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Jack Dempsey: An Icon for the Ages

Updated on March 4, 2016

From Humble Beginnings to Pugilistic Royalty

Born William Harrison Dempsey on June 24, 1895 in a poor Mormon household in Manassa, Colorado, "Jack" as he later would be called was of Irish, Cherokee Indian and Jewish ancestry. Leaving home as a teenager after dropping out of school, he often slept under trains and among homeless vagabonds. While destitute, in an effort to earn a few bucks Dempsey would enter saloons and challenge men to bareknuckle fights and according to him won nearly all of them. He began boxing initially under the pseudonym "Kid Blackie" but would later box in Utah under the name Jack Dempsey as an homage to middleweight boxer Jack "Non Pareil" Dempsey.

Contrary to what many at the time stated when labelling him a "slacker", during World War II Dempsey indeed attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army but was rejected and classified as "4-F" by the Entrance Processing Command. The year before fighting for the heavyweight title, Dempsey engaged in 17 fights losing only one. In 1919, on the road to his title shot, Jack knocked out 5 consecutive opponents in the first round. That year at the age of 24, he challenged a mountain of a man named Jess Willard for the prestigious Heavyweight Championship of the World on American Independence Day. The bout was contested in a custom built outdoor arena ordered by legendary boxing promoter Tex Rickard. Willard was 6'6 1/2 and weighed 250 lbs (the size of current heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko) to Dempsey's diminutive by comparison 6'1 188 lbs. He later claimed he stuffed rocks down his shorts and in reality weighed 180 lbs naked.

Dempsey proved that size doesn't matter when he delivered one of the most horrific, vicious beatings in pugilistic history. Dempsey dropped Willard 7 times in the first round alone. By the time the fight was stopped at the end of the 3rd round, Willard had sustained injuries normally reserved for a man who had been assaulted with a Louisville slugger. He was left with a broken jaw, two fractured ribs, multiple missing teeth, a broken nose and a swollen shut left eye.

Willard was ultra game in defeat. The immense damage that was inflicted on him by Dempsey led to several conspiracy theories vis-a-vis loaded gloves, none of which were ever substantiated. The accusations were actually put to rest by Ring Magazine founder Jack Fleischer who later claimed to have been present at the time of the hand wrapping and saw nothing illegal of the sort. The only thing that was irrefutably true was that the world had a brand new heavyweight champion who drove a Model T but could hit like a truck.

Jack Dempsey circa 1920
Jack Dempsey circa 1920 | Source

Defending the Crown While Going Down

Immediately upon winning the crown, Dempsey went on multiple publicity ventures to gain national attention before defending his title twice against non descript opposition and for a third time in 1921 against the reigning Light Heayweight champion Georges Carpentier. This fight represented the first million dollar gate in boxing history and was viewed by a live audience of 91,000 people. The naturally smaller Carpentier was so well respected for his boxing prowess that Dempsey was installed as only a 2 to 1 betting favorite. Carpentier was by far the sentimental favorite as the public pitted the "war hero" against "the slacker", a label that was unfairly bestowed upon Dempsey based on the afforementioned misconception that he had neglected to enlist in the military during WWI.

After being wobbled by a right hand in the 2nd round, Dempsey went on to knock Carpentier out in the 4th round after decking him with a punch to the jaw and finishing him with a brutal shot to the heart for the count of ten. So powerful and animalistic was Dempsey that an aggressive fish native to Mexico and Hondurus was named after him. Dempsey went on to face Argentinian Luis Firpo in the last successful defense of his title with 85,000 people in attendance. This was a wild fight that saw Firpo go down 7 times in the first round and Dempsey hit the canvas twice, the second time sending him through the ropes. In boxing when a fighter is knocked out of the ring he has 20 seconds to make it back inside. Dempsey took a total of 14 seconds to re-enter the ring and went on to knock Firpo out in the 2nd round!

Famous painting of Dempsey being knocked out of the ring against Firpo.
Famous painting of Dempsey being knocked out of the ring against Firpo. | Source

Losing the Crown

Subsequent to the Firpo fight, Dempsey went on a three year hiatus from the ring. During that time, he earned money endorsing products, appearing in films and engaging in exhibitions. The public began clamoring for him to return to the ring and defend his title. At this time during the roaring 20's, Dempsey was not only the most popular boxer on the planet, but among the two most popular athletes in sports at the time (the other being the slightly less popular Babe Ruth who was a personal friend of Jack's) and among the most popular athletes in sports history to this day.

