Dempsey, Jack

views updated Jun 11 2018

Jack Dempsey


American boxer

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 styleincluding jewelry and strong cologneclashed 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.

Heavyweight Champion

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.


1895Born June 24 in Manassa, Colorado
1910Begins training with brother Bernie
1914Fights in first recorded professional bout
1915First uses name "Jack Dempsey"
1916Marries Maxine Cates
1917Meets manager Jack "Doc" Kearns
1917Younger brother Bruce stabbed to death in a street fight
1919Divorces Maxine Cates
1919Wins heavyweight championship against Jess Willard
1920Acquitted of draft evasion charges
1921Successfully defends title against Georges Carpentier
1923Fights Luis Firpo
1926Marries Estelle Taylor
1926Loses title to Gene Tunney
1927Loses rematch to Tunney in "The Battle of the Long Count"
1928Stars in The Big Fight with his wife, Taylor
1929Promoter "Tex" Rickard dies
1933Marries singer Hannah Williams
1936Opens Jack Dempsey's Restaurant in New York City
1943Divorces Williams
1954Charter inductee into Boxing Hall of Fame
1958Marries fourth wife Deanna Piatelli
1963Jack "Doc" Kearns dies
1974Closes Dempsey's restaurant
1983Dies at age 87
1990Hall 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.


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

1919Won heavyweight title against Jess Willard
1920Defended title successfully against Billy Miske
1920Defended title successfully against Bill Brennan
1921Defended title successfully against Georges Carpentier
1923Defended title successfully against Tommy Gibbons
1923Defended title successfully against Luis Angel Firpo
1926Lost title to Gene Tunney
1950Named greatest boxer of the half-century by the Associated Press
1954Charter inductee to Boxing Hall of Fame
1990Inducted 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

views updated May 23 2018

Jack Dempsey

Born June 24, 1895 (Manassa, Colorado)
Died May 31, 1983 (New York City, New York)

Boxer and businessman

"Going for a quick knockout was just common sense. I had a little motto about getting rid of my opponents. ‘The sooner the safer.’"

Jack Dempsey was one of the first great sports heroes and a popular figure of the Roaring Twenties, which has been called the Golden Age of Sports. He joined the ranks of other leading athletes, such as baseball's George Herman "Babe" Ruth (1895–1948; see entry), football's Red Grange (1903–1991) and golf's Bobby Jones (1902–1971), who were admired and even worshipped by the public. Between 1919 and 1926 Dempsey reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and for those years he seemed to embody the 1920s passion for success in all kinds of human endeavors. Even in defeat, Dempsey captured the imagination and love of the U.S. people, who would long remember his ferocious fighting style and unbeatable spirit.

A tough young brawler

William Harrison Dempsey, called Harry by his family, was one of eleven children born to Hyrum and Mary Dempsey. With their children in tow, the couple moved between Colorado and Utah, an area that, at the turn of the century, was still part of the wild western frontier. They made an

uncertain living through farming, ranching, and restaurant work and sometimes had to accept handouts to survive.

Dempsey left school after the eighth grade and started working, holding such jobs as shoe shiner, pig feeder, and field worker. At sixteen he went to work in the region's copper mines. Around the same time, his brother Bernie began a brief career as a boxer, calling himself "Jack Dempsey" in honor of an Irish middleweight champion with that name (who had died, coincidentally, the year of Harry's birth). The younger brother followed Bernie's example and especially his training methods, which included racing against horses to develop speed, chewing gum for extra jaw strength, and soaking his face in beef brine (broth saturated with salt) to darken and toughen it and thus make him appear fiercer.

Dempsey started fighting too, calling himself "Kid Blackie" at first. He went from saloon to saloon, challenging anyone to fight who would take him on, and usually winning. Dempsey also took to hopping freight trains and living like a hobo (the popular name for homeless, jobless men), earning anywhere from two to ten dollars per fight. He first used the name Jack Dempsey in a 1914 bout in which, substituting for his brother, he beat George Copelin in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Dempsey continued to fight his way across Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, earning a local reputation for his skill in the ring.

