In every sport there emerges one person who stands out so prominently that he is referred to as “The Idol.” Such as a man was Jack Dempsey in boxing. While in there tossing punches, he was the one of the most spectacular heavyweights since John L Sullivan. Jack Dempsey was one of the toughest heavyweights in the world. He was born William Harrison Dempsey, in Manassa, Colorado, on 24th June 1895.
He grew up in Colorado, West Virginia, and Utah, in a poor family. Desperate for the money, Dempsey would occasionally visit saloons and challenge for fights saying “I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.” If anyone accepted the challenge, bets would be wagered. According to Dempsey’s autobiography, he rarely lost these barroom brawls. A little known fact about Dempsey is that for a short time he was a part-time bodyguard for Thomas F. Kearns, president of The Salt Lake Tribune and son of Utah’s U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns. The two men remained friends for years afterward.
Dempsey participated in the first million dollar gate at $1,789,238 when he fought Georges Carpentier and before he hung up his gloves, the receipts of four other contests he fought exceeded those figures. His last fight with Gene Tunney grossed $2,658,660 for a grand total in five bouts of $8,453,319.
Every time Jack defended his crown an epic battle ensued, his sensational mix-up with Luis Angel Firpo, the Wild Bull of Pampas, was one of the most thrilling in pugilistic annals, and his joust with Tunney in Chicago, the “Battle of the Long Count,” is the most controversial.
He scored the quickest knockout in a heavyweight bout of national importance when he flattened big Carl Morris in New Orleans in fourteen seconds, bettering by four seconds the time in which he disposed of Fred Fulton, the Sepulpa Plasterer in Harrison, New Jersey, on July 27th of the same year. Both were non-championship affairs, since the Manassa Mauler had not won a title yet.
It was the start of his career as world champion that got the Golden Era of Boxing underway with him as the ace pugilist. Jack Kearns, as his manager was the king of the ballyhoo artists who beat the publicity drum; and Tex Rickards as the promoter.
The most spectacular fighter-manager combination in ring history was dynamic Dempsey and flamboyant Jack Kearns.
Their partnership began with a casual meeting in a San Francisco bar in 1917. Dempsey, then 22, was a small-time slugger who, except of one brief and not impressive visit to New York, had done his battling on the tank-town circuits of Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
He had just drifted to California looking for fights and a manager. Destiny steered him to Kearns, an experienced pilot, colourful showman and ballyhoo artist. The tie-up was an immediate success. Within a year Dempsey became the outstanding contender for the championship.
Promoter Tex Rickard entered the scene and the “Golden Triangle” of Rickard, Dempsey and Kearns introduced the million-dollar gate in Boxing. Rickard promoted most of Dempsey’s important bouts, the one in which Dempsey won the title from Jess Willard and his subsequent clashes with Bill Brennan, Georges Carpentier, Luis Angel Firpo, Jack Sharkey, and the two with Gene Tunney. Five of the bouts drew $1,000,000 or more in receipts. The second Tunney fight set an all time record of $2,658,660 at the time.
It was the fall of 1917 that Dempsey was born in Manassa, Colorado, June 24, 1895, six feet, once inch tall and scaling 180 pounds, he met Kearns, the man who through extraordinary ballyhoo steered Dempsey into the million dollar class of fighters and a world crown.
It was the turning point in young Dempsey’s career and a lucky stroke for the kid from Colorado.
Up to the time that Jack Dempsey had stopped Willard, he had scored forty-two knockouts, but it wasn’t until after he had put big Fred Fulton down for the count that he received sufficient recognition to be considered a proper challenger for the champion.
The quick Fulton victory gained for him the bout with Jess Willard.
William Harrison Dempsey was a tough young hobo; he had fists of iron and a granite jaw.
The Manassa Mauler, who rode the rods on his way to fame and fortune, landed in New York broke and pleaded for a chance to display his fight qualities. He had many managers but only Kearns gets credit for Dempsey’s fabulous career.
Kearns’ publicity campaign, following Dempsey’s triumph over Fulton, succeeded in getting Rickard to stage the Dempsey-Willard fight.
It was July 4, 1919, that Dempsey reached the goal of his ambition, after he battered big Jess Willard into submission to win the World Championship in three rounds. Willard regarded Dempsey as easy prey, did little training, and paid for it with a merciless beating, one of the worst suffered by a heavyweight king.
