William "Jack" Harrison Dempsey ushered in the age of big-time sports. His rise from hobo to heavyweight champion to Hollywood celebrity not only gave boxing the stamp of legitimacy, but became the prototype for every superstar athlete that followed. His popularity during and after his boxing career overshadowed all of his contemporaries, including Babe Ruth . Dempsey's ventures in films, on Broadway and in the restaurant business were made possible because of the American public's unchecked adoration for him.
The Early Years
Born into a family of thirteen in Manassa, Colorado, Dempsey's mother read to her son from Modern Gladiator, a book about fighter John L. Sullivan, the first champion of the modern era. Growing up listening to stories of Sullivan and watching his two older brothers become fighters, Dempsey, at age eleven, decided he would become the heavyweight champion of the world. After completing the eighth grade, Dempsey
left his large poor family to follow the rumor of work from town to town. Working as a miner, dishwasher, farm hand and cowboy, he would use his spare time to indulge his passion for boxing. With a high-pitched voice, the skinny kid with blue-black hair would challenge anybody he could for a few dollars and bragging rights. He was known as "Kid Blackie" during the early years of his career but would eventually become the "Manassa Mauler." He once walked across the Nevada desert from Tonopah to Goldfield for a $20 purse. The fight, against "One-Punch" Hancock was held in the back of a bar. Lasting only fifteen seconds, Dempsey floored "One-Punch" with one punch and then took on Hancock's brother, who suffered a similarly embarrassing fate. "When I got five bucks for thirty-five seconds of fighting," said Dempsey. "I felt I was on my way."
Dempsey soon developed a reputation for his menacing style and powerful punch that would make it difficult for him to find fights. Meeting manager Jack Price would change that. Dempsey and his new manager traveled to New York armed with press clippings of his twenty-six knockouts and dreams of fame. Without the polish and training of a fighter from the big city, however, Dempsey didn't get much attention. He did manage to catch the eye of an interested fight man named John "the barber" Reisler after one particular bout at the Fairmont Fight Club. Reisler then set up a fight with a superior veteran heavyweight named John Lester Johnson. Knowing his limitations, Dempsey reluctantly agreed to fight. With twenty pounds on Dempsey, Johnson delivered a beating that left three fractured ribs and two black eyes in its wake. Although he was recognized for his flair, style and courage, Dempsey headed back west to regroup.
It was during this trip home that Dempsey met and married a piano-playing prostitute fifteen years his senior named Maxine Cates. The two endured a tumultuous relationship that was marked by his long trips away from home and her reluctance to give up her way of life. At nineteen, Dempsey was struggling to provide for his wife and continuing to dream of fame and fortune. In San Francisco, he met the flamboyant manager that would help him take the next step. John Leo McKernan, known as "Doc" Kearns, had been a welterweight fighter, minor league ballplayer, faro dealer, bouncer and bartender before he settled in as a fight manager. His flashy style—including jewelry and strong cologne—clashed with Dempsey's. Ultimately, though, the match would be fruitful. Kearns got the fights and Dempsey the knockouts. In the spring of 1917, they began a string of fights that would pave the way to his first title fight.
Jess Willard was one of the many boxers who had been to referred to as the "White Hope." He was thirty-seven when he met Dempsey in the ring. Six-feet-sixinches tall, and 245 pounds, he made the 195 pound Dempsey sign an agreement that he would not be held responsible if Dempsey was killed or seriously injured in the ring. The fight, promoted by George L. "Tex" Rickard, was held in Toledo, Ohio, at an outdoor arena specifically built for the title fight. In the 100 degree heat on July 4, 1919, Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times in the first round. Badly battered, Willard couldn't come out for the fourth round and Dempsey became, at twenty-four, the heavyweight champion of the world.
With his newfound fame, Dempsey became a magnet for publicity both good and bad. Kearns wanted to capitalize on the champ's instant celebrity and began signing Dempsey for everything from Vaudeville appearances to a fifteen episode serial, Daredevil Jack. Although Dempsey had planned on enjoying the fame and fortune he now had, the press came after him just as quickly. The day after his championship fight with Willard a story in the New York Tribune alleged that Dempsey was a draft dodger. He would be eventually acquitted of the charges, by the San Francisco US District Court in 1920, but the story, and the testimony of his ex-wife Cates, would plague Dempsey for nearly six years.
