recalled. “That can be torture when you’re keyed up. Then he came into the ring like a moving mountain, dropped his robe, turned his back on me, and held his arms up to the crowd. I thought I was going to get sick to my stomach. He was in terrific shape. The muscles stood out on his back. The way he was holding up his arms made his fists seem twice as high in the air as I was tall. I looked at all six-feet-six of him and said to myself, ‘This guy is liable to kill me.’”
Then the bell rang.
Willard-Dempsey was a particularly brutal fight in a brutal sport. One minute into round one, the challenger landed a series of blows to the champion’s body followed by a left hook that all but caved in the right side of Willard’s face. Thereafter, Willard absorbed as brutal a beating as has ever been administered in a prizefight. In 1919, a fighter who knocked an opponent down could stand over him and attack as soon as his opponent’s knee left the canvas. That was the modus operandi Dempsey followed. He downed Willard seven times in the first round, smashing him to the canvas again and again while the champion was in the process of rising but not yet ready to defend himself.
Willard suffered a horrible beating. After three rounds, his jaw and nose were broken. Six teeth had been knocked out. There were cuts above and below both of his eyes. “The right side of his face,” Roberts writes, “looked like a peach that had been repeatedly dropped onto concrete.” He could fight no more.
“I’ve been around twenty-five years,” Max Baer said after winning the heavyweight title himself in 1934. “And I’ve met only one guy who could get in a room with me, lock the door, turn out the lights, and work his way out. Jack Dempsey. The day he licked Willard, I’d have been lucky to last a round with him.”
Dempsey’s triumph was a harbinger of things to come. The previous record gate for a prizefight had been $270,755 (generated by Johnson-Jeffries). Willard-Dempsey drew $452,224. And on a personal level, Dempsey suddenly found himself being treated very differently by the world at large.
“The first change I noticed after beating Willard,” the new champion said, “was that I could talk to nice people. I hadn’t met many along the line, but those I had met frightened me. It was embarrassing to say something to them and see their faces go blank, so I had learned to shut up. But suddenly, people understood me. They started laughing at my jokes. Women changed too. Every ‘Hello, Mr. Dempsey’ sounded real kind and interested.”
Thereafter, Dempsey contracted for a lucrative circus engagement. In 1920, he ventured to Hollywood, where he received an advance plus $1,000 a week to appear in several films.
But there was a nagging issue that wouldn’t go away. There were whispers, and segments of the press wouldn’t let it die. The United States had entered World War I in April 1917. One month later, Congress enacted a law providing for a military draft. Physically-fit men of military age were exempt from the draft if they held a job in an industry that was essential to the war effort or were the primary means of financial support for their family. Dempsey had applied for, and received, an exemption from the draft board in San Francisco on grounds that his wife (Maxine), father, mother, widowed sister, and his sister’s children were financially dependent upon him. Before the war’s end, he’d fought in several bouts to raise money for various Army and Navy funds. But he hadn’t gone to war.
After Willard-Dempsey, Grantland Rice wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “Dempsey is the champion boxer but not the champion fighter. It would be an insult to every doughboy that took his heavy pack to front-line trenches to refer to Dempsey as a fighting man. If he had been a fighting man, he would have been in khaki. So let us have no illusions about our new heavyweight champion. He is a marvel in the ring, the greatest hitting machine even the old-timers have ever seen. But he isn’t the world’s greatest fighting man. Not by a margin of fifty million men who stood or were ready to stand the test of cold steel and exploding shell. It would be an insult to every young American who sleeps today from the Somme to the Argonne to crown Dempsey with any laurels built of fighting courage.”
Then, on January 23, 1920, the San Francisco Chronicle published a letter written by Maxine Cates stating that Dempsey had fraudulently evaded the draft. More specifically, Cates claimed that she had supported Dempsey with her work earnings rather than the other way around. She further claimed that she had letters from Dempsey in which he’d elaborated on how he’d evaded the draft. A heated public debate fueled by more statements from Maxine, rebuttals from Dempsey and Doc Kearns, and extensive newspaper commentary followed.