In September of 1926, Dempsey returned to the ring and defended his title against former Light Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney in front of a record 120,557 people which to this day remains the largest live audience to attend a boxing match. Despite coming into the ring with a record of 63-1-1 and having been much more active than Dempsey over the prior three years, Tunney was installed as the underdog. Tunney boxed masterfully and won the fight on a unanimous decision.

After losing his title, Dempsey fought future heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey. This bout had a controversial ending on par with the fairly recent Floyd Mayweather/Victor Ortiz match. During the 7th round, Sharkey had turned to the referee to complain about what he perceived to be a low blow and while the referee disagreed with Sharkey about the illegal trajectory of the punch, Dempsey tagged Sharkey with a hellacious left hook to the jaw sending him down for the 10 count. This was a title eliminator for a shot at the new champion Gene Tunney. If fans thought this bout's ending was marred with controversy, they hadn't seen nothing yet!

The Legendary Long Count

After the Sharkey fight, the fans were ecstatic and beyond ready for the rematch between Dempsey and the new and less popular champ Gene Tunney. Tunney and Dempsey were polar opposites. Dempsey was an uneducated crouching brawler with dynamite in his fists who fought with one goal: To separate you from your senses as quickly as humanly possible. Tunney was a fleet footed scientific boxer with decent power who was an extremely intellectual man that later taught Shakespeare at Yale University.

The rematch occurred almost exactly a year to the day from their first encounter on September 22, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois. It generated a then record 2 million dollar gate. Allegedly, mobster Al Capone offered to fix the fight in favor of Dempsey, but Jack refused to accept the offer. Tunney's purse for the fight was a cool million (equivalent to 13.5 million in today's money). To put into perspective how large this purse was, this was 87 years ago when fights were broadcast on the radio and things like television, cable and pay per view were several decades away. The current highest PPV grossing UFC fighters in 2014 are lucky to see a 7 figure pay day with back-end bonuses!

Dempsey was losing the fight on points when in the 7th round he nailed Tunney with a left hook to the chin and follow up punches sending him down. A new rule that was implemented at the time (ironically requested during negotiations by the Dempsey camp) called for the fighter who caused the knockdown to go to a neutral corner as opposed to being able to stand over his opponent until he rose. Dempsey didn't immediately go to the neutral corner which gave Tunney an extra 5 seconds to rise. It was reported that Tunney had been on the canvas for a total of 14 seconds. Tunney went on to score a flash knockdown in the 8th round and to win the fight via unanimous decision once again.

Jack Dempsey circa 1921
Jack Dempsey circa 1921 | Source

Retirement, Military Service, and One Last Fight

Following the Tunney rematch, Dempsey retired and engaged in a few exhibition matches. He began doing philanthropic work and starred in the movie "The Prizefighter and the Lady" along with fellow boxers Max Baer and Primo Carnera. He married Broadway singer Hannah Williams and opened up a restaurant in New York City. He later divorced Williams and married Deana Piatelli who remained his wife until the day he died. During WWII, Dempsey had an opportunity to shed the "slacker" label once and for all and reported for duty in the Coast Guard Reserve where he was appointed Director of Physical Education as a First Lieutenant and later promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Dempsey was honorably discharged in 1952.

In a 1971 story in the Hendersonville Times News, in response to a question about when he last engaged in fisticuffs, a 76 year old Dempsey recounted an incident a few years prior that occurred while he was walking home with groceries in his hands. He was accosted by two men in their early 20's who attempted to mug him. After initially shaking them off and attempting to go on with his business, the stubborn muggers made another attempt at snatching the groceries from the elderly man they had no clue belonged to the Manassa Mauler and ended up on the receiving end of his legendary power. After two jarring lefts to the head and two rights to the stomach, the men were left stretched out on the sidewalk. "I just let em lie there and walked away" said Dempsey, giving truth to the old boxing adage: "The last thing to go is the power". William Harrison Dempsey died on May 31, 1983 of heart failure. By his side was his wife Deanna. Dempsey's final words were "don't worry honey, I'm too mean to die". He may have been mean, but it sure would have been nice to have known him.

Are modern boxers as strong and tough as Jack Dempsey was?

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    • D La Montre profile imageAUTHOR

      Darrell La Montre 

      3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thanks Larry, I really appreciate the kind words!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful athlete profile of one of the alltime greats.


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