This Champion Was a Real Bum : Jack Dempsey, the Man Who Inspired Boxing’s First Million-Dollar Gate, Was Born 100 Years Ago
One hundred years ago Saturday, in a little Colorado town he would one day make the most famous small town in America, the “Manassa Mauler” was born.
Jack Dempsey became one of the most famous of all 20th Century athletes, a fighter whose bob-and-weave style and ferocity transfixed post-World War I Americans.
He was not a beloved fighter in his time--not after he was unfairly brought up on wartime draft-dodging charges--but his ferocious, attacking, defense-be-damned style appealed so much to 1920s Americans that the biggest stadiums couldn’t hold all who wanted to see him fight.
He was one of America’s first sports millionaires, but he started out fighting for nickels and dimes.
The ninth of 11 children, he was born to vagabond Mormon parents--delivered by a midwife who charged 25 cents--in Manassa, Colo. His father, Hyrum Dempsey, did a little farming, a little carpentry and occasional odd jobs.
Today, sociologists would describe a family like the Dempseys as being “on the poverty line.” In 1895, they called themselves “dirt poor.”
His real name was William Harrison Dempsey. When he was learning to fight in brothels, saloons and boxcars in western mining towns, he began calling himself Jack, in honor of the storied 1880s middleweight, Jack Dempsey.
Dempsey’s place in American sports history is not pegged solely to his being boxing’s first million-dollar man or his place in defining the 1920s as the “Golden age of sports,” but as much to the road he traveled to success.
Jack Dempsey came out of the American West, not all that long after Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp.
At about the same time that Babe Ruth, another titan of 1920s American sport, was pitching and hitting his way out of a Baltimore reform school, Dempsey was shoveling ore, riding the rods and fighting.
Decades later, talking of his youth in the mining towns of Colorado, Utah and Nevada, the old champion said: “I was a bum. I didn’t even know how to use a knife and fork.”
But he could fight.
It started, according to family lore, when he won a scrap as a 5-year-old, while working as a restaurant dishwasher.
As a teen-ager, first as a bare knuckle fighter, he began beating up on bigger, older, stronger lads in saloons. Appreciative patrons contributed change when the hat was passed.
“I learned pretty quick that bigger, older guys really couldn’t fight a lick,” he said. “I’d make ‘em miss a few times, move around, play it smart. . . . Pretty soon, they’d fall down.”
Dempsey’s early haunts were Ramona, Cripple Creek, Durango and Montrose, Colo.; Goldfield, Tonopah and Ely, Nev.; and Ogden, Provo and Price, Utah. In a 1970 Times interview, Dempsey recalled the early purses. “In a saloon fight, they’d pass the hat and maybe I’d get 50 cents, sometimes two bucks,” he said.
“I remember fighting a tough guy named Johnny Sudenberg twice [in 1915], in Goldfield and Tonopah. The first time we had a hell of a fight, a draw. We each got $8.60. I figured I was in the big money. In the rematch [another draw], we each got $150.”
His fame grew and the towns got bigger. He began traveling in Pullman cars, not boxcars, and started wearing a suit. He fought in Oakland, San Francisco, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
He was no longer a hobo.
His career turned in 1917 in Oakland when he caught the eye of one of the great rascals of the American West, Jack (Doc) Kearns. Dempsey won a string of fights in the Bay Area when Kearns, a con man from the Alaska gold fields, talked Dempsey into letting him guide his career.
It was a fitting matchup, a mining camp brawler and a cardsharp. And it was about to pay big dividends for both.
First, Dempsey was tried on a draft-dodging rap during World War I. But when he presented documentation showing he was the sole support of his family, which had been deserted by his father, he won a quick acquittal.
Kearns launched Dempsey’s drive to the heavyweight championship with a triumphant tour of the Midwest, which included a one-round knockout of top contender Fred Fulton, and closed in on the champion, Jess Willard.
Willard had been champion since dethroning Jack Johnson in 1915, but he had spent more time on the circus and vaudeville circuits than in the ring. He had defended the title once and fought three exhibitions. Kearns and Dempsey sized him up as a fatted steer.
Kearns and promoter Tex Rickard booked Dempsey-Willard for Toledo, Ohio, on July 4, 1919. Dempsey won in what remains today one of the most savage beatings in boxing history.
Dempsey, 23, knocked down Willard, 37, seven times in the first round in a fight that was stopped after three rounds.
Arguments still rage over the controversial match. The 6-foot-6 1/4 Willard--still the tallest of all heavyweight champions--maintained that Dempsey had used “loaded” gloves that day, a charge Dempsey hotly denied the rest of his life.
Dempsey next knocked out two contenders, Billy Miske and Bill Brennan, and Kearns and promoter Rickard stoked the flames for the first million-dollar fight--Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier, a French war hero.
Rickard signed them to fight on July 2, 1921. With the contract as collateral, he borrowed $250,000 and built a seven-acre, 91,613-seat temporary stadium at Boyles Thirty Acres, near Jersey City, N.J.
Pro boxing was illegal in New Jersey in 1921, but this was an easy one for Rickard. His stadium contractors, C.S. and J.W. Edwards, were brothers of New Jersey Gov. Edward I. Edwards.
It turned out to be a routine Dempsey fight, a fourth-round knockout, but the story was the gate.
Until that day, boxing’s biggest gate had been $270,775, for the 1910 Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson fight in Reno. Dempsey-Carpentier sold out and made $1,789,236. Even Rickard was astonished. He had scaled the house from $50 to $5.50, but said later he should have doubled the prices.
Then came three more million-dollar fights:
--Sept. 14, 1923: Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo drew 82,000 to New York’s Polo Grounds. Dempsey was knocked out of the ring in the first round, but crawled back in and knocked out Firpo in the second. Gate: $1,188,603.
--Sept. 23, 1926: In a driving rain before 120,747 in Philadelphia, former Marine Gene Tunney took Dempsey’s title with a 10-round decision. Gate: $1,895,723.
--Sept. 22, 1927: In the rematch, before 104,943 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Tunney was down for 14 seconds in the seventh round when Dempsey, confused, at first refused to obey a new rule and go to a neutral corner. Tunney won a second decision. Gate: $2,658,660.
For the first time since 1919, Dempsey was no longer boxing’s dominant figure. Tunney won 19 of 20 rounds in their two fights.
Dempsey later went into business and ran his restaurant in New York for many years. He had tears in his eyes when he announced in 1974 that he had to close it.
Dempsey and most of his famous foes lived into their 80s.
Willard was 86 when he died in 1968 in Pacoima. Carpentier died in 1975 at 81. Firpo died at 63 in 1960. Tunney was 80 when he died in 1978.
Rickard died at 58 in 1929. Kearns was 80 when he died in 1963.
And Jack Dempsey, “the Manassa Mauler,” was 87 when he died in 1983. He’s buried in Southampton, N.Y.
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