AMERICA and Jack Dempsey grew up together. As the western world tottered out of its post-war hangover into the crazy spiral of the Jazz Age, Dempsey developed from a raw prize-fighter to a living legend.
In his youth Dempsey was a wandering hobo, riding the rails and fighting for his supper in Wild West saloons. By his late twenties, and with his past buried as mysteriously as his Cherokee Indian heritage, he was a millionaire.
Dempsey demonstrated that in the shining new world of “classless” America, the timeless dreams of poor men were no longer futile. A man could rise out of the dust and make a fortune.
In the early year of his reign as heavyweight champion of the world he was unpopular – he survived a political slur-campaign as well as five defences of his title – but he became, and then remained for the rest of his life, the working man’s hero.
He ran his famous bar on New York’s Times Square for four decades until 1974, keen to stay close to the ordinary people, who in turn went there because there was a good chance that they could sit quietly and drink with a living legend.
And when he died in his Manhattan home on June 1, he was only a few weeks short of his 88th birthday.
He was born in Manassa, Colorado, in 1895 and christened William Harrison Dempsey. He was from farming stock, with Irish and Scottish blood in him as well as Red Indian, and by his mid-teens he had left home to wander the Western towns, working where he could and, when there was no work, fighting for his supper in the back rooms of bars. He taught himself the cold, cynical art of survival in a world where life was often short and usually cheap.
By 1914 his brother Bernie was fighting professionally and young Jack – he took the name from the former world middleweight champion “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey – followed suit. A tough, brawling teenager, he was always in condition and always ready to fight for pay. Many of those early bouts must have gone unrecorded, but his only major setback came in February 1917, when as a raw 21-year-old he was thrown in with the vastly experienced Fireman Jim Flynn.
He “Fireman” had been at the top for a decade: in 1906 he had taken champion Tommy Burns into the 15th round before being knocked out, and in 1912 had been stopped in the ninth of another title crack, this time by Jack Johnson. And he was far too good for the raw youngster. Four times Jack went down in the first round before big brother Bernie threw in the towel.
It was enough to have broken the spirit of many an ambitious prospect, but Dempsey was never a quitter. A casual meeting in a San Francisco bar later that year changed his life. The man he met, Jack “Doc” Kearns, a fast-talking extrovert with an eye for publicity, guided him to the top.
He blasted out Flynn in the first round of a rematch a year and a day after his shock defeat, then boxed a couple of no-decision bouts with the tough Billy Miske, beat Gunboat Smith in two rounds and Battling Levinsky in three.
He was the master of the quick kayo. Carl Morris was flattened in New Orleans in 14 seconds in December 1918 and big Fred Fulton lasted just four seconds longer. Four consecutive first round wins, followed by yet another over one Tony Drake in New Haven, Connecticut, brought him a title shot against champion Jess Willard.
Promoter Tex Rickard staged the bout in Toledo, Ohio, on a blistering day in July 1919.it has been recorded as a day of between 110 and 115 degrees with huge umbrellas over the corners protecting the boxers from the fierce heat. But closer scrutiny of the photographs make it clear that things may have been exaggerated: many in the crowd wore their jackets.
Willard, the tallest man ever to win the heavyweight crown at 6ft 61/4ins, was an ex-cowboy from Kansas who had become the darling of the American fight fans a few years before by knocking out the hated Jack Johnson. The brilliant Johnson, the first black man to win the biggest prize in the game, had been knocked out in 26 rounds in Havana in 1915.
Four years had taken its toll on the capable, but unexceptional, Willard. He was now 37 and had defended his title only once before in four years, with a 10-round no-decision against Frank Moran in 1916. Even so, many thought he would be too big for the 6ft 1ins, 13st 7lbs Dempsey. Not so, Kearns. He put $8000 (about £2000 at the time) on a Dempsey victory in the first round.
Willard was in trouble in the opening seconds and floored seven times in a sensational first round. He was saved by the bell, but in the confusion and noise the referee failed to hear the timekeeper and counted out the champ.
Kearns and Dempsey thought the bet was won, but they had to be called back to finish the job as the stricken Willard was helped to his corner. Blood poured from his face, and in more humane times it’s doubtful that he would have got past the first 90 seconds, but he plodded stubbornly through the second and third rounds before retiring on his stool, with his cheekbone fractured in 13 places.
Dempsey, a ferocious hitter who fought from a crouch and never stopped going forward, was now recognised as the most powerful man in the sport, the best of the lot. But it was not enough to make him popular.
Theories abounded after the victory over Willard. Some claimed he soaked his bandaged hands in plaster of Paris before gloving up, and others talking of an iron bolt in his fist which fell out at the end of round one, explaining why he failed to drop Willard again in the remaining six minutes.
Until the day he died in 1968 Willard was convinced Dempsey had “something” in his gloves. Whatever did happen, Willard was left to ponder the rest of his life while Dempsey roared on to the magical million dollar gates of the 1920s.
His first defence was against old rival Miske, in Benton Harbour, Michigan, on September 6, 1920. Miske had given him tow good fights, but was now a sick man and Dempsey gobbled him up in three rounds.
Bill Brennan lasted into the 12th round in Madison Square Garden, New York, on 14 December 1920 – and then began the Golden Era of Boxing. In front of 80,000 fans at a packed Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Jersey City, he fought the glamorous Frenchman, Georges Carpentier.