|1895||Born June 24 in Manassa, Colorado|
|1910||Begins training with brother Bernie|
|1914||Fights in first recorded professional bout|
|1915||First uses name "Jack Dempsey"|
|1916||Marries Maxine Cates|
|1917||Meets manager Jack "Doc" Kearns|
|1917||Younger brother Bruce stabbed to death in a street fight|
|1919||Divorces Maxine Cates|
|1919||Wins heavyweight championship against Jess Willard|
|1920||Acquitted of draft evasion charges|
|1921||Successfully defends title against Georges Carpentier|
|1923||Fights Luis Firpo|
|1926||Marries Estelle Taylor|
|1926||Loses title to Gene Tunney|
|1927||Loses rematch to Tunney in "The Battle of the Long Count"|
|1928||Stars in The Big Fight with his wife, Taylor|
|1929||Promoter "Tex" Rickard dies|
|1933||Marries singer Hannah Williams|
|1936||Opens Jack Dempsey's Restaurant in New York City|
|1954||Charter inductee into Boxing Hall of Fame|
|1958||Marries fourth wife Deanna Piatelli|
|1963||Jack "Doc" Kearns dies|
|1974||Closes Dempsey's restaurant|
|1983||Dies at age 87|
|1990||Hall of Fame induction|
Related Biography: Manager John "Doc" Kearns
"Doc" Kearns was born John Patrick Leo McKernan in 1882 on a farm in Michigan. He worked as everything from a fighter to a cemetery plot salesman before becoming a manager. It wasn't his work experience, however, that led to his success. Kearns's success was due in large part to his lack of ethics. He was a loud and flamboyant man and the exact opposite of his most successful fighter. A master of hype, he was pushy and irresponsible with his fighter's money. Not many people trusted "Doc" Kearns, but he was respected for his ability to do his job and get his fighters where they needed to be. Kearns and Dempsey maintained a business relationship for eight years that took them both to the top of their chosen profession. It is doubtful they could have accomplished as much on their own. Their differences, however, kept them from becoming close friends and eventually led to the dissolution of their relationship. Kearns went on to manage many boxers, but never another Jack Dempsey. He played an important role in bringing big-time boxing to Las Vegas and managed into the twilight of his life. He died of pneumonia on July 7, 1963. He was memorialized with the traditional final 10-count before the second Liston-Patterson heavyweight championship, the first genuine championship to be held in Kearns' adopted town, Las Vegas.
Dempsey's 1921 match against French war hero Georges Carpentier was called the "Battle of the Century." The fight took on international significance because of Dempsey's sullied reputation and Carpentier's as a French war hero. It was the first fight ever to be broadcast
on radio and the first to gross over one million dollars. Held at Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City, the fight drew the largest crowd ever at a sporting event and forced Dempsey to defend his reputation during the short four round fight. He was given a cold reception in comparison to the loud ovation that greeted Carpentier upon entering the ring. But Dempsey's knockout of the French hero proved too much for the patriotic crowd who cheered his victory wildly.
Dempsey would successfully defend his title over the next few years, but it was his battle with the "Wild Bull of the Pampas," Argentinean Luis Firpo, that would become his next big fight. On September 14, 1923, at the Polo Grounds in New York, Dempsey took Firpo in four-and-a-half of the most intense minutes in boxing history. The crowd of 88,000, including many top celebrities like Babe Ruth and Ethel Barrymore, witnessed Dempsey knocking Firpo down seven times before Firpo landed a powerful right that threw him clear out of the ring. Landing on the press table he was thrown back in the ring by journalists and spectators only to lay Firpo out in the second. The fight's few minutes were of such ferocity that one man in the cheap seats died of heart failure.
The Hollywood Years
Dempsey's star had eclipsed his desire and following the Firpo fight the champ took time off to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The highly paid fighter moved to Hollywood and in 1926 married silent film actress Estelle Taylor. In his years away from the ring, his public image softened as he attempted to live the life of the nouveau riche. He even went as far as to have his fight-flattened nose remodeled. When Dempsey was invited to Calvin Coolidge's White House, it signaled boxing's arrival and solidified its star's position as ambassador. It was during this time, however, that his relationship with longtime manager "Doc" Kearns ended. Living on opposite ends of the country, Kearns could not exercise his influence over Dempsey. Disapproving of his romantic inclinations and marriage Kearns was powerless to stop them. Dempsey's wife was equally skeptical of Kearns and her influence on the champ only exacerbated the cracks that had already formed in the men's relationship.
