Nickname: ‘Manassa Mauler’
Born: Manassa, Colorado, USA. 24 June 1895
Died: New York, 31 May, 1983
Height: 6’ Weight: 190lbs.
World Heavyweight Champion: 1919-1926
World Heavyweight Champion: 1919-1926
Record: 64 wins (49 Kos) Professional boxer: 1914-1940
William Harrison Dempsey was the ninth of 11 children born to a poor Mormon schoolteacher and his wife in the Colorado town of Manassa. He had a harsh upbringing, and by his mid-teens was living virtually as a hobo. He did anything to make money: washing dishes, shining shoes, breaking horses. He was also a hustler and saloon brawler. It was in the bars of the mining towns that he made a name for himself with his fists. Fights would be put on to entertain the customers, and a hat would be passed round to reward the winner. Dempsey travelled from town to town by jumping on freight cars at night. It was a meagre, uncertain existence. But the experience toughened him up and made him hungry for success when he decided to make his living in the ring.
By 1914, when he was 19 years old, he was fighting regularly as a professional. At first he boxed under the name of Kid Blackie, but soon changed it to Jack, after one of his brothers who was also a fighter.
His rise to the top was not without its setbacks. He lost two and drew one of his first three fights, and in 1917 he suffered a first-round knockout at the hands of Jim Flynn. Flynn had had a tilt at the title in 1912, losing to Johnson in nine rounds. In 1918, Dempsey avenged this defeat by putting Flynn away in one.
Although he became known primarily as a very destructive puncher, he combined sheer power with the ringcraft of a Corbett or Johnson. Such was the impression he made on the boxing world that he was given a shot at the title on 4 July 1919.
Jess Willard undertrained for their showdown, in Toledo, Ohio, but at almost five stones heavier and five inches taller, he was confident of putting the challenger in his place. The punters agreed and the champion was a firm favourite. In the event, Willard found himself on the receiving end of one of the worst beatings ever witnessed in the ring. Crouching low, his head bobbing and darting like a cobra about to strike, Dempsey tore into his man from the start. A bone-crunching right to the heart, followed by a fast left hook put Willard on the canvas early in the first round.
By the end of that three minutes, the champion – who had never before been put down – was floored another six times. At the seventh knockdown, the referee counted Willard out and raised the hand of the new champion, only to find that amid the tumult he had failed to hear the bell. Dempsey, who was already on his way to the dressing room, had to be recalled to continue the demolition job.
Willard gamely stayed on his feet throughout round two, though he took further severe punishment. He also somehow survived the onslaught in the third round, but that was the end. He summoned his last ounce of strength to throw in the towel himself. In the nine minutes of the fight’s duration Willard landed 11 punches. Dempsey had found his mark 62 times.
Dempsey’s first defence was against a friend who was dying and needed a big payday. Billy Miske was suffering from Bright’s disease when he faced Dempsey at Benton Harbor, on 6 September 1920. The champion agonised about whether to put his friend through an attritional battle or dispatch him quickly. In the end he opted for the latter, knocking Miske out in three.
After another successful defence inside the distance, against Bill Brennan, Dempsey faced Europe’s premier fighter, world light-heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier. When the two stepped into the ring, in New Jersey, on 2 July 1921, it was the Frenchman who was received as the hero, while there was considerable hostility shown towards the home-grown champion. The reason was that Dempsey had been the subject of a vitriolic media campaign on the subject of draft-dodging. Carpentier, by contrast, was presented as a war hero. He was also handsome, flamboyant and charming – qualities that brought women flocking to a boxing match for the first time. Financially, it was by some distance the biggest fight ever staged. More than 80,000 spectators crammed into the specially built stadium in Jersey City. At one stage the police and fire department chiefs feared that the arena was in danger of collapsing. The fight grossed $l,75million.
The shrewd promoter Tex Rickard took one look at the crowd and realised it was the biggest day in boxing history. ‘Don’t kill him, Jack,’ he exhorted Dempsey before the fight. ‘If you kill him, you kill boxing. I just want you to knock him out. And not with one punch, or in the first round. Give them a run for their money.’
To the delight of the crowd, Carpentier caught Dempsey with a terrific right to the cheek in the second round, and followed it up with a flurry of punches without reply. In the fourth, a left hook put Carpentier down for a count of nine. Another left sent him reeling again, and this time the champion nailed ‘Gorgeous’ Georges with a right as he was falling. It was all over.
After a tedious points win over Tom Gibbons, Dempsey signed to fight Argentina’s Luis Firpo, the Pampas Bull.
Firpo was a toe-to-toe slugger out of the Dempsey mould. Their short, brutal encounter has gone down in boxing’s annals as one of the classic rough-house battles.
It lasted just three minutes 57 seconds. During that time Firpo was floored nine times, Dempsey twice. The second time the Pampas Bull caught the champion, he put him clean out of the ring. Dempsey landed on the typewriter of sports journalist Jack Lawrence, who pushed him back into the ring. Dempsey later said he remembered nothing from that moment on. Purely by instinct he continued trading blows with Firpo, neither man making any effort at defence at any stage. The champion finally put Firpo down for good after 237 seconds; it was the most extraordinary exhibition of unalloyed savagery in the history of glove fighting. Dempsey’s fee worked out at £415 per second.
It was three years before Dempsey laid his title on the line again. When he did so, it was against an opponent at the very opposite end of the spectrum to Firpo. Gene Tunney was no bar-room brawler. Intelligent and cultured, Tunney firmly believed that brains would triumph over brawn every time. Although he was a natural light-heavyweight – the US champion in that division – he was convinced he had the ammunition to beat the great Jack Dempsey.