At the same time, Dempsey trained intensely, running six miles a day and practicing punches while inside a small cage to develop the low, crouching stance that would always mark his style. After a series of knockouts (victories achieved by knocking one's opponent unconscious) of several well-known western fighters, Dempsey traveled to New York City with his new manager, Jack Price. They visited sportswriters to publicize Dempsey's ability but generated little interest; the famous journalist Damon Runyon (c. 1884–1946), however, gave Dempsey the nickname the Manassa Mauler after seeing the young boxer beat several New York opponents.

Fighting his way toward the top

Soon Dempsey returned to the West. For a time it seemed that his boxing career might be over. On a whim, he married an older woman named Maxine Cates, who worked in a Seattle saloon. She was not with him, however, when he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he washed dishes, picked fruit, dug ditches, and worked in a coal mine. Then one day a telegram arrived from John Leo McKernan, known as Doc Kearns, a California boxing manager and promoter who had seen Dempsey fight and believed he had potential.

Under Kearns's direction, Dempsey began working hard to gain speed and power in the ring. After six months of intense training, he started fighting again. His victories over such wellknown boxers as "Gunboat" Smith and Carl Morris drew both crowds and praise, and he continued to take on better and better fighters, building an impressive knockout rate of 60 percent. At this point, Dempsey's goal was to challenge the reigning heavyweight champion, Jess Willard (1881–1968). A towering fighter known as the "Pottawatomie Giant," Willard had held the title since 1915, when he had beaten the great Jack Johnson (1878–1946), the first African American heavyweight champion.

Dempsey still had to prove that he was worthy of meeting Willard in the ring. He did that when, in July 1918, he managed to knock out Fred Fulton (ranked second behind Willard) within the first eighteen seconds of the first round of the fight. Kearns now began an intensive campaign to portray Dempsey as a savage warrior with an aggressive style that featured fast punches and relentless stalking of his opponent. Describing his approach to fighting, Dempsey later recalled, as quoted in Nathan Miller's New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, "Going for a quick knockout was just common sense. I had a little motto about getting rid of my opponents. 'The sooner the safer."'

Heavyweight champion of the world

As the 1920s began, the image of boxing was undergoing a rapid transformation. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most people had considered this a violent, low-class sport, and in some places it was even against the law. But after World War I (1914–18) many of the laws banning boxing were overturned, and new commissions established rules to govern the sport and prevent criminals from influencing it. Boxing gained respectability and became one of the most popular events for spectators from all levels of society. It was also becoming a profitable business, as men like Kearns and George "Tex" Rickard (1871–1929), another boxing promoter who would soon become part of Dempsey's life, fully realized.

Dempsey had now earned the right to challenge Willard for the heavyweight title. The championship match was set for July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. There were twenty thousand fans in attendance as the grim-faced, ever-crouching, quickpunching Dempsey battered Willard to the floor seven times in the first round. By the end of the third round, Willard had a broken jaw, cuts above both eyes, and six broken teeth. He was finished. Meanwhile, as described by historian Geoffrey Perret in America in the Twenties, "Dempsey, who was brown and hard, as if carved from mahogany, sat slumped in his corner between rounds, scowling at the canvas between his feet, his face unshaven, his forehead furrowed. He was all muscle and darkness."

At twenty-four, Dempsey was the new heavyweight champion of the world. Eager to take advantage of the young boxer's sudden fame, Kearns signed him to a fifteen-thousand-dollarper-week contract to make appearances on the vaudeville circuit (a popular form of live stage entertainment that combined music and comedy acts). Dempsey's prospects became somewhat clouded in the early 1920s, however, when he was indicted (formally accused, based on charges made by Maxine Cates, whom Dempsey had divorced a year earlier) for dodging the draft during World War I. Although Dempsey was eventually found not guilty, the public reacted negatively to the idea that the boxer had pursued his own career while other young men had been fighting and dying in Europe.

