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24 APRIL 2018


Jack Dempsey: The kid could fight

By Patrick Kehoe: Jack Dempsey remembers walking into a bar on the waterfront in Oakland and winding up in the middle of a free for all. As far as Dempsey could tell, several guys surrounded a dapper dressed wise-guy and proceeded to turn the place into a firestorm trying to beat the shine off the loud-mouthed dandy's shoes. Dempsey remembers flattening some of the guys around him before staggering out into the street to fall down and grab some air. The guy in the middle of the action, the guy being bottle whipped who had ignited the mass chaos was none other than "Doc" Kearns. But for brief thanks they were characters passing in the night as far as Dempsey remembers.

Kearns remembers being bounced off the walls and floor of White's Saloon - a watering hole for "barbed wire characters" near the old Oakland iron foundries. Until this an energized lad with jet black hair, a week old growth of beard and blazing eyes started leveling Kearns' associates turned assailants (Kearns had managed the ring leader Vic Hanson) one by one with shuddering force.

The young Dempsey was "retired" and recently married and separated and financially on the lamb. Seemingly, Dempsey had been destroyed by top heavyweight Fireman Jim Flynn in Salt Lake City, Utah, inside a round. And the embarrassment of that loss was the one iron remaining in the despondent furnace of the Dempsey psyche. Some believed that Dempsey might have taken a dive for a bigger payoff. Dempsey's wife was a piano player and reputed prostitute Maxine Cates who - it is alleged - preyed on every cent he could earn with his fists.

Feeling the pressure of financial dependence for the first time in his life many felt Dempsey took the "fast" money and only later created the fiction he had failed to warm up against the hard hitting and explosive Flynn. In a sense the truth hardly matters, as the Dempsey of 1917 was a destitute, confused six foot one 21 year-old ex-miner recently having pretended to be an active heavyweight while weighing no more than 165lbs.

Outside the bar the squeaky voiced kid introduced himself to a dazed Kearns as "Jack Dempsey or 'Young' Dempsey." A meal of gratitude followed and the beginning of their storybook relationship that turned boxing from a near outlaw fringe sport into the gadfly, social set spectacle of million dollar gates and Dempsey to the most famous athlete in the world.

Jack Dempsey remembers receiving a letter from manager Jack "Doc" Kearns asking if the young heavyweight needed a manager. Kearns thanked the young kid from Manassa, Colorado, for helping him out of his difficulty and wondered how he felt about coming to San Francisco and starting over again in boxing. The wily Kearns had a stable of fighters including middleweight Billy Murray, Jimmy Clabby and lightweights "Red" Watson and Joe Bonds with whom he had even toured Australia in 1915 and 1916. Kearns' legendary moves landed him enough money to establish himself in Oakland, California, from where he spend his time picking up serious young talent from around the country.

But Kearns, ever the Klondike Kid, gambler and con artist, thirsted for a headline heavyweight. And, in the young Dempsey, he saw the rawboned savagery he felt was the essence of a king. A barnstorming, bar brawling pick-up fighter with a string of quick knockouts and a penchant for heaping mayhem upon fighters often out weighting him by 30 or 40 pounds was what Kearns loved about the otherwise soft spoken, diffident Dempsey. When Kearns floated his new find to insiders they scoffed at him. "The guy was leveled by Flynn, he's a bum," rang the cigar stoking assessments. What Kearns saw in the dark skinned ruffian was a guy who had never had direction, a whirlwind that only needed to have a target and reason for fighting.

If he had taken the fast money against Flynn what did it matter? There was plenty of time to test his real character under fire against the likes of Gunboat Smith or Fred Fulton or any number of the top contenders. And, if Flynn had indeed stopped the kid, so much the better to have that life lesson out of the way and not hit him in the face when the real fights came rolling along.

Good managers identify the possible essence of a single personality which time and circumstance test to the limits of tolerance for justification and merit embodied. What Kearns saw in the bar was not just the power and the authority to act that courage embosses but the desire to be in the middle of the unknown, the warring essence of dangerous possibility. What the mind has perception to know; what the heart has more than reason to understand.

Kearns had seen the blazing purity of Dempsey's eyes absolutely engaged driving his willpower and the bodies in the bar began to fall. He had seen a fighting man. Kearns decided in May 1917 to see if there was a king somewhere inside this Dempsey kid.

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