Back in the Ring
After three years off, Dempsey was itching to get back in the ring. His much anticipated return came against Gene Tunney in September 1926. Tunney represented a shift in boxing strategy. While Dempsey was from the hit and be hit school of bar room boxing, Tunney was a more defensive fighter. Tunney's popularity suffered because of his "hit and run" style, but was chosen because of "Tex" Rickard's reluctance to promote a mixed race title fight. While there were many black fighters who deserved a shot at the champion, Rickard believed it would be financially disastrous. Of the two worthy heavyweights between 1923 and 1926, Harry Wills and Gene Tunney, Dempsey fought Tunney, not because he was the top contender, but because he was white.
Held at Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium and broadcast on radio by the newly formed National Broadcasting Company, a visibly slower Dempsey was defeated in the driving rain. Dempsey's many fans were quick to excuse the fighter's disappointing loss. Among the many explanations were his three years out of boxing. However disappointing, the fight would set the stage for the controversial rematch at Chicago's Soldier Field on September 22, 1927. The rematch set a new record with its $2.3 million gate. The radio broadcast was said to have reached three of every four Americans. This was Dempsey's opportunity to prove his worth and regain his title. Trailing in the seventh, Dempsey landed a combination of powerful punches that floored Tunney. Rather than return to a neutral corner, however, Dempsey lingered over the downed boxer and delayed the referee's count. Tunney rose on the nine count, that with the delay, had actually been closer to eighteen, and held on to defeat Dempsey. It would be Dempsey's final title fight and the "Battle of the Long Count" would be debated for a generation.
Dempsey accepted his loss gracefully and never publicly debated or excused himself. His defeats only seemed to make him more popular with the adoring public, however, and he was quick to capitalize. In 1928, he starred with his wife in The Big Fight, produced by David Belasco of Broadway fame. When his former promoter "Tex" Rickard died in 1929, Dempsey got back into the fight game as a promoter, but the collapse of the stock market, the Depression and his divorce bankrupted the champ and he began to consider a return to fighting. After a few exhibitions and a loss to Kingfish Levinsky he retired for good at the age of thirty-six.
Retirement and Beyond
Dempsey married third wife singer Hannah Williams in 1933 and had two daughters. He joined the coast guard during World War II and generally kept to himself. In 1936, he opened Jack Dempsey's Restaurant in New York City, which would remain open for over thirty years. His third marriage, like the previous two, ended in divorce in 1943 and he eventually married for the fourth and final time in 1958, to Deanna Piatelli. His retirement was marked by many awards and accolades, including induction to the Boxing Hall of Fame and a seventy-fifth birthday party at Madison Square Garden. He died in 1983, after a series of heart problems, at the age of eighty-seven.
Jack Dempsey's career is remembered not only for his achievements but for the precedents he set. He came to represent the boom of the 1920s and the rugged determination of the American dream during the golden age of sports. His is the prototypical boxing story and there are shades of Dempsey in every great boxer that followed. He single-handedly moved boxing from the back rooms of saloons to the forefront of American society and his life outside of the ring continues to serve as a blueprint for retired superstars in every corner of the sporting world.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY DEMPSEY:
Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler, Louisana State University Press, 1979.
The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time, Bonanza, 1984.
Champions of the Ring, Robson, 1992.
The Boxing Register, McBooks Press, 1997.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1919||Won heavyweight title against Jess Willard|
|1920||Defended title successfully against Billy Miske|
|1920||Defended title successfully against Bill Brennan|
|1921||Defended title successfully against Georges Carpentier|
|1923||Defended title successfully against Tommy Gibbons|
|1923||Defended title successfully against Luis Angel Firpo|
|1926||Lost title to Gene Tunney|
|1950||Named greatest boxer of the half-century by the Associated Press|
|1954||Charter inductee to Boxing Hall of Fame|
|1990||Inducted officially to Boxing Hall of Fame Dempsey retired with a career record of eighty total bouts, sixty wins, six losses, eight draws, fifty knockouts and six no decisions.|
Jack Dempsey, 87, Is Dead
To many, Mr. Dempsey always remained the champion, and he always comported himself like one. He was warm and generous, a free spender when he had it and a soft touch for anybody down on his luck. After retirement from the ring, he made his headquarters in New York at Jack Dempsey's Restaurant, first at the corner of 50th Street across Eighth Avenue from the old Madison Square Garden and later at 1919 Broadway, where his partner was Jack Amiel, whose colt, Count Turf, won the Kentucky Derby….
Grantland Rice said Mr. Dempsey was perhaps the finest gentleman, in the literal sense of gentle man, he had met in half a century of writing sports; Mr. Dempsey never knowingly hurt anyone except in the line of business.
Source: Smith, Red. New York Times, June 1, 1983.
