Today is the 120th birthday of William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey, one of the biggest boxing and sports icons in American history. Known as the Manassa Mauler, Dempsey would hold the World Heavyweight Championship from 1919 to 1926, shattering records for attendance and revenue at prizefights. This was the first “Golden Era” of sports, and Dempsey was rivaled only by Babe Ruth in terms of sheer popularity.
Like so many boxing stars, Dempsey was forged in the cauldron of poverty. He left home at 16 to find work, hopping freight trains and sleeping in hobo camps. Often the teen became so desperate he walked into saloons and challenged any man in the place to fight him for a bet.
Dempsey came up hard in the sport, learning the craft of boxing on the job. He was gifted by God with explosive power in both fists and developed a relentless, bob-and-weave style of fighting, applying pressure on opponents like a demon out of hell.
Dempsey finally got the opportunity to challenge for the heavyweight title in 1919, against champion Jess Willard. Standing over 6’6″ tall and weighing 245 pounds, Willard was known as the Pottawatamie Giant. Despite giving up almost a half foot and over 50 pounds, Dempsey demolished Willard. It ranks alongside George Foreman’s TKO of Joe Frazier as the most violent heavyweight title win in history.
Dempsey dropped Willard seven times in the first round, breaking his jaw and ribs, fracturing the bones in his face and knocking out teeth.
In 1921, Dempsey defended the title against the popular French World War I hero, Georges Carpentier. Fighting in a field in Jersey City, they recorded the first million dollar gate, as 91,000 paying customers showed up to watch. In 1923, Dempsey fought “The Wild Bull of the Pampas” Luis Firpo in the Polo Grounds, with 85,000 fans paying to watch and 20,000 more being turned away.
Dempsey’s win over Firpo is probably the most exciting two rounds of heavyweight action in boxing history. Dempsey came back from being knocked completely out of the ring to stop Firpo 57 seconds into the second round. In all, Dempsey knocked Firpo down nine times in just four minutes, while the Argentine floored Dempsey twice.
The Carpentier and Firpo fights were also landmark events in the history of broadcasting, as the fight with Carpentier was the first national radio broadcast and the fight with Carpentier was broadcast to Argentina.
In 1926, Dempsey was upset by Gene Tunney, a calm and highly technical boxer who used his jab and lateral movement to foil Dempsey’s violent offensive pressure. In 1927, Dempsey lost a rematch, again by decision. This fight was the famous “Long-Count Fight.” In Round 7, Dempsey floored Tunney. However, the count was delayed when Dempsey at first failed to follow the newly instituted rule of retiring to a neutral corner, instead looming over Tunney, waiting to unload on him as soon as he rose. There is no question that this delay gave Tunney more time to recover. At the same time, in surviving footage, Tunney does appear to alertly watch the referee’s count, indicating he could have risen earlier, if necessary.
In retirement, Dempsey continued to be a beloved figure in American culture. During World War II, he served as an officer in the Coast Guard, serving as an instructor of physical fitness and self defense. Dempsey’s From 1935 to 1974, his Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Restaurant was a New York City institution, featured in such movies as a Bronx Tale and The Godfather. One of my favorite Jack Dempsey stories is about the time he knocked out a mugger outside of his place when he was in his 70s.