The matter was further exacerbated by a photograph. In autumn 1918, Dempsey (then a rising young heavyweight) had been asked to pose in the Sun Shipyard for a publicity photo that would be used to recruit shipyard workers. “In the shipyard,” he later recalled, “I was given a pair of striped overalls and told to slip them on over my street clothes. Snap. Then I was handed a riveter’s machine. Snap. Snap. Snap. And that was that. The next morning, I unfolded the newspaper and there I was, dressed in those crisp overalls with my shiny patent leather suede-topped shoes sticking out like sore thumbs.”
On January 28, 1920, the New York Times editorialized, “Dempsey, whose profession is fighting, whose living is combat, whose fame is battle. Dempsey, six-feet-one of strength in the glowing splendor of youth, a man fashioned by nature as an athlete and a warrior. Dempsey did not go to war, while weak-armed strong-hearted clerks reeled under the pack and rifle; while middle-aged men with families volunteered; while America asked for its manhood. There rests the reason for the Dempsey chorus of dispraise.”
One week later, Maxine Cates met with assistant United States attorney Charles Thomas (who had been assigned to investigate the Dempsey matter). At that meeting, she recanted her charges but it was too late. On February 24, 1920, Dempsey was indicted on a charge of conspiracy to evade the draft.
The trial began on June 8, 1920, and lasted for five days. Dempsey later called them “the five saddest days of my life.” The defense established that the fighter had in fact sent money to Maxine, his parents, and other family members during the time in question and also that he had helped raise $330,000 for the government by participating in several fund-raising bouts. After deliberating for less than ten minutes, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.” But the “slacker” issue left Dempsey scarred for years to come.
Two-and-a-half months after the trial ended, Dempsey defended his championship for the first time with a third-round knockout of Billy Miske in Michigan. His purse was $55,000 (double what he’d made for the Willard fight). On December 14, 1920 (two months after the Walker Law legalized professional boxing in New York), he journeyed to Madison Square Garden and knocked out Bill Brennan in twelve rounds. The fight wasn’t particularly profitable, but it was part of Tex Rickard’s master plan.
“Rickard’s goal,” Roberts writes, “was to make boxing a thoroughly respectable sport that would toss together wealthy heiresses, rich businessmen, members of the middle class, and strong-armed laborers in arenas.” His most notable promotions had been Johnson-Jeffries and Willard-Dempsey.
Then, in 1921, Rickard took boxing to new heights. Religious reform movements in the United States were weakening. The sport was becoming legal in an ever-increasing number of states. Jack Dempsey versus Georges Carpentier followed.
Dempsey-Carpentier was contested on July 2, 1921, in a temporary arena at Boyle’s Thirty Acres on the outskirts of Jersey City, New Jersey. More than 80,000 spectators (the largest crowd in America to witness a sporting event until that time) attended. The bout was also the first world championship match to be broadcast on radio, blow-by-blow.
“When you’re fighting, you’re fighting for one thing,” Dempsey once said. “Money.”
The live gate for Dempsey-Carpentier was $1,789,238 (more than twice the previous record for a fight and equivalent to more than $20,000,000 today). Dempsey was guaranteed $300,000 plus 25% of the motion picture rights. Carpentier was guaranteed $200,000 plus the same 25%. Those numbers were far above anything that fighters had been paid before.
To France (and much of the rest of Europe), Carpentier was a man of destiny. He’d won the light-heavyweight championship with a fourth-round knockout of Battling Levinsky in 1920. But more significantly, he’d served in the French air force and been decorated twice for heroism in The Great War. He was handsome, graceful, intelligent, debonair, spoke reasonably good English, and was seen by the public as “the most glamorous boxer ever to step in the ring.”