Defending the title

Dempsey's promoters (who now included both Kearns and Rickard) made the most of his draft-dodger reputation for his July 1921 match with Georges Carpentier (1894–1975). The French fighter had a heroic record of service during World War I, and the fight was staged as a contest between good (represented by Carpentier) and evil (embodied by Dempsey). In an unusual reversal of the usual situation, U.S. citizens cheered for a foreigner to win and yelled "Slacker!" when Dempsey appeared. By the end of the fight, however, he had regained their respect with a knockout victory over Carpentier.

Dempsey's next major fight was against Argentina's Luis Firpo (1896–1960), who was known as the "Wild Bull of the Pampas" (pampas are large, treeless plains in South America). The match was held at the Polo Grounds in New York City and attracted a crowd of eighty thousand that included such celebrities as Babe Ruth, who was then at the height of his career with the New York Yankees. In a bout that lasted less than four minutes, Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times in the first round. Firpo fought back ferociously, even knocking Dempsey

out of the ring at one point. Having fallen onto the press table, Dempsey was pushed back into the ring by two sportswriters. He went on to win the match in a second-round knockout.

The Dempsey-Firpo fight drew a record one-million-dollar gate (amount of ticket sales), demonstrating the huge popularity of both Dempsey and the sport of boxing. By now Dempsey had earned more than one million dollars in fight prizes (his career total would be three and a half million). He was a major celebrity, greeted by adoring fans at every public appearance. Sportswriters chronicled his every move, and newspapers found that their circulation went up before and after every Dempsey fight.

For much of the early 1920s, Dempsey took a kind of vacation from the ring. He moved to Hollywood and even married a movie actress, Estelle Taylor (1899–1958). He also broke off his relationship with Kearns, and was now represented only by Rickard.

Tunney presents a challenge, and a contrast

By 1926 it was again time for Dempsey to defend his title. The fighter who came forward to challenge Dempsey was a former Marine and veteran of World War I named Gene Tunney (1898–1978). He differed from Dempsey not only in appearance and background, for he was blond and handsome and a product of the middle class, but also in boxing style. Whereas Dempsey went for the quick knockout, Tunney liked to wait for his opponent to tire before moving in with the winning punch. As the fight approached, Tunney trained intensively and was in excellent condition, while Dempsey was not well prepared.

The match took place on September 23 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attended by 120,000 spectators (the gate of $2,000,000 set another record). There were 1,200 reporters present to record the event, and an estimated 50,000,000 people were listening through the new medium of radio broadcasting. The fight went ten rounds. Dempsey's fans were stunned when Tunney emerged the winner, but Dempsey himself knew that his years of relaxing in Hollywood had dulled his edge. Meanwhile, the sophisticated Tunney, who would never become as popular with ordinary people as Dempsey, reportedly returned to his hotel after the match to enjoy a pot of tea.

Having lost his heavyweight title, Dempsey returned to the ring in July 1927 to fight Jack Sharkey (1902–), with seventy-two thousand fans on hand to watch. He won the bout, which led to a rematch with Tunney two months later. Held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, this match drew an even larger crowd than the first contest between Dempsey and Tunney. It is estimated that three of every four U.S. citizens listened to it on the radio. The crucial moment in the match occurred when Dempsey, who was being outpunched by Tunney, hit his opponent with a hard left punch, followed by a volley of lefts and rights that finally sent Tunney to the floor.

Instead of retreating to a neutral corner, a rule that both fighters had previously agreed to in the event of a knockdown, Dempsey stood over his opponent. This delayed the start of the referee's count (when a fallen boxer has ten

Speed, Strength, and Stamina: Swimming Star Gertrude Ederle

Athletes in the Roaring Twenties were often looked upon as heroes. Fans thrilled in their accomplishments and eagerly awaited their next success. Swimmer Gertrude Ederle was a popular athletic hero of the 1920s. She had an enthusiastic following and achieved fame when she became the first woman to swim across the English Channel.

Ederle was born in 1906 to German immigrants who had settled in New York City. She broke onto the swimming scene in 1922 when, as an unknown fifteen-year-old, she won first place in a 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) race called the Day Cup. She created a sensation by beating fifty-one other contenders, including several well-known champions of women's swimming.

