Dempsey, William Harrison ("Jack")

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DEMPSEY, William Harrison ("Jack")

(b. 24 June 1895 in Manassa, Colorado; d. 31 May 1983 in New York City), heavyweight boxing champion, one of the most famous sports figures of the twentieth century, regarded by many sports historians as the best heavyweight prizefighter ever.

Dempsey was the ninth of eleven children born to a disreputable father, Hyrum Dempsey, and Celia Smoot Dempsey, a homemaker. At age sixteen he left home to hitch rides on railroad cars in a constant quest for work. He often offered to fight in exchange for a dollar, and he became legendary for taking on and beating all comers in bars. When manager Jack "Doc" Kearns of San Francisco undertook Dempsey's training, the fighter was a frightening figure. He was only six feet, three-quarters of an inch tall and weighed less than 190 pounds (he weighed 190 during his prime)—not particularly imposing statistics for a heavyweight prizefighter—but Dempsey moved like a cat, and he was always restless, constantly pacing like a caged animal. His agility was impressive, but it was his sheer savagery when boxing that frightened onlookers.

Dempsey made his professional debut on 17 August 1914 in a six-round bout against a journeyman boxer, Young Hancock, that ended in a tie. He boxed often, improving his skills from bout to bout. He is sometimes characterized as wild and even clumsy, but he was in fact an intelligent athlete who paid attention to his manager and who developed exceptional skills. On 26 April 1915 he knocked out the tough fighter Anamas Campbell. Dempsey fought Johnny Sudenberg to two draws the following May and June, but on 1 February 1916 he knocked Sudenberg out in the second round of their match.

Dempsey was a devastating puncher with either hand, and he disciplined his nervous energy into a relentless attack during which he never seemed to tire. Further, he had outstanding defensive skills; he picked off an opponent's blows with his forearms or slipped one way, then another, so that an opponent's punches found only air. There was no mercy in him; an opponent in trouble was an opponent doomed. Dempsey would stand over a fallen opponent to begin pummeling the man the moment he tried to stand.

Dempsey found himself making good money, and he overspent. Because of this, his career took a turn for the worse when he deliberately lost a bout on 16 February 1917 against Fireman Jim Flynn—a very good boxer, but someone Dempsey should have beaten. That he had been paid to take a fall was obvious to all observers because he dropped to the canvas on mystery punches. In a rematch on 14 February 1918, Dempsey knocked out Flynn in the first round.

Further tarnishing Dempsey's reputation was his trial for draft evasion during World War I, an accusation which made him look unpatriotic and cowardly. However, his fortunes took a turn for the better when one of the top boxing promoters of the day, Tex Rickard, took an interest in him and arranged high-paying matches for him. On 4 July 1919 Dempsey fought Jess Willard for the world heavyweight championship. Willard was huge at six feet, six inches tall and 250 pounds, and he packed a terrific punch. Billed as the "Manassa Mauler," the much smaller Dempsey fulfilled his promise by mauling the giant Willard, knocking him out in the third round. Rickard almost instantly took to promoting Dempsey as "Jack the Giant Killer."

On 6 September 1920 Dempsey defended his title against Billy Miske, a skilled boxer who had given Dempsey trouble in previous bouts, but Miske was suffering from Bright's disease (an inflammation of the kidneys) and did not fare well. Dempsey knocked him out in the third round. On 14 December 1920 the stylish boxer Bill Brennan almost outfought Dempsey, losing by a knockout in the twelfth round. Rickard then arranged a match made in heaven (from a promoter's point of view) between Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, the world light-heavyweight champion and European heavyweight champion. Carpentier was a war hero, and Rickard's publicity portrayed Dempsey as the villain. The public responded by producing the first million-dollar gate in boxing history. Dempsey was faster, more skilled, and hit harder than Carpentier; he knocked Carpentier out in the fourth round.

The high life appealed to Dempsey, and he was a rich man after only a few title defenses. Even so, he was persuaded to defend his championship again, facing Tommy Gibbons on 4 July 1923 for another big payday. Gibbons was clever and a master of boxing skills, and he lasted a full fifteen rounds against Dempsey. This fight proved that Dempsey was much more than a savage brawler, because he outboxed one of the best boxers of the era, winning twelve of the fifteen rounds.

Dempsey had another big payday when he fought Luis Firpo of Argentina on 14 September 1923. Firpo weighed about 220 pounds and was noted for his ability to take punishment. He appeared to be the fighter who could defeat Dempsey. Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times in the first round, but each time Firpo came up swinging. He eventually caught Dempsey with a crushing blow that sent him through the ropes and onto the typewriters of ringside journalists. Dempsey was dazed and wobbly but climbed back into the ring and survived the round. The second round was almost anticlimactic, with Dempsey giving Firpo a terrific beating to win by a knockout. This match brought about a change in boxing rules that later came to haunt Dempsey. The image of Dempsey standing over the fallen Firpo, ready to pound him the moment he stood, was unsettling, so boxing commissions around the United States created the rule that a fighter had to go to a neutral corner whenever he knocked his opponent down.