Dempsey was cast as Carpentier’s opposite. “He was,” Roberts writes, “the fighter who did not fight when his country most needed his services. He was dark-complexioned; his beard was course; his eyebrows were thick; and his face seemed cast in a permanent iron scowl. In the latter part of his career, Dempsey’s reserve in public would be recognized for what it was; basic shyness. But in 1921, his reserve and awkwardness around people were interpreted as the characteristics of a mean conceited man. There was too much of the hungry hobo about him; far too much of the animal viciousness. He wore his violence as proudly as a crown.”
In other words, Dempsey-Carpentier was hero versus villain with the foreigner in the preferred role. “The Frenchman was the hero,” Dempsey would say later. “I was the flat-nosed bum.”
As July 2nd approached, “The Fight of the Century” was the biggest story in the world. The two fighters, Roberts writes, had been “converted into cultural heroes, each representing a constituency with a set pattern of beliefs.” They had become “symbols of something that transcended sports.”
On the morning of the fight, a column by Grantland Rice in the New York Herald Tribune declared, “The greatest single day in the ancient history of an ancient sport has come at last; a day that has caught the imagination of more people from crowded centers to remote off-lying places than any single contest since the world’s dim dawn.”
“Never before in history,” Roberts writes, “had so many famous Americans gathered together in a single place. The hoopla and ballyhoo had served its purpose. Boxing had become an American obsession. Tex Rickard had transformed prizefight promotion into an art form replete with characters, plot, and dramatic tension.”
The aristocracy was represented at ringside by Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, Fords, Harrimans, Biddles, and Astors. Three of Theodore Roosevelt’s children were there. The United States Senate and House of Representatives adjourned in anticipation of the event because twelve senators and ninety congressmen held tickets. The fight was also attended by a significant number of women. Ladies had been present at Willard-Dempsey but were confined to a special section. At Dempsey-Carpentier, they mingled freely with the men.
Carpentier entered the ring at 3:00 pm. Dempsey followed. The champion weighed 188 pounds; the challenger, 172. As was the custom of the day, the champion was introduced first.
Dempsey later recalled, “Joe Humphreys picked up his megaphone and bawled, ‘In this corner, weighing 188 pounds, from Salt Lake City, Utah, the heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Dempsey.’ The only response from 80,000 Americans,” Dempsey continued, “was a little applause and a low murmur. ‘And in this corner, weighing 172 pounds, the challenger from Paris, France, Georges Carpentier.’ The people went wild. It was deafening. It hurt, believe me.”
The bell rang at 3:16 pm. At 3:30, the fight was over. “Carpentier had more charm, more good manners, and more class in his dress that anybody I had ever met,” Dempsey would say. “But I’m leveling when I tell you that it was probably the worst mismatch in the history of the heavyweight division.”
The New York Times announced the result with a three-line headline that ran the full width of page one and devoted thirteen more pages to the contest.
“I read the stories about the fight in the next day’s papers,” Dempsey later acknowledged. “And I felt that I hadn’t won. Carpentier was the hero of the hour. Never before had anybody seen such courage. I was just a butcher who happened to win. I was a pretty bitter fellow. No matter what you’ve got, you want them to like you.”
After beating Carpentier, Dempsey journeyed to Europe for the first time in his life. En route to England, he wrote in his diary, “Eight years ago tonight, I thought the inside of a box car loaded with loose wheat was a fairly comfortable berth. [Now] here I am, in a beautiful room on one of the finest ships afloat, lying under a silk quilt.”
The champion was well-received in London, Paris, and Berlin. In many respects, he was out of his element. Of a luncheon given in his honor by British publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe, he later wrote, “I didn’t know whether to use a knife or fork. I’d wait and watch. If they noticed, they didn’t let on.” And although he went to the Louvre to view the Mona Lisa, he later confessed that he hadn’t known who Leonardo DaVinci was.