Over the next few years, Ederle dominated long-distance swimming, breaking nine world records and winning six national titles. At the 1924 Summer Olympics, Ederle won a gold medal for a relay event, and bronze medals for the 100-meter (328-feet) and 400-meter (1,312-feet) races. The following summer, Ederle finished a 21-mile (33.79-kilometer) course from the New York Battery to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and beat the existing men's record.

Having broken so many records, Ederle set her sights on what was widely considered the ultimate feat in her sport: swimming across the English Channel. At that time only five swimmers had succeeded, and they were all men. The Channel was a particularly difficult, dangerous body of water and only the strongest, most determined swimmer could attempt it. Most people believed that a woman was not capable of making the crossing.

Ederle made her first attempt to cross the Channel in August 1925. After nine hours, she became caught in a strong current and was pulled out of the water. Ederle tried again the following year. She entered the water in France on August 6, 1926, at 7:05 am under good weather conditions and headed for Dover, England.

Although she faced dangerous crosscurrents, high winds, and waves during her swim, Ederle ignored the urgings of friends and family, following her across the channel in two tugboats, to come out of the water. After fourteen hours, thirty-four minutes and about 35 miles (56.32 kilometers) Ederle reached Dover. Despite having been sent off course by currents, Ederle beat the record of the fastest male crosser by two hours, fiftynine minutes. Her record remained intact for almost twenty-five years.

When she returned to New York City, Ederle was greeted with a parade and an estimated two million cheering fans. She received book, movie, and stage contracts, as well as marriage proposals. The attention eventually overwhelmed Ederle, and she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1928. Later in life, Ederle taught swimming to deaf children. She was sensitive to her students because she had experienced some hearing loss due to all of her time spent in the water. Ederle died in 2003,at the age of ninety-eight.

seconds to stand and rejoin the fight), giving Tunney extra time to recover. He rose before the end of the count and went on to beat Dempsey. The fairness of this so-called "long count" would be debated for years. In any case, it only enhanced Dempsey's public image, as many fans seemed to feel that he should have won the fight.

An exciting career winds down

Dempsey's boxing career was now essentially over, despite an unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1931. He lost much of the money he had earned from his matches in the Great Depression (the period of economic downturn that began with the stock market crash in 1929 and lasted until approximately 1941), but he did find occasional work as an actor and wrestling referee. Having divorced Taylor, he married singer Hannah Williams in 1933; the couple had two daughters. During World War II (1939–45), Dempsey joined the Coast Guard and served as director of a physical fitness program.

In 1943 Dempsey divorced Williams; fifteen years later he married Deanna Piatelli. He spent several decades greeting guests at his two New York City restaurants, posing beneath photos from his boxing career. He was named to the Boxing Hall of Fame, and in 1950 he was designated the greatest fighter of the first half of the twentieth century by the Associated Press. In June 1970 he celebrated his seventieth birthday with a grand party held at Madison Square Garden (a large arena in New York City). In the early 1980s Dempsey developed heart problems, and he died in 1983.

For More Information


Bacho, Peter. Boxing in Black and White. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

Dempsey, Jack, with Barbara Piatelli Dempsey. Dempsey. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Evensen, Robert J. When Dempsey Fought Tunney: Heroes, Hokum, and Storytelling in the Jazz Age. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.

Kahn, Roger. A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring 20s. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Roberts, Randy. Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Smith, Toby. Kid Blackie: Jack Dempsey's Colorado Days. Ouray, CO: Wayfinder Press, 1987.

Web Sites

The Official Jack Dempsey Web Site. Available online at Accessed on June 22,2005.

"Jack Dempsey." Enshrinees. The International Boxing Hall of Fame. Available online at Accessed on June 22, 2005.

Jack Dempsey

views updated May 14 2018

Jack Dempsey

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Dempsey, Jack

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Dempsey, Jack (1895–1983) US heavyweight boxer. Hugely popular with the public, Dempsey became the world heavyweight champion after knocking out Jess Willard (1919). He lost the title to Gene Tunney (1926) on points. Dempsey won 64 of his 79 professional fights.

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