By John F. McKenna: Jack Dempsey roared onto the boxing scene just prior to the beginning of the 1920’s. The “Roaring Twenties” if you will. And no individual did more to put that roar into the age which brought theUnited States into its role as a world power immediately after “The Great War”. In his own iconic way perhaps without even realizing it Dempsey transcended the sport of boxing which was a wildly popular sport at the time.
As incredible as it may seem, “The Manassa Mauler” as he was known, was even more popular than his good friend baseball icon Babe Ruth. It has been correctly said that Yankee Stadium was “The house that Ruth built” because of the Babe’s impact on the game of baseball . The logical conclusion then is that Dempsey took boxing from the backwoods sport it was and ushered it into the 20th century. The timing could not have been more perfect.
The 1920’s has been described as the “Golden Age of Sports” and boxing needed a superstar, which Dempsey clearly became, to go along with Babe Ruth in baseball, Bill Tilden in tennis and Walter Hagen in golf. Dempsey and boxing became the perfect match.
In 1917 and 1918 Dempsey began to leave his mark on boxing and quickly rose up to become a legitimate contender for big Jess Willard’s heavyweight crown. Willard became a hero of sorts to white Americawhen he became “The White Hope” who was finally able to wrest the title away from Jack Johnson, stopping him in the 26th round under a hot Havana sun in April 1915. Film footage revealed that Johnson was in fact KO’d by Willard and that he did not take a dive as he claimed after the fight (You Tube – Jack Johnson vs Jess Willard). Willard pointed out that it was illogical to wait until the 26th round to take a dive. Willard’s classic quote was “If he was going to take a dive I wish he had done it a lot sooner. It was hot as hell out there!”
Willard was a rugged, tough ex cowboy who had a decent left and a right hand that had already killed one of his opponents in the ring. “Bull” Young died in a 1913 fight after Willard caught him with a ponderous right hand. In fact Willard was fearful that he may injure “the boy” as he referred to the 24 old Dempsey. Willard for his part was known to have a chin of granite and had never been knocked down in his career. Jess, at 6’6” and 245 pounds was known as the “Pottawatomie Giant” and it was fair to say that he gave no thought to the possibility of losing to Dempsey.
Dempse at 6’1 ½” and 187 pounds for the Willard fight, honed is skills in bare knuckle bar room and saloon fights. His favorite quote was an off shoot of the immortal John L. Sullivan’s “I can lick any S.O.B. in the house!” Dempsey tweaked the quote of Sullivan, the man he idolized. Dempsey would announce “I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any S.O.B. in the house.”
Dempsey fought in a bob and weave style which made him difficult to hit particularly for a large opponent, as he moved in to unleash his bombs, eyes blazing and a permanent scowl planted on his face. To add emphasis Dempsey often growled as he approached his opponents.
Dempsey was at his absolute best in the two years leading up to his title shot against Willard and the four years after. In the lead up to his title shot against Willard in 1919, Dempsey scored five straight one round KO’s. His opponent prior to the five straight one round KO’s made it into the 2nd round. Dempsey wound up scoring 25 one round KO’s in his career. On July 27 1918 Dempsey KO’d top contender 6’5”, 225 pound Fred Fulton in 18 seconds.
Dempsey enjoyed taking on larger opponents who seemed to be baffled by his bob and weave style and were totally surprised at his speed and power. From Dempsey’s perspective larger opponents simply presented easier targets. He knew that whoever he hit was going down. Jack usually connected with one of his power shots before his opponents even had a chance to warm up. Woe be it to the opponent who was a slow starter because Dempsey came out with his eyes ablaze and guns firing.
It took the boxing public time to appreciate Dempsey’s skills. Almost no one, boxing experts included, gave him a chance to defeat the towering “Pottawatomie Giant”. After all, big Jess had KO’d the immortal Jack Johnson four years prior. There was one however who openly predicted that Dempsey would be victorious. It was the legendary lightweight champion Benny Leonard who had seen “The Manassa Mauler” in action.
The big fight took place inToledo,Ohioon July 4 under a blistering sun. Temperatures were reported to be in the 106 degree range. When the two fighters approached each other at center ring, Willard pawed out with his left jab as if to use it as a range finder. Dempsey circled around his larger foe like a jungle cat stalking his prey. After about thirty seconds Jack did the only thing he knew how to. He attacked and he did so viciously, while keeping one eye on big Jess’s right hand. Dempsey dug in a wicked right to the body and then uncorked his potent left hook. It is thought to this day that the initial left hook landed by Dempsey was the punch that broke Willard’s jaw. In any case, at that point the fight was essentially over. Willard appeared almost to disbelieve what was happening to him. He slowly crumpled to the canvas for the first time in his career. What followed was undoubtedly the most severe beating ever seen in a boxing ring.
Willard would arise again and again only to be driven back into the canvas by Dempsey’s furious onslaught. Jess suffered numerous broken ribs and bones in addition to a fractured ear drum which left him deaf in one ear for the rest of his life.
Willard’s courage only prolonged the inevitable. The carnage continued for three long rounds. At one point Willard’s wife, who was in attendance, was led away from the horrific scene by friends.