But there was one area where Dempsey was on safe ground. “The most beautiful girls in the world were in Paris,” he would reminisce. “It wasn’t hard to meet them if you were young and heavyweight champion of the world. And I was young and heavyweight champion of the world.”
After Dempsey’s sojourn in Europe, the sporting public waited to see who he would fight next. One day after he’d defeated Willard, a statement had been issued in the new champion’s name saying that he would never fight a “Negro challenger.” Dempsey later told reporters that he was willing to defend his title against a person of color; Harry Wills being the most likely candidate. But Rickard and Kearns were against it, and the fight never materialized.
Dempsey declined to defend his title in 1922, preferring to engage in a series of exhibition matches. Meanwhile, Rickard was temporarily removed from the promotional scene when he was indicted on charges of taking sexual liberties with three girls, ages fifteen, twelve, and eleven. Ultimately, he was found “not guilty,” but his reputation was permanently stained.
As Rickard foundered, Doc Kearns decided to take matters into his own hands and arrange for Dempsey’s next fight. In April 1923, he was approached by a group of bankers, oilmen, and cattle ranchers from Montana, who suggested that the champion defend his title in Shelby. The Montana group, bursting with civic pride, was convinced that the fight would gross in excess of $1,000,000.
Dempsey agreed to a fight in Shelby against Tommy Gibbons on July 4, 1923. The champion was guaranteed $300,000, although he ultimately received only $200,000 that had been put in escrow plus an estimated $80,000 in gate receipts.
Gibbons proved to be an elusive opponent. “Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind,” Dempsey said afterward. “Even though I was awarded the decision, the fight didn’t do my reputation or my popularity any good.”
More significantly, the fight was a financial disaster. Four Montana bank failed due to losses occasioned by the promotion. And this was before federal deposit insurance, so thousands of ordinary citizens lost their life savings.
Properly chastised, Dempsey and Kearns returned to Rickard, who mounted yet another extraordinary promotion in ten weeks time. The opponent was Luis Firpo of Argentina; big, strong, ruggedly handsome, courageous, wildly exciting, and unskilled. Eight days after Dempsey-Gibbons, the 217-pound “Wild Bull of the Pampas” had knocked out 42-year-old Jess Willard in eight rounds.
Like Dempsey-Carpentier, Dempsey-Firpo captured the public imagination. Firpo was marketed as a standard bearer for all of Latin American, while Dempsey (however disliked he might have been) was seen as a symbol of American power.
On September 14, 1923, more than 88,000 fans jammed into the Polo Grounds in New York. An estimated 35,000 were turned away. It was boxing’s second million-dollar gate. Dempsey’s purse exceeded $500,000.
Once again, America’s blue-blood aristocracy was at ringside. They were joined by the likes of Florenz Ziegfeld, John Ringling, and Babe Ruth.
Ten seconds into round one, a left uppercut from Firpo put Dempsey on his knees. Dempsey rose and floored Firpo seven times. Then Firpo launched a series of blows punctuated by a monstrous right hand that knocked Dempsey out of the ring. That moment, recreated on canvas by artist George Bellows, is one of the most famous sports images of all time.
Dempsey landed in the press section; cut his lower back on a typewriter; and with the aid of one or more writers, was pushed back into the ring before the count of ten. “It was pitch dark for a few seconds,” he later recalled. “Then I managed to focus on Firpo’s fuzzy form. I don’t remember climbing back in the ring, but I remember seeing twenty Firpos standing in front of me.”
At the bell ending round one, both fighters were throwing punches with abandon. In round two, Dempsey knocked Firpo down two more times. The Argentinean was counted out at 57 seconds of the round.
“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t,” Dempsey said afterward.
"If they had fought on a barge like fighters used to fight on," Arthur "Bugs" Baer wrote, "Firpo would have won because Dempsey would have drowned."
After Dempsey defeated Firpo, a remarkable transformation of his image began. For four years, the American public had been locked in a love-hate-relationship with the champion, but it had always known he was there. He had charisma, inside the ring and out. His rise from poverty was seen as proof of what a man could accomplish if only he were man enough to try.
