This HBO special of “Boxing’s Best covering the exploits of “The Manassa Mauler” Jack Dempsey’s career….from the historic second fight between heavyweight champ Gene Tunney at Soldiers Field in Chicago before 194,934 fans is just awesome footage….followed by additional highlights of Dempsey’s career….including his last professional bout where he knocks Cowboy Luttrell completely out of the ring on July 1, 1940.
HBO’s Barry Tompkins and legedary trainer Ray Arcel host this exciting tribute to a true American hero….Jack Dempsey.
William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey also known as “Kid Blackie” and “The Manassa Mauler“,….as an American professional boxer….who became a cultural icon of the 1920’s. Dempsey held the world heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926…as his aggressive style and exceptional punching power made him one of the most popular boxers in history.Many of his fights set financial and attendance records….including the first million-dollar gate….for Dempsey has been listed at #10 on The Ring’s list of all-time heavyweights….as well as being #7 among its Top 100 Greatest Punchers….whereas in 1950 the Associated Press voted Dempsey as the greatest fighter of the past 50 years….who became a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame….and was inducted into The Ring magazine’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1951.
Born William Harrison Dempsey in Manassa, Colorado….where he grew up in a poor family in Colorado, West Virginia, and Utah….as the son of Mary Celia and Hiram Dempsey….his family’s lineage consisted of Irish, Cherokee, and Jewish ancestry. Following his parents’ conversion to Mormonism,Dempsey was baptized into the LDS Church in 1903 following his 8th birthday….which is the “age of accountability” according to Mormon doctrine. Because his father had difficulty finding work….the family traveled often and Dempsey dropped out of elementary school to work….leaving home at the age of 16….when due to his lack of money….he frequently traveled underneath trains and slept in hobo camps….where desperate for money….Dempsey would occasionally visit saloons and challenge for fights, saying “I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house”….whereby if anyone accepted the challenge….then bets would be made…..and according to Dempsey in his autobiography….he rarely lost these barroom brawls. For a short time, Dempsey was a part-time bodyguard for Thomas F. Kearns….president of The Salt Lake Tribune and son of Utah’s U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns….as the two men remained friends for years afterward.
Because he occasionally fought under the pseudonym “Kid Blackie” until 1916….Dempsey’s complete boxing record is not known….for it is known that he first competed as “Jack Dempsey” in 1914….as a tribute to middleweight boxer Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey. Following the name change, Dempsey won six bouts in a row by knockout before losing on a disqualification in four rounds to Jack Downey. During this early part of his career, Dempsey campaigned in Utah, frequently entering fights in towns in the Wasatch Mountain Range region. He followed his loss against Downey with a knockout win and two draws versus Johnny Sudenberg in Nevada. Three more wins and a draw followed when he met Downey again, this time resulting in a four-round draw. Following these wins, Dempsey racked up ten more wins that included matches against Sudenberg and Downey, knocking out Downey in two rounds. These wins were followed with three no-decision matches, though at this point in the history of boxing, the use of judges to score a fight was often forbidden, so if a fight went the distance, it was called a draw or a no decision, depending on the state or county where the fight was held.
After the United States entered World War I in 1917….Dempsey worked in a shipyard and continued to box. Afterward, he was accused by some boxing fans of being a slacker for not enlisting….as this remained a black mark on his reputation until 1920….when evidence produced showed he had attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army, but had been classified 4-F. After the war, Dempsey spent two years in Salt Lake City, “bumming around” as he called it, before returning to the ring.
Among his opponents for world heavyweight champion were Fireman Jim Flynn….the only boxer ever to beat Dempsey by a knockout when Dempsey lost to him in the first round (although some boxing historians believe the fight was a “fix”)….then he fought Gunboat Smith….a highly ranked contender who had beaten both world champion Jess Willard and Hall of Fame boxer Sam Langford……as Dempsey beat Smith for the third time on a second-round knockout.
Before he employed the long-experienced Jack Kearns as his manager, Dempsey was first managed by John J. Reisler.One year later, in 1918, Dempsey fought in 17 matches….going 15 – 1 with one no decision. One of those fights was with Flynn….who was knocked out by Dempsey, ironically, in the first round. Among other matches won that year were against light heavyweight champion Battling Levinsky, Bill Brennan, Fred Fulton, Carl E. Morris, Billy Miske, heavyweight Lefty Jim McGettigan, and Homer Smith. In 1919, he won five consecutive regular bouts by knockout in the first round as well as a one-round special bout.
On July 4, 1919, Dempsey and world heavyweight champion Jess Willard met at Toledo for the world title. Pro lightweight fighter Benny Leonard predicted a victory for the 6’1″, 187 pound Dempsey….even though Willard….known as the “Pottawatamie Giant”….was 6’6½” tall and 245 pounds. Ultimately, Willard was knocked down seven times by Dempsey in the first round.Accounts of the fight reported that Willard suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, several broken teeth, and a number of deep fractures to his facial bones. This aroused suspicion that Dempsey had cheated, with some questioning how the force capable of causing such damage had been transmitted through Dempsey’s knuckles without fracturing them.Other reports, however, failed to mention Willard suffered any real injuries….as the The New York Times’ account of the fight described severe swelling visible on one side of Willard’s face….but did not mention any broken bones….or a still photograph of Willard following the fight appears to show discoloration and swelling on his face.