Not in the memory of the oldest fan could anyone recall when a title received such murderous punishment as did Jess. Yet he responded after each knockdown by rising from the rosin canvas to absorb more punishment.
Willard scaling, 245 pounds to 1871/2 for his opponent, was dropped for counts seven time in the opening round and was reeling, dazed, in a stupor, when the gong came to his rescue as he was sitting on the canvas mouth wide open, eyes glazed, blood streaming from the nostrils and gushing down his parched throat.
He was staring wearily and aimlessly into space as his seconds dragged him to his corner, the broiling sun added to his discomfort.
The referee, Ollie Pecord, hadn’t heard the bell ending the round and held up Dempsey’s hand in victory, but after Jack had left the ring and Pecord was apprised of his error by Warren Barbour, the official timer, he quickly recalled Dempsey and the bout continued.
Willard made a game attempt for a comeback in the second round but fared little better than in the opening frame.
Now the claret was flowing freely from mouth and nose, both cheeks were puffed, two front teeth had found their way to the canvas, His right eye was closed and the right side of his head was swelling rapidly.
He looked as if he were stuck by a blackjack, Yet he fought on.
In the third round he walked out of his corner a pitiful object, he faced another severe attack, but handed back a number of solid punches. Soon his left eye was tightly closed; his face looked as if it had passed through a threshing machine. The bell sounded and the fight was over for Big Jess. He called the referee to his corner, where he had been virtually dragged by Walter Monahan, his second, and announced his retirement.
The King had abdicated, a new King was crowned.
Prior to the Dempsey-Carpentier fight on July 2, 1921, Dempsey had stopped Billy Miske in a title defence in three rounds at Benton Harbour, Michigan, on September 6, 1920, and Bill Brennan in Madison Square Garden on December 14, 1920, in twelve rounds.
The Golden Era got underway when the champion faced the Orchid Kid from France, a popular boxer who had previously annexed the world light heavyweight championship.
The bout, called “The Battle of the Century,” took place at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey, and ended with the dramatic knockout of Carpentier in the first million dollar gate in ring history.
Tex Richard’s enterprise at Toledo on the shores of Maumee Bay was a piker’s gamble compared to what he faced when he undertook to stage the Dempsey-Carpentier mill. But he was amply rewarded with a record attendance and receipts. The colourfulness of the contestants brought out more persons, including the cream of the social set, than ever before in Boxing.
The success of the venture proved the crowning point in the career of Tex Rickard.
The Frenchman took the offensive at the clang of the gong in the second round after Jack had easily won the opening one, and for one complete round had the greatest boxer of recent years rocking and backing under the fury of the onslaught. A swooping overhand punch was responsible.
Then came the turn of the battle, with 80,000 cheering the Orchid Kid as he came out for the third round, Jack leaped forth with an attack and shot in several hard right hand blows to the face and a solid right smash to the stomach that changed the tide.
The Frenchman covered up, was cornered and bombarded with body blows. He looked like a weakling in the hands of his now victorious opponent; the bell was sweet music to his ears.
It took but little time in the fourth and final round to end the fray, the champion’s deadly left hook found its mark to an unguarded body and then Frenchman slipped limply to the canvas.
He took a count of nine, through all this; scarcely a sound was heard as the huge gathering gasped in astonishment at what was happening.
Dempsey swung against the jaw of the challenger and again he went down, his body stretched across the floor. He didn’t move until eight was counted and then attempted to get to his feet but couldn’t make it. The fight was over and Dempsey became a national hero.
Following two years of idleness, Dempsey tackled Tom Gibbons at Shelby, Montana, on July 4, 1923, and the best he could do was to win a decision in fifteen rounds before only 7,202 paid spectators, the lowest in Dempsey’s championship career. The city went bankrupt through its guarantee of £300,000 to the Manassa Mauler, a sum that was far beyond what had been taken in at the gate.
The Shelby fiasco was followed by Dempsey’s greatest battle that in which he knocked out Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina in the second round at the Polo Grounds in New York on September 14, 1923.
The champion floored the Wild Bull of the Pampas seven times in the opening round and twice in the second before putting him away. A short right uppercut to the jaw ended the thriller.
But in those three minutes, fifty seconds of fighting, there was crowded more action than ordinary is witnessed in fifteen rounds of a championship match.