Now the 1920s opened wide for Dempsey. “He was champion,” Roberts writes. “But more than this, he became a product. His handshake converted into dollars and cents. His face became as familiar on stage and screen as it was in the ring.”
In late 1923, Dempsey was paid $25,000 for a five-week vaudeville engagement. Then he signed a contract to star in ten films for a minimum guarantee of $1,000,000. The movie roles crafted a heroic virtuous image for the champion. A “legitimate” stage role followed.
Dempsey knew he wasn’t a movie actor. “When I started, I was really bad, and I never got any better,” he acknowledged. As for his theatrical prowess, the fighter said, “I made good money with maybe less talent than any stage character ever. I almost ruined the American theater.”
But Dempsey’s position as heavyweight champion of the world, when fused with his screen career, made him seem larger than life. And he enjoyed the ride.
“After four years of unpopularity that he believed was wholly undeserved,” Roberts writes, “the champion hungered for the admiration of the public. He wanted to be liked, even loved, in the same manner that the public took Babe Ruth to their hearts. Therefore, Dempsey courted the public. His accessibility and willingness to chat with anybody or sign autographs was uncommon, even for the 1920s when popular heroes were often before the public. Although he did not defend his title [for three years], he was seldom far from the minds of the millions of Americans who so keenly followed his career. From the heights of the silver screen and Broadway stage, Dempsey’s face and movements were studied by millions of people who, if not captivated by his acting talent, were awed by his magnetic presence. From their darkened seats in filled movie theaters, they watched as Dempsey changed.”
“This elevation to a national pedestal,” Roberts continues, “had a calming effect on the champion. Instead of becoming bloated with ego, Dempsey became kinder and more considerate of others. Nothing went to his head; not success, money, or the change in his social position. He remained unspoiled, natural, and himself. The hungry, hard, mean, poorly educated Dempsey was replaced by a controlled, gentlemanly, kind, and considerate champion. If the savage in him was not tamed completely, it learned to pass invisibly before the public.”
And in a remarkable turn of events, Dempsey was invited to the White House to meet with Calvin Coolidge. There, the man once vilified for evading the draft was praised by the president of the United States. It was an important moment for Dempsey, and also for the sport that had made him famous.
“The meeting marked the coming of age of professional boxing,” Roberts explains. “No longer was prizefighting an unacceptable barroom sport, a contest between rough brutal men for the enjoyment of rough sadistic men. If the national symbol of the chilly Yankee ethic invited a boxer to the national home, the sport and the man had arrived.”
In 1924, Dempsey moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after guests. Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Valentino were among his friends. John Huston later opined, “Nobody in my lifetime had such a glory about him.”
It was rumored in Hollywood that the champion was intimate with a long line of stars, including Clara Bow. Dempsey had avoided any lasting involvements with women since separating from Maxine Cates. Then he met a sensuous B-list actress named Estelle Taylor. “The hobo turned pugilist turned actor fell madly in love with the glamorous starlet,” Roberts writes. “As a success symbol, she represented everything Dempsey longed for or ever hoped to obtain.”
At the time of their meeting, Taylor was separated from her husband. A divorce followed. She and Dempsey were married on February 7, 1925.
The marriage was a disaster. “Miss Taylor put me into another world,” Dempsey later recalled. “I tried like the devil to fit in and couldn’t. Sometimes it was a little lonely being there. No snubs, really. Nobody snubs the heavyweight champion of the world. But they talked over my head a lot.”
More significantly, Estelle hated boxing and boxing people. At her behest, Dempsey severed his ties with Doc Kearns (which wasn’t an entirely bad thing, since Kearns was taking an exorbitant share of Dempsey’s income, both in and out of the ring). The fighter tried to assimilate into Estelle’s world. He was dedicated to self-improvement. But he could never fully please her. They were divorced in 1930.