Dempsey did not defend his title for three years, during which he neglected himself. On 7 February 1925 he married actress Estelle Taylor, having been divorced from his first wife Maxine Cates Dempsey. Meanwhile, Gene Tunney, a stylish boxer from a good family and good schools, rose to prominence. Tunney regarded boxing as a sort of fencing match, a matter more of skill than brawn. He and Dempsey met on 23 September 1926 at Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium in front of a crowd of over 120,000 people. A boxer whose skills were almost without equal in any weight class, Tunney bobbed, wove, ducked, and slipped aside while hammering Dempsey with rapid punching combinations. By the match's end, Dempsey's face was swollen and one eye was entirely shut. When his wife, Estelle, asked him what happened, he said, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Tunney won the decision.

Dempsey, virtually a symbol of the freewheeling 1920s, had been beaten, and because of how he responded to his defeat, he became even more popular than before. He said that he was a lucky man to have been defeated by a gentleman, and he made no excuses.

On 21 July 1927 Dempsey fought contender Jack Sharkey in an effort to earn a rematch against Tunney. Sharkey won the early rounds with his sharp movement around the ring, but Dempsey wore him down, then knocked him out in the seventh round. It was a wonderful payday for Dempsey because the match was the first in history to draw a four-million-dollar gate.

In one of the most famous matches in history, Dempsey and Tunney met again at Chicago's Soldier Field on 22 September 1927. Dempsey was a good boxer, but Tunney was better, deflecting most of Dempsey's blows and proving that he could take a punch when Dempsey managed to hit him. To most observers, Tunney was winning the fight going into the seventh round. Then Dempsey finally outfoxed his opponent, feinting one way, then delivering a sharp punch to the head with the other, followed by several slashing blows. Tunney dropped like a sack of potatoes, shaking his head. Dempsey stood over him; the referee motioned Dempsey to a neutral corner. When Dempsey remembered the rule, he walked to the corner, but five seconds had elapsed, and then the referee began his count over Tunney. Prizefighters are taught to wait until the referee counts to nine before standing up, so whether or not Tunney could have gotten up after nine seconds elapsed is a mystery; by the time the referee counted to nine, fourteen seconds had actually elapsed. That is when Tunney stood. Tunney won the ten-round decision, defeating Dempsey for a second time. Dempsey unsuccessfully appealed the decision on the basis of the long count.

Dempsey retired, fighting only exhibition matches. He said that the long count turned out to be lucky for him because people sympathized with him, and it made him a topic of conversation long after his career was over. He opened a restaurant on the corner of Fiftieth Street and Eighth Avenue in New York, before moving it to Broadway. It became a popular tourist attraction, and Dempsey was usually on the premises, proving himself a gracious host. Dempsey also married his third wife, Hannah Williams Dempsey; they separated in 1940. In spite of the legend of the savage brawler, Dempsey became a beloved figure. But he had pride. To his dying day, he told anyone who asked that he was the best heavyweight prizefighter ever.

Dempsey died in New York of natural causes at age eighty-seven. He is buried on Long Island in Southampton Cemetery, Southampton, New York.

Dempsey wrote at least three autobiographies with the help of professional writers; the most revealing is probably Dempsey, Bob Considine, and Bill Slocum, Dempsey: By the Man Himself (1960). Dempsey also wrote a down-to-earth book, Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense (1950). Randy Roberts, Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler (1979), sets forth the essentials of Dempsey's life. A curious bit of history is Toby Smith, Kid Blackie: Jack Dempsey's Colorado Days (1987; variant title: Kid Blackie: The Colorado Days of Jack Dempsey) ; it offers details about Dempsey the brawler. Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s (2000), is breathtaking in its scope while discussing Dempsey as a cultural phenomenon. Mort Kamin, "Aging Bull," Sports Illustrated (17 April 1995), tells of Dempsey's life in 1940. William Knack, "The Long Count," Sports Illustrated (22 Sept. 1997), details the events surrounding the infamous "long count" in the second bout between Dempsey and Tunney. Tom Callahan, "Memories of a Heavyweight," Time (13 June 1983) is an obituary that focuses on Dempsey's character, and "Jack Dempsey, RIP," National Review (24 June 1983), is an obituary that summarizes Dempsey's boxing career.

Kirk H. Beetz