In those minutes of thrilling whirlwind, terrific battling, Dempsey was knocked through the ropes, out of the ring and hadn’t friendly hands pushed him back he would have lost his title.
In that space of less than two rounds, Firpo gave a marvellous exhibition of gameness. Battered and bloody, groggy from the severe punishment, he showed a fighting heart by coming back following those crushing drives and almost relieving Jack of his crown.
It was the most dramatic fight in the history of modern pugilism. It was a gripping, nerve-shaking contest between lion-hearted, heavy-hitting ringmen.
Firpo had the world within his grasp, the richest title in pugilism almost in hand, yet failed to triumph because he lacked one of the great essential in boxing – a fighting brain.
Twice he floored Dempsey in the first round but couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity by following up his attack properly.
The wild-eyed, excited, infuriated, giant, who saw his opponent swaying groggily before him, was unequal in the emergency. Dempsey, fully recovered in the second round, made quick work of his take with speed, agility, and fighting fury.
When Dempsey decided to return to the ring in 1925, he was pressed by the New York State Athletic Commission to accept Harry Willis, a Negro of national prominence, as his challenger, but he refused. This was done after a previous agreement for such a match had fallen through.
His decision resulted in Jack’s being barred in the Empire State. Tex Rickard was appealed to by the Boxing Board and he decided against staging a mixed bout, declaring that he had received a hint from Governor Al Smith that such a contest was not desired in New Your, but James A Farley, Chairman of the New York Commission, emphatically denied the report.
When Rickard arranged to have Gene Tunney face Dempsey and selected the Yankee Stadium for the bout, the Commission put its foot down and refused to sanction it.
The Boxing Board drove the fight out of New York and then sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia was awarded the promotion for September 23, 1926.
It was another million-dollar bout and drew an attendance of 120,757, the largest in boxing history. The gate was $1,895,733.
The fight took place in a driving rainstorm that made the canvas slippery and drenched spectators and participants alike, Tunney, fare better physically, was master of the situation in all except two rounds, in one of which, the fourth, he was on the verge of a knockout.
In several rounds Tunney made the champion look foolish as Jack missed and floundered about the ring. He was far off his usual tearing-in, fast-punching style. He seemed to have lost his punch, his vicious attack and all that in his heyday made him the “Man-Killer”.
The champion was awkward, slow, and couldn’t follow through as he did in the famous battles with Willard, Carpentier, and Firpo. Some blamed it on the weather conditions; others on his difficulties with his manager with whom he broke following his marriage to Estelle Taylor, the movie actress.
Gene, on the other hand, exhibited cleverness and sharp hitting, He fought his greatest battle. He often beat Jack to the punch and several times rocked his head. He opened a gash over Jack’s eye in the fifth round.
In the sixth, Dempsey succeeded in checking his rival’s attack, but Tunney came back with power in the last portion of that round and the next to toss punch after punch to the head and body without a return from the champ.
And that’s how it went from then to the tenth and final session with Tunney always leading, striking effectively, and Jack missing.
For the first time in his career, the Manassa Mauler found himself entirely on the receiving end.
His left eye was closed, his face puffed, and he was wobble when the gong ended the affair. Tunney, the New York boy who had won the light heavyweight crown in the American Expeditionary Force in France, was now the world heavyweight champion.
Both Rickard and Dempsey were eager to obtain a return to engagement, but Tex had to get Manassa Jack back into top challenger’s post before he could sell Dempsey to the public again.
The heavyweight chosen to give Dempsey a tryout was Joseph Paul Zukauskas, otherwise knock as “Jack Sharkey,” who figured as the outstanding fighter among the big fellows plodding toward the championship goal. Sharkey had a good record, his most noteworthy performance being a victory of Harry Wills, the Negro gladiator who for years had vainly challenged Dempsey. It was this removal of what had come to be known as “The Black Menace” from the roster of title-contenders which booster Sharkey’ stock and gained for him the match with the ex-champion.
The bout took place at Yankee Stadium, New York, on July 21 1927, Dempsey winning by a knockout in the seventh round before 75,000 fans who paid $1,083,530, the fourth million-dollar gate. In the contest’s early stages, Sharkey elected to fight at long range. A fast boxer, he out-pointed Dempsey, whose speed did not equal that of his antagonist.
But Sharkey, abandoning his cautious attitude, unwisely went in to mix matters, a style of milling which exactly suited the iron-fisted Dempsey.