Meanwhile, inevitably, there was business to be done in the ring. After three years of inactivity, Dempsey agreed to defend his crown. The opponent was Gene Tunney, a brilliant tactician. Like Dempsey, he’d defeated Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons. The lone defeat on his record was a decision loss to the great Harry Greb, who he’d fought five times.
Dempsey-Tunney embodied the clash of cultures that Tex Rickard loved. Tunney was from New York, a clever boxer with pretentions of intellect. Dempsey was from the west, a puncher whose battle plan was a ferocious swarming assault.
On September 23, 1926, the staggering total of 120,757 fans jammed into Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia. Their number and the $1,895,733 in gate receipts they paid were records for that time.
Years later, Dempsey observed, “Some have said that I prayed before fights. Nonsense. I was so intense and excited that to stop and pray with people packed in the dressing room around me was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Against Tunney, Dempsey didn’t have a prayer. For years, the challenger had studied the champion. As a young man, he’d fought on the undercard of Dempsey-Carpentier and knocked out Soldier Jones in seven rounds. Then, instead of going to his dressing room, he’d stayed at ringside and, still in his robe, watched the main event. Thereafter, he’d viewed films of Dempsey countless times.
Dempsey-Tunney was scheduled for ten rounds; a distance approved by both the champion (who was giving away youth) and the challenger (who figured that ten rounds with Dempsey would be enough). At 29, Tunney was only two years younger than his opponent. But Dempsey had lived a hard life; his body had absorbed the blows of hundreds of fights; and he’d been out of the ring for three years.
Despite being surrounded by tens of thousands of people, a boxing ring can be the loneliest place imaginable. Against Tunney, Dempsey found it to be so. “From the time the bout started,” he acknowledged later, “I was aware that my body and brain weren’t communicating properly. I was slower than I thought, or Gene was faster. He glided around the ring like he was on ice. Wherever I went looking for him, he stuck that left of his in my face, keeping me off balance, piling up points. Now and then, he’d stop me with a stiff right. There seemed to be nothing I could do, though I tried. Tunney was so scientific a boxer that all I seemed to be able to do was to take his punishment.”
Tunney thoroughly outboxed the champion and won every round. He cut Dempsey over the right eye and jabbed his left eye shut. At the bout’s end, Dempsey’s jaw was swollen and he was bleeding from the mouth. “I have no alibis to offer,” he said. “I lost to a good man.”
Years later, Dempsey would reflect back on the fight and note, “It’s sad to hear the fellow with the microphone yell ‘the winner and new heavyweight champion of the world’ when you’re the old one.” But there was another remembrance of September 23, 1926, that the fallen champion carried with him.
“I was booed when I fought Willard, though he seemed twice my size,” Dempsey observed from the vantage point of old age. “I fought a Frenchman before an American audience and was booed. I fought an Argentinean before my countrymen, and I was booed. It always dug deep and hurt terribly. But when I started to leave the ring [after losing to Tunney], something happened that had never happened to me before. To my surprise, I was loudly cheered; more than I had ever been cheered before. The people were cheering for me, clapping for me, calling out my name. I never realized how much I had hungered for a sound like that.”
Dempsey had doubts about fighting again after losing to Tunney. “I was beat like no man should be beat,” he later said. “I just didn’t think I had enough left in my legs to catch a real boxer anymore. And I had doubts about what I could do if I did catch him.”
But he did come back, meeting future heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey on July 21, 1927, at Yankee Stadium before 75,000 fans. Even though it was a non-title bout, the fight generated Demsey’s (and boxing’s) fourth million-dollar gate.
Sharkey dominated the early rounds. “I thought he was going to knock me out,” Dempsey admitted afterward.
Then, in round seven, Dempsey landed a series of low blows. Sharkey turned to the referee to protest, and Dempsey raised his next punch (a compact left hook) to jaw level. “I hit him with one of the last good punches of my life,” Dempsey said later. “It was everything I could throw. His chin was sticking out there, unprotected. I couldn’t miss.”