A Flame of Pure Fire, Harcourt Brace, 1999.
Kahn, Roger. A Flame of Pure Fire. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
Roberts, James and Alexander Skutt. The Boxing Register. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press, 1997.
Roberts, Randy. Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.
Sugar, Bert. The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time. New York: Bonanza Books, 1984.
Suster, Gerald. Champions of the Ring. London: Robson, 1992.
Sketch by Aric Karpinski
"Dempsey, Jack." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dempsey-jack
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One of the world's greatest heavyweight boxers, William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey (1895-1983) was so popular that he drew more million-dollar gates than any prizefighter in history.
William Harrison Dempsey, more commonly known as "Jack" after age 20, was born in Manassa, Colo., on June 24, 1895, the ninth child of Hyrum and Cecilia Dempsey, both sharecroppers. The family was so poor that Jack began farming at the age of 8. From age 16 to 19 he lived in hobo jungles.
Dempsey's early boxing often took place in back rooms of frontier saloons under the name "Kid Blackie." His first fight of record was in 1915 against "One-Punch" Hancock. Dempsey's one-punch win earned him $2.50; his highest purse. Eleven years later his purse was $711,000 for his first match with Gene Tunney. Eventually called the "Manassa Mauler," Dempsey earned more than $3,500,000 in all in the ring.
Dempsey's appeal lay in his punching ability: he was a ruthless tiger stalking his prey, fast as any big cat and deadly with either paw. He won the world's heavyweight title on July 4, 1919, against Jess Willard in Toledo. With his first real punch Dempsey shattered Willard's cheekbone and knocked him down seven times in the first round. Willard was unable to answer the bell for the start of the fourth.
Two years later Dempsey drew the world's first million-dollar gate against Georges Carpentier of France, in Jersey City, NJ, scoring a fourth-round knockout. Another million-dollar bout was in 1923 against Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina; few bouts have packed such unbridled fury and spectacular savagery. Dempsey was knocked down twice, once through the ropes and out of the ring; 10 times Firpo went down, the tenth time for keeps—all within the span of 3 minutes 57 seconds. The Mauler was dethroned in Philadelphia in 1926, when Gene Tunney outpointed him before the largest crowd ever, 120,757 spectators, to witness the championship game.
Dempsey knocked out Jack Sharkey before the second Dempsey-Tunney fight a year later in Chicago. This last bout became the focus of an enduring controversy. Dempsey floored Tunney in the seventh round but refused to go to a neutral corner according to the rules. The countdown was delayed, and Tunney, given this extra respite, recovered sufficiently to outbox Dempsey the rest of the way.
For several years after his defeat, Dempsey refereed, announced boxing matches, and mentored young fighters. He attempted a comeback in 1931-32 but failed.
During the years of the Great Depression, Dempsey concentrated on various business interests including retailing, real estate, and two restaurants in New York City. After the outbreak of World War II, Dempsey joined the Coast Guard, serving as director of the physical fitness program. As the war drew to a close in the Pacific, he was sent on a three month's tour of combat areas to assess needs for athletic and physical training.
During his time as a highly respected restauranteur on Broadway, Dempsey enjoyed a fantastic popularity, revered as one of the true titans of American sports. He died on May 31, 1983.
The most authoritative book on Dempsey is his autobiography, Dempsey, written with Bob Considine and Bill Slocum (1960). The best statistical background is in Nat Fleischer's Ring Record Book (1970). Dempsey's manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, appraises him in The Million Dollar Gate, written with Oscar Fraley (1966). The second Dempsey-Tunney fight is in Mel Heimer, The Long Count (1969). □
"Jack Dempsey." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jack-dempsey
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Jack Dempsey (William Harrison Dempsey), 1895–1983, American boxer, b. Manassa, Colo. Dempsey, called the
emerged from fights on saloon floors near mining camps to become (1919) the world's heavyweight champion and one of the major sports figures of the 1920s. He sealed his slugging reputation in his first title fight by knocking down the gigantic champion, Jess Willard, seven times in the first three minutes. Dempsey held the crown until losing to Gene Tunney in 1926. In a rematch Dempsey knocked Tunney down in the seventh round, but failed to immediately return to his corner, thus allowing Tunney the benefit of a legendary 14-second
After retirement, he worked occasionally as a referee and spent nearly four decades as proprietor of a popular New York City restaurant.
See R. Roberts, The Manassa Mauler (1979, repr. 2003); R. Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire (1999).
"Dempsey, Jack." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dempsey-jack
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