The latter pounded Sharkey’s body savagely and in the seventh round landed a stomach punch at close quarters which seemed to some of the spectators to be a trifle low. Sharkey imprudently turned his head to protest to the referee and in the same instant, Dempsey smashed a hook to the jaw which sent the ex –gob down and out. He claimed a foul, but Referee Jack O’Sullivan disallowed it.
Opinions were about evenly divided among the spectators as to whether Sharkey had actually been fouled.
With that victory, Rickard announced the Dempsey-Tunney rematch.
They met at Soldier’s Field, Chicago, September 22, 1927, in a title match that has gone down in ring history as “The Battle of The Long Count,” the fifth in the series of million-dollar gate contests in which Dempsey took part, with 104,943 persons paying the all time record sum of $2,658,660.
It had been agreed before the fight that the neutral corner rule be observed and that the man scoring it should go to the farthest neutral corner.
When Dempsey dropped Gene in the seventh round, he refused to obey that ruler and referee Dave Barry stopped the count until Jack did. Thus, Dempsey was penalized and Tunney received additional time to regain his senses.
As in Philadelphia, Dempsey was defeated. This time he came pretty close to winning by a knockout in the seventh round, but his failure to obey the rules and go to a neutral corner cost him the victory. Though Tunney has often declared he could have gotten to his feet at any time within the allotted ten seconds, the photo of the knockdown with Gene resting against the ropes, glassy-eyed, indicated otherwise.
Yet in the next round, Tunney, his brain cleared, danced around the ring tossed jabs and then dropped Dempsey with a right to the jaw. He quickly got to his feet but was outpointed by a wide margin in that and the succeeding two rounds, with Gene getting the well deserved decision.
The long count knockdown has become of the most talked about, controversial points in boxing. Some of the ringsiders said Gene received a fourteen count, as did the official timekeepers, while others, mostly newspapermen, said it was seventeen, The writer’s stop watch caught it at fourteen. Here is what happened:
Gene opened the round with a right to Dempsey’s head then delivered several effective jabs. Dempsey rushed him and smote two rights to the head that landed Gene against the ropes. The last punch was hard enough to drop him to the canvas, where he lay in an awkward position in Dempsey’s corner with body half twisted and eyes glassy.
In interviews he declared that he knew what was going on, however. He watched Dave Barry closely and when Dempsey went to a neutral corner and Barry’s count was started, Gene slowly worked his way upward. Dempsey rushed in, but Gene, his equilibrium regained, moved about the ring, making Jack miss, and the round ended with both hugging each other.
This ended the fighting career of one of the great ringmen of all time.
Though Dempsey tried a comeback and gain a fortune in exhibitions after the second defeat, his real fighting terminated with the “Long Count” battle.
Dempsey retired for good after this bout, in 1935, Dempsey went in to business and opened Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, across from the third Madison Square Garden, the name of which was changed later to Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant in New York City’s Times Square, when it moved to Broadway between 49th and 50th Streets. The restaurant was open until 1974.
Although closed today, many years later people still have fond memories of the legendary hangout. Dempsey was also an owner of the Colony Palms Hotel (then called the Howard Manor) in Palm Springs, California.
Dempsey divorced Taylor and in July 1933 married Broadway singer Hannah Williams, who had just divorced Roger Wolfe Kahn, and had two children with her. Shortly after Dempsey divorced Hannah Williams in 1943, the boxer married Deanna Piatelli and was married to her at the time of his death. Together with Deanna’s daughter, Barbara, Dempsey would pen the book Dempsey later on in life.
In 1973, Jack Dempsey, at 78 years old, was leaving his famous Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, in Manhattan, to go home, when a mugger hurried into his cab after him. Before he could demand money, Dempsey turned around, socked his left hook across the man’s chin, and knocked him sprawling out of the car, out cold in the gutter. Dempsey closed the door and the cab drove off. Some spurious stories have it that there were two muggers.
In 1977, Jack Dempsey with his daughter Barbara Lynn published his autobiography, titled Dempsey.
In May 1983, Dempsey died of heart failure at age 87. With his wife Deanna at his side, his last words were … “Don’t worry honey; I’m too mean to die.” He is buried in the Southampton Cemetery in Southampton, New York.
Dempsey is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The street where Madison Square Garden is located is called Jack Dempsey Corner.