Sharkey went down, and the fight was over.
Two months later, Dempsey returned to the ring one last time for a rematch against Tunney. For only the second time in boxing’s gloved era, a former heavyweight champion would be facing the man who had dethroned him.
Dempsey’s purse for the first Tunney fight had been $717,000. For the rematch, he was guaranteed $450,000. Interest in the bout ran high, with the challenger given a good chance to win. After all; he was Jack Dempsey. And Tunney was the first heavyweight champion who had won the title by decision rather than knockout.
Tunney-Dempsey II rewrote boxing’s financial record-book. On September 22, 1927, 104,943 fans crammed into Soldiers’ Field in Chicago. The live gate of $2,658,660 (the equivalent of more than $30,000,000 today) would stand as a record for more than fifty years. It wasn’t surpassed until Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks fought in the New Orleans Superdome in 1978. Tunney’s purse was precisely $990,445.54. After the fight, he gave Tex Rickard a check for $9,554.46 in order to receive a check for $1,000,000.
Dempsey was the crowd favorite. Moments before the bell for round one, referee Dave Barry called the fighters to the center of the ring for their final instructions.
After Dempsey-Willard, it had become common to require a fighter who knocked his opponent down to go to a neutral corner and stay there until instructed by the referee to return to battle. More specifically, the rules of boxing had been changed to provide, “When a contestant is down, his opponent shall retire to the farthest corner and remain there until the count is completed. Should he fail to do so, the referee and timekeeper may cease counting until he has so retired.”
Against Luis Firpo, Dempsey was allowed by the referee to stand over his fallen foe and hit the Argentinean as he rose from the canvas. Thereafter, the rules were revised again and “may” became “must.” The “neutral corner rule” now read, “A fighter scoring a knockdown must go to the farthest neutral corner and, if he delays, the count is not to begin until he does.”
Years after Tunney-Dempsey II, Dempsey would recall Dave Barry giving instructions as follows: “Both you boys have received a book of rules of this boxing commission. They are the rules under which you are going to fight. Now I want to get one point clear. In the event of a knockdown, the man scoring the knockdown will go to the farthest neutral corner. Is that clear?”
“We nodded,” Dempsey remembered.
Then Barry continued: “In the event of a knockdown, unless the boy scoring it goes to the farthest neutral corner, I will not begin the count.”
Tunney dominated the early stages of the fight. “I never should have stepped into the ring that night,” Dempsey later admitted. “He had me staggering and leaning against the ropes by the second round. By the third and fourth rounds, I was weary and bleeding.”
Then the unthinkable happened. Fifty seconds into round seven, an old Jack Dempsey metamorphized into the Dempsey of old, landing a perfectly-timed left hook to Tunney’s jaw. “Everything about the punch was right,” Roberts writes. “Tunney started to fall; but before he did, Dempsey hit the champion with a left-right, left-right combination, his body rotating with the punches, a metronome of destructive power.”
Years later, Dempsey gave his own version of events. “I won’t forget the seventh round,” he reminisced. “You don’t forget any second of something you waited seventeen rounds for. I got to him with a pretty good right, and then I hit him with a real good left hook. He started to go, and I hit him seven times while he was going down. I hit him with all the punches I had been trying to hit him with in the ring and in my sleep for the past year. I thought he was finished. I thought I had become the first guy ever to win back the heavyweight title.”
Then Dempsey refused to go to a neutral corner and, instead, hovered over the fallen champion, waiting to strike him as he rose. “I forgot the rules,” he admitted later. “I lost my head and couldn’t move as the referee shouted, ‘Get to a neutral corner.’ I was the jungle fighter so completely set in my ways that I couldn’t accept new conditions.”
