By: John F McKenna (McJack)
Jack Dempsey was one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. He was also among the most beloved sports stars ever and truly a superstar in an era known as the “Golden Age of Sports”. His popularity in the 1920’s surpassed even that of baseball icon Babe Ruth. Jack was from Manassa, Colorado, hence his nickname the Manassa Mauler. Dempsey held the Heavyweight Championship from 1919 until 1926 and is considered by many boxing historians to be the most dynamic and exciting fighter ever to lace on a pair of boxing gloves. He had a kill or be killed mentality when in the ring, scowling and even growling as he moved in menacingly to destroy his opponents. Jack’s style of bobbing and weaving while moving in made him difficult to hit. He had the uncanny ability to get inside on bigger men and unload his explosive power with either hand. In the 19 months leading up to his historic fight with Heavyweight Champion Jess Willard, Jack fought an estimated 30 times. Many fights of that era were not recorded. One of Dempsey’s opponents was 6”6”, 225 lb Fred Fulton, a top contender of that era. Jack immediately went on the attack as the bell sounded for the opening round. After only 18 seconds had elapsed, Dempsey was a step closer to a shot at heavyweight champion Jess Willard. Fulton was dispatched with several well placed body shots, fired in quick succession. Jack scored 25 first round knockout in his career. Woe to the fighter who was a slow starter because Dempsey came out of his corner firing. Jack possessed huge hands and forearms for his size and his handler Teddy Hayes said that his fists were the hardest of any fighter he had ever seen. Dempsey was 6’1″ and weighed about 192 lbs (his weight for the Firpo fight). Opponents were often surprised at his quick panther like movements when he began his brutal attack. There was no feeling out process, just a barrage of quick, piston like punches that were designed to annihilate his opponent.
When Jack Dempsey went to Toledo, Ohio to wrest the crown from the towering Jess Willard, the spectators could not imagine what they were about to witness. The epic battle was held on July 4, 1919. Jess stood 6’6″ and weighed 245 lbs. He was referred to as the “Pottawatomie Giant”. Willard took Dempsey lightly, saying boastfully that no man could hurt him, least of all the youthful challenger he was about to face. Jess actually feared that he would kill “the boy” as he referred to Dempsey. Jess had knocked out the great Jack Johnson four years prior in 1915 with a ponderous right hand in the 25th round. The claims by Johnson that he took a dive in the 25th round are bogus as can be seen on You Tube (Willard vs. Johnson), but that’s a subject for another day. As the fight began, Dempsey circled Jess for about 30 seconds, trying to figure how to move in on him. Then he did the only thing he knew how. He attacked, using the same style he had honed, not only in the ring, but in numerous bar room and mining town brawls. He hit Willard with a body shot and then a devastating left hook to the jaw. Jess slumped to the canvas for the first time in his career. Willard was totally unprepared for the kind of power Dempsey had and when he got up, he fought on instinct alone. Willard kept getting up and Jack kept pounding him back into the canvas, determined to end Willard’s reign as Heavyweight Champion and to begin his own. It must be remembered that in 1919 fighters did not have to go to a neutral corner after scoring a knockdown. Dempsey, a born killer in the ring, pounced on Willard the second his knee left the canvas after each knockdown. It must have been a horrific site for Willard’s wife who was in attendance. When the bell sounded ending the first round, pandemonium broke loose as most people thought the fight was over. Dempsey had to be called back into the ring. The crowd was going wild. The fight should have ended there, but the torture continued for two more rounds. Willard suffered numerous injuries, including a broken jaw, a broken cheek bone, 4 cracked ribs and a broken ear drum in his right ear. He remained deaf in his right ear for the rest of his life. Jess, who had fought Jack Johnson, said that Dempsey was by far the hardest puncher he had ever fought. Dempsey. 24 years old, became the youngest Heavyweight Champion up to that time. A rumor that Jack’s gloves were loaded was started by Dempsey’s disgruntled ex manager Jack “Doc” Kearns a few years after the fight. Dempsey and Kearns had a falling out and Dempsey fired Kearns. Kearns started the rumor in retaliation for being fired. The false claim never stood up to close scrutiny and Kearns son admitted years later that it was a joke that his father was trying to pull on Dempsey. Boxing historians, when referring to Dempsey, refer to the “Toledo” Dempsey because that was where this famous fight took place. The “Toledo” Dempsey was the raw, savage, murder in his eyes, fighter that put boxing on the map. A new era of boxing was heralded in as a result of this fight. Gone were the days when fights had to be held in out of the way places because of its illegality. It is ironic that boxing was taken out of the dark ages by the most savage heavyweight champion in history.