The story circulated by Dempsey’s former disgruntled manager Jack Kearns that Jack’s gloves were loaded in the Willard fight has proven itself to be bogus.Kearnshad been let go by Dempsey because it was thought that he was skimming money from the champion. No less an authority than ring historian and Ring Magazine editor Nat Fleischer was present when Dempsey’s gloves were wrapped and went on record to say that the story was bogus. In addition Willard himself checked Dempsey’s gloves prior to the fight.
This single fight propelled Dempsey and boxing itself into the modern era. It was just the beginning for Dempsey. He was elevated to super star status. On July 2, 1921 Dempsey participated in the first million dollar gate when he took on French World War I hero “The Orchid Man” Georges Carpentier before a capacity crowd of 91,000 fans at Boyle’s Thirty Acres inJersey City,NJ. The fight in addition to being the first million dollar gate was the first fight broadcast by the new medium of radio. It was promoted by Tex Rickard who had boxing fans believing that Georges had a real chance to defeat Dempsey. In fact between Rickard and his good friend George Bernard Shaw they had a hand in manipulating the odds in Carpentier’s favor. One of the press releases described Georges as “The greatest fighter in the world”.
Rickard was a forerunner of modern day promoters. Upon noticing that his new cash cow Dempsey was drawing huge crowds to his training camp in Atlantic City, N.J., Tex began charging a one dollar admission fee to fans so that they could get a glimpse of their hero training.
The extent which Rickard succeeded in putting on the mega fight was evidenced by the star power who put their money down to watch the fight. The match turned into a happening. Everyone who was someone or thought they were someone wanted to be seen at the event including several members of Theodore Roosevelt’s family. The Rockefellers were there as well as was Damon Runyan and H.L. Menken. Everybody wanted to be there.
The reality was that Dempsey had way too much heavy artillery for Carpentier and scored a 4th round KO. The fight pulled in a record 1.7 million dollars, more than double the amount of the previous highest drawing money fight in boxing history. The modern era of boxing was off and running and the roaring twenties were in full swing. Jack Dempsey had earned several times more money in minutes than Babe Ruth earned in an entire year.
On September 14 1923 Dempsey took onArgentina’s “Wild Bull of thePampas” Luis Angel Firpo. And unlike the Carpentier fight Dempsey’s battle with Firpo more than lived up to its advanced media hype. Firpo at 6’3” and 216 pounds was a legitimate threat to Dempsey’s title. He was immensely strong and although crude, he was as rough and tough as they come. Jack trained accordingly.
By now Dempsey was at his peak and weighed in at 192 pounds. Prior to the fight Rickard asked Dempsey if he would just let the fight go a little while so that the boxing fans in attendance would get their moneys worth. Characteristically Dempsey told Rickard to “Go to hell!”
As usual Jack immediately went on the attack. It was unquestionably the most exciting three minutes in boxing history (Dempsey vs Firpo – You Tube). Dempsey had Firpo down seven times in the first round. Dempsey was down twice and in the second knockdown Dempsey was sent flying out of the ring landing on a boxing writer’s typewriter.
Dempsey had no recollection of climbing back into the ring and for that matter he thought afterwards that he had been the one KO’d. The first round ended soon after Dempsey climbed back into the ring. In the second round Dempsey launched a vicious body attack which sent Firpo to the canvas for the final time leaving him writhing around on the canvas as he was counted out. As was his custom Jack ran over and helped Firpo back to his feet. Boxing writers in 1950 voted the Dempsey – Firpo bout the most exciting fight of the first half of the 20th century.
The Firpo fight saw the end of the Toledo Dempsey. Jack started fighting exhibitions and making movies. He had lost the edge that made him the great fighter he had been. Unfortunately boxing fans would never again see the Toledo Dempsey.
After being inactive for three years Dempsey took on tough ex marine Gene Tunney at
Municipal Stadium inPhiladelphiaon September 23, 1926. Dempsey was just a shell of his former self as he pursued Tunney around the ring with little hope of catching him. Jack lost the title that he had held for over seven years by decision. The fight drew a record 120,557.
Dempsey and Tunney would fight again in the famous battle of “The long count” one year later at Soldier Field in Chicagoon September 22, 1927. In what was quite possibly the most controversial fights in boxing history Dempsey floored Tunney in the 7th round but then neglected to retire to a neutral corner as the new boxing rules dictated. Finally after many seconds had elapsed Dempsey obeyed the referees call to go to a neutral corner at which point the referee controversially started his count at one. The delay gave Tunney valuable time to clear his head and he wound up winning the rematch again by a wide margin.
Dempsey retired in 1931 and opened up a popular restaurant inTimes Squarein 1935. The restaurant was a popular spot for the “in crowd”. Dempsey and Tunney became close friends after they retired from the ring. Tunney never received the adulation from boxing fans that Dempsey did during his hey day and that is most likely attributable to the dynamic way in which the “Manassa Mauler” fought.
The line that Dempsey used in explaining why he lost the first fight with Tunney: “Honey I forgot to duck!” was later used by President Reagan in a failed assassination attempt against him in 1981.
No story about Jack Dempsey would ever be complete without a retelling of the incident in which a couple of thugs attempted to mug him on the streets of New York Citywhen he was well into his 70’s. For just a brief period of time the “Toledo” Dempsey was awakened. Dempsey never one to back away from what he loved best, a good fight, lashed back at his assailants, flattening one and causing the 2nd assailant to run away in sheer terror.
Dempsey passed on from this life in 1987 at the age of 83 leaving a great legacy behind.