Five seconds elapsed before Dempsey allowed himself to be pushed to a neutral corner. Only then did Barry began the count at “one.” Films of the fight support the view that Tunney could have risen within nine seconds of the knockdown. But the fact that he had fourteen seconds to do it made life easier for him once he was on his feet again.
When Barry’s count reached nine, Tunney rose and went into retreat. Dempsey was unable to catch him. Seconds before the bell ending round seven, the champion landed a hellacious body shot. “It was not a question in my mind of being knocked out,” Dempsey later said of that blow. “I thought I was going to die.”
In round eight, Tunney knocked Dempsey down. Then he coasted to a ten-round-decision victory.
“I’ll never really know whether Gene could have gotten up [within ten seconds of the knockdown],” Dempsey said years later. “He has often told me he could have, and I have no reason not to believe him. He took the count, whatever it was. That’s what any smart fighter would have done.”
Eight days after the “long count” fight, Babe Ruth hit his mythic sixtieth home run. Sports were now run on the principles of big business and would be forevermore.
After the Tunney rematch, Dempsey retired from boxing. He thought he was financially secure for life. But in 1929, the stock market crashed and he lost most of his savings (more than $3,000,000). Between August 20, 1931, and August 15, 1932, he fought 175 exhibition bouts; sometimes as many as four a night. Then he moved to New York and, in 1935, opened a popular restaurant on Eighth Avenue across the street from Madison Square Garden. When the United States entered World War II, Dempsey was in his forties. But he enlisted in the Coast Guard, thus putting the “slacker” issue to rest forever.
After the war ended, Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant moved to a new location on Broadway between 49th and 50th Streets. Dempsey loved sitting at a corner table, signing autographs and chatting with everyone who came by. “People like to touch fighters,” Carlo Rotella writes. “Men clap them on the shoulder and linger over a handshake. It’s like putting your hand on a smoothbore cannon and imagining you can feel resonances of a long-ago war.” Dempsey graciously obliged his patrons until the restaurant closed in 1975.
On a personal level, the ex-champion married an attractive brunette singer named Hannah Williams in 1933. They had two daughters, but the marriage was stormy and ended in divorce. Dempsey vowed never to wed again and built his social life around visits to night spots like Toots Shor’s, The Stork Club, El Morocco, and 21. Then, in the mid-1950s, he met and married Deanna Piattelli. They were together until his death in 1983.
Many former heavyweight champions fade from view, but Dempsey remained a public figure all his life. He was content and retained his dignity to the end. “For many years now,” he said as he moved toward old age, “the American people have shown they like me in a thousand flattering ways. I’m grateful for that affection. I didn’t have it when I was champion of the world. And I wanted it so very much. Ever since that mysterious swing, the American people have been wonderfully kind to me; far kinder than any man deserves.”
Grantland Rice personified that “mysterious swing.” In an earlier era, it was Rice who wrote, “It would be an insult to every young American who sleeps today from the Somme to the Argonne to crown Dempsey with any laurels built of fighting courage.” But decades later, Rice declared, “Jack Dempsey was the finest gentleman I met in half a century of writing sports. Mr. Dempsey never knowingly hurt anyone except in the line of business.”
Dempsey, for his part, responded in kind, saying, “I was a pretty good fighter, but it was the writers who made me great.”
Jack Dempsey was a boxing success story. He reigned as heavyweight champion of the world for seven years; longer than anyone ever except Joe Louis (and if fragmented titles are considered, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes). He was a hobo who, as a consequence of the sweet science, became rich and famous and evolved into a gentleman.
“I’ve been knocked down too often to remember,” Dempsey said late in life. “I’ve been knocked out. But I never lost a fight on a foul, nor was I ever thrown out of a ring for not trying.” And on his 75th birthday, he proclaimed, “I can still fight right now, punch with either hand. I couldn’t go very long, but I can still fight.”
“Did Dempsey ever hit me below the belt?” Gene Tunney once asked rhetorically. “He sure did. But when I hit him below the belt, he never complained.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com