On July 2, 1921 Dempsey would participate in the first “million dollar gate” when he took on France’s famous World War I hero, Georges Carpentier, the Orchid Man. 80,000 people descended on Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City, NJ to witness this fight. The arena had been built for this event. Jack was way too powerful for Carpentier and KO’d him in four rounds. The live gate receipts for the fight were 1.7 million dollars. Carpentier took home $200,000. including film proceeds. Not bad for 1921, when Babe Ruth was getting about $125,000 for playing 154 games.
If Yankee Stadium was the “House that Ruth built”, then surely Dempsey made boxing the wildly popular sport it was in the 1920’s. Jack made money for a lot of people, including promoter Tex Rickard. It has been said that Dempsey put the roar in “the Roaring Twenties”. Even Al Capone, who was a fan of Dempsey’s, wanted a piece of the action when Jack fired “Doc” Kearns. Jack, eager to clean up his image, politely refused Capone’s offer.
Though Dempsey was a pure slugger and a born killer in the ring, he worked hard to perfect his God given skills, always training hard to perfect his craft. He soaked his face in a brine solution to toughen his skin so that he would not cut.. He had a way of rotating his shoulders when delivering a punch so that even if he was out of position, he could still deliver a knockout punch. Many of the techniques he used have been lost. He had a technique of delivering his punches in which he would tighten up his fist at the moment of impact. He always insisted that this was why his punches were so devastating.
On Sept 14, 1923 Dempsey took on Argentina’s, Luis Angel Firpo “The Wild Bull of the Pampas” at the Polo Grounds in New York City. This fight also can be viewed on You Tube (Dempsey vs Firpo). Dempsey achieved boxing immortality as a result of this fight.. It was voted by boxing writers in 1950 as the best and most exciting fight of the first half of the 20th Century. Firpo was 6’3” and weighed in at 216 lbs. He was a bear of a man and enormously strong. Dempsey came in at 192 lbs. Jack as usual came out firing with his fast and explosive left hooks and right crosses. Firpo was down 7 times in the first round and the granite chinned Dempsey was down twice. Jack was sent clear out of the ring in the first round, landing on a boxing writer’s typewriter. He was shoved back into the ring by sportswriters and beat the count of 10. Amazingly Dempsey resumed fighting as the bell sounded ending the most incredible 3 minutes of boxing in the history of the sport. Jack resumed his attack as soon as the gong sounded for the 2nd round. He landed a left hook and right cross and Firpo crashed to the canvas as if being pole axed, writhing around on the canvas in pain from a Dempsey body shot. When the count reached 10 Dempsey rushed over to help Firpo up off the canvas. This fight demonstrated Dempsey could take a beating as well as give one. Mike Tyson, who had a style not too far removed from Dempsey’s, is a big admirer of him. Prior to the fight promoter Tex Rickard hinted strongly to Dempsey that he should allow this fight to go on for a while so that the crowd, who had paid to see it would get their moneys worth. In his characteristic style Dempsey told Rickard to “Go to Hell!”
Three years would elapse before Dempsey entered the ring again. Unfortunately for boxing fans they would not see the “Toledo” Dempsey again, save for very brief flashes of it. In 1926, Jack would defend his Title against ex marine Gene Tunney in Philadelphia. Tunney’s style could not be more different that Dempsey’s. Gene was a scientific fighter. His style would prove very troublesome to a killer like Demspsey, who no longer had the killer instinct or the stamina to chase a clever boxer like Tunney around the ring. Gene Tunney was very cerebral both inside and outside of the ring. He read and quoted Shakespeare, which did not set well with boxing fans who had come to adore Dempsey. Tunney easily defeated Dempsey in a 10 round bout ending the reign of the most exciting heavyweight champion in boxing history.