It was the first million-dollar gate in ring history and nicknamed the “Battle of the Century”. Staged on a purpose-built wooden bowl, in July 1921, it grossed $1,789,238.
Carpentier, the “Orchid Man”, and reigning light-heavyweight champion, was a colourful character with a tremendous, flashing right hand. Dempsey mauled his way inside in the first round, won it easily, then ran into trouble in the second as Carpentier found the range.
A fast right hand on the jaw rocked Demspey and for the whole round he battled to stay in the fight. But Carpentier broke his right thumb trying to put the champion away and the tide turned in round three, as Dempsey landed a volley of hard rights to the head and one tremendous right hook to the body.
Carpentier was knocked down from a left hook early in the fourth and then crumpled again for the full count. Dempsey was a national hero.
He rode a smear campaign after a picture of him wearing patent leather shoes during the war was published. Why, people were encouraged to think, was Dempsey, then just a young prizefighter, wearing high quality shoes when everyone else was sacrificing for the war effort? It was similar to the campaign against Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, but Dempsey rode the crisis.
He took two years off, then returned to the ring in July 1923, using his strength to wear down and eventually outpoint the slick, crafty Tom Gibbons in Shelby, Montana. Only 7,202 paid to watch the fight and the town went bankrupt because its banks had invested $300,000 in tempting Dempsey to box there. Poor Gibbons fought for a percentage of the gate and ended with nothing.
Rickard followed up with another million dollar bout against the immensely strong, hard-hitting but crude Luis Firpo of Argentina, who was nicknamed “The Wild Bull of the Pampas”. It went on at the New York Polo Grounds on September 14, 1923 before 82,000 people and it was one of the most sensational fights in heavyweight history.
Firpo was down seven times in the first round but in between knocked Demspey out of the ring, and seemed close to an incredible win. Dempsey was pushed back off the press tables, and finished Firpo in the next round. Firpo had pushed Dempsey to the brink, dropping him twice in that remarkable opening three minutes, but was a wild puncher. A sharper man would have finished Dempsey there and then, because he was badly hurt, but the champion’s superb condition brought him back from the edge.
Dempsey and Kearns began to disagree more often, and the champion stayed away from the ring for tow years, growing fat on his fame and marrying a film star, Estelle Taylor. His wife and Kearns didn’t get on and Dempsey was occupied for long periods by domestic arrangements and legal squabbles, and when he signed to box Gene Tunney in Philadelphia on 23 September 1936, he was unfit, and forced his challenger to accept a ten round fight.
It was another mammoth gate. This time the largest crowd in boxing history, 120,757, turned up to watch the great “Manassa Mauler” defend his title. But in a rainstorm, Tunney proved too slippery for the slowing champion, commanding the ring, making Jack look awkward, riding one bad moment in round four, and soundly out-boxing him. Dempsey’s left eye was closed, his face swollen and he was exhausted when the final bell sounded. The decision was a formality.
He vowed to return and won an eliminator with Jack Sharkey of Boston, who was to go to win the crown in 1932, knocking his man out in the seventh round after setting him up with a controversial body punch which many felt was low.
The return with Tunney was at Soldier’s Field, Chicago, on 22 September 1927 and by now Dempsey was 32-years-old. Once again, more than 100,000 people turned up, paying over $2 million. It was agreed that in the event of a knockdown the standing man should go to the furthest neutral corner while the count took place. Dempsey’s inability to absorb that rule may have cost him the title.
Tunney was way in front when he was nailed and floored by the ropes in the seventh round. Dempsey went to the nearest corner and referee Dave Barry had to hold up the count to order him across the ring. Tunney, meanwhile, had recovered his senses, and used the extra seconds to recuperate fully. He got up and boxed his way to the decision, dropping Dempsey along the way. By the final bell the old warhorse was close to exhaustion.
The long count episode remains one of the most controversial in history. Tunney was on the floor for around 14 seconds, but always maintained that he could have beaten the count had he needed to be up before 10 seconds. He was hurt and shocked when he went down, but from the film, it seems he had his wits about him long before he actually rose and simply made the most of his good luck.
Dempsey knew he was finished and announced his retirement from the ring in March 1928, ignoring Rickard’s pleas for a third fight with Tunney. His career ended with 80 recorded fights, of which he won 60 (49 by knockout or stoppage) drew seven, boxed five no-decisions and one no-contest. He lost seven. Only Flynn beat him inside the distance.
The ex-champ made a fortune from exhibitions until he was in his forties, but had a variety of business interests, including his bar and a hotel on Miami Beach. In World War II he was a coastguard.
And as each succeeding champion stepped into the limelight he was aware of the haunting shadow of the “Manassa Mauler”. Only the greatest – Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali – were mentioned alongside him.
Dempsey always felt his conqueror Tunney deserved that accolade too. He never had anything but respect for the one-time US marine who was shunned by the public, simply because he had trounced “The Champ”. Tunney was articulate, highly intelligent and deeply interested in art, science, music and literature – and people were suspicious of him. Dempsey, however, liked him immensely.
And when Barbara Dempsey, the old champion’s daughter, came to London a few years ago, she revealed an insight into their family life.
“When Gene Tunney’s name was mentioned in our house, it was never Tunney or Gene,” she said. “My father insisted we call him Mr Tunney.”
Dempsey’s health deteriorated slowly in his eighties, and last year had a pacemaker fitted in his heart. His big, old body finally gave out in the bedroom of his home in New York, where he was found by his fourth wife Deana.
Dempsey’s was the blood of another age.