Following the match, Willard was quoted as saying, “Dempsey is a remarkable hitter. It was the first time that I had ever been knocked off my feet. I have sent many birds home in the same bruised condition that I am in, and now I know how they felt. I sincerely wish Dempsey all the luck possible and hope that he garnishes all the riches that comes with the championship. I have had my fling with the title. I was champion for four years and I assure you that they’ll never have to give a benefit for me. I have invested the money I have made”…but Willard later claimed to have been defeated by “gangsterism”.
After being fired by Dempsey, manager Jack Kearns gave an account of the fight in the January 20, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated that has become known as the “loaded gloves theory”. In the interview, Kearns claimed to have informed Dempsey he had wagered his share of the purse favoring a Dempsey win with a first-round knockout. Kearns further stated he had applied plaster of Paris to the wrappings on the fighter’s hands. Boxing historian J. J. Johnston said, “the films show Willard upon entering the ring walking over to Dempsey and examining his hands.” That, along with an experiment conducted by a boxing magazine designed to re-enact the fight have been noted as proof that Kearns’ story was false….additionally, The Ring magazine founder and editor Nat Fleischer claimed to be present when Dempsey’s hands were wrapped, stating, “Jack Dempsey had no loaded gloves….and no plaster of Paris over his bandages. I watched the proceedings and the only person who had anything to do with the taping of Jack’s hands was Deforest. Kearns had nothing to do with it, so his plaster of Paris story is simply not true.” Deforest himself said that he regarded the stories of Dempsey’s gloves being loaded as libel, calling them “trash”….going on to say that he did not apply any foreign substance to them, “which I can verify since I watched the taping”. Sports writer Red Smith, in Dempsey’s obituary published by The New York Times’ was openly dismissive of the claim. Another rumor is that Dempsey used a knuckleduster during the first round….with some speculating that the object used was a rail spike. In the Los Angeles Times on July 3, 1979, Joe Stone, an ex-referee and boxing writer….asserted that in a film taken of the fight an object on the canvas could be seen after the final knockdown. He further asserted that the object appears to be removed by someone from Dempsey’s corner. In the same film, however, Dempsey can be seen at various times during the fight pushing and holding with Willard with the palm of the glove in question….making it unlikely that he had any foreign object embedded in his glove.Further controversy was fueled by the fact that Dempsey left the ring at the end of the first round, thinking the fight was over. This was seen as a violation of the rules, however, Willard’s corner did not ask for enforcement in order for the referee to disqualify Dempsey.
Following his victory, Jack Dempsey traveled around the country making publicity appearances with circuses, staging exhibitions, and a low-budget Hollywood movie. Dempsey did not defend his title until September 1920….with a fight against Billy Miske in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Miske was knocked out in three rounds. Dempsey’s second title defense was in December 1920 against Bill Brennan at Madison Square Garden, New York City….where after 10 rounds, Brennan was ahead on points, and Dempsey’s left ear was bleeding profusely….but Dempsey rebounded to stop Brennan in the 12th round. Dempsey’s next defending fight was against French World War I hero Georges Carpentier, a fighter popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The bout was promoted by Tex Rickard and George Bernard Shaw….who claimed that Carpentier was “the greatest boxer in the world”.
The Dempsey–Carpentier contest took place on July 2, 1921, at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey. It generated the first million-dollar gate in boxing history….as a crowd of 91,000 watched the fight. Though it was deemed “the Fight of the Century”…..experts anticipated a one-sided win for Dempsey….as radio pioneer RCA arranged for live coverage of the match via KDKA….making the event the first national radio broadcast of a boxing championship. Carpentier wobbled Dempsey with a hard right in the second round….to which a reporter at ringside commented that he counted 25 punches from Dempsey in a single 31-second exchange soon after he was supposedly injured by the right. Carpentier also broke his thumb in that round, which crippled his chances. Dempsey ended up winning the match in the fourth round.
Dempsey did not defend his title again until July 1923 against Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana…..which Dempsey won the match as result of a 15-round decision. The last successful title defense for Dempsey was in September 1923 at New York’s Polo Grounds in Dempsey vs. Firpo. Attendance was 85,000, with another 20,000 trying to get inside the arena. Firpo was knocked down repeatedly by Dempsey….yet continued to battle back by even knocking Dempsey down twice. On the second occasion he was floored, Dempsey flew head-first through the ring ropes….landing on a ringside reporter’s typewriter. At this point he was out of the ring for approximately 14 seconds….which was less than the 20 second rule for out-of-ring knockouts…..allowing him to return and win the fight. Ultimately, Dempsey beat Argentinian contender Luis Ángel Firpo with a second-round KO. The fight was transmitted live by radio to Buenos Aires.
Dempsey’s heavyweight title-defending fights, exhibition fights, movies, and endorsements, made Dempsey one of the richest athletes in the world, putting him on the cover of TIME Magazine.