In the interim between the first and second Dempsey vs Tunney fights, Jack took on up and coming, future heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey on July 21, 1927 in Yankee Stadium before 72,000 boxing fans. The fight was billed as an elimination fight to determine who Gene Tunney’s next opponent would be. This fight would demonstrate how much “The Manasa Mauler’s” skills as a fighter had diminished. He had lost his ferocity and “go to hell” attitude that had turned him into one of boxings greatest fighters at any weight class. Sharkey was ahead on points and beat Dempsey to the punch time after time. As the end of round 7 approached, Sharkey turned to the referee to complain about a low blow. In a flash Dempsey landed a wicked left hook to the chin, scoring a devastating knockout. The adage, “protect yourself at all times” was made very
Profound by what happened to Sharkey in this fight. Dempsey vs Sharkey can be seen on You Tube. The footage shows Sharkey writhing around on the canvas in a futile effort to get up. After Sharkey was counted out, Dempsey as usual, rushed over to assist in carrying another of his victims to his corner.
Having earned his shot at the title, Dempsey would again clash with Tunney, this time in Soldier Field in Chicago The rematch would draw a live gate of $2,658,660 (22 million dollars in todays dollars). A staggering amount of money when you consider there was no televison or Pay Per View in 1927. Tunney would once again outbox an over the hill Dempsey. In a brief flurry in the 7th round, Jack cornered Tunney on the ropes and knocked him down with a few well placed shots. Jack refused to obey the referee’s instructions to go to a neutral corner. Demspey did what he always had done in the past, he hovered over his opponent waiting for him to get up so he could pounce on him once again. Fortunately for Tunney, the referee did not begin his count until Dempsey finally went to a neutral corner. Dempsey’s stubbornness undoubtedly cost him the fight. Tunney was down an estimated 13 seconds.
Tunney got back on his bicycle for the rest of the fight and won the decision. The crowd in attendance numbered 120,000. Tunney, now the champ dictated the percentages for the earnings. That was how things were done in those days. He earned $990,000 for his work. Ex champ Dempsey earned about half of that. Al Capone had offered to fix the fight for Dempsey, but to Jack’s credit, he refused. The second Dempsey vs Tunney fight would be forever known as “The Battle of the Long Count” and is controversial among boxing fans and historians to this day.
The boxing crowd now adored Dempsey and forgave him for not going into the service in WW I. The fans made it clear that they wanted their heavyweight champion to be a tiger in the ring as Dempsey was and not some egghead that could quote Shakespeare verbatim.
Dempsey retired in 1931 and opened a restaurant in Times Square in 1935 which was a popular hot spot for the in crowd. Everyone wanted to see Dempsey and shake his hand.
Jack also entered the service in 1942 and served admirably. The ghost of not serving in WW I was finally put to rest. The “Toledo” Dempsey was awakened when Jack was in his seventies. A couple of thugs approached him on the streets of New York City and attempted to mug him. Jack lashed out viciously at his assailants, flattening one and causing the other to run away in terror.
Dempsey and Tunney became close friends after their famous ring battles and remained so for the rest of their lives.
Jack passed away at the age of 87 in 1983. The line that Demspey used to explain to his wife why he lost his first fight with Tunney, “Honey I forgot to Duck!”, was used by president Reagan when he was shot by an attempted assassin in 1981. Dempsey remains an important figure to boxing fans all over the world. Boxing historian Bert Sugar rates him right near the top of the great heavyweights. He was certainly the most exciting heavyweight champion to watch. His size, 6”1’, 192 lbs, rather than being a detriment was actually used to his own advantage against larger opponents, who ever he hit was going down. Jack Dempsey, truly a champion of the ages.