The 1920s were the Golden Age of Sports. In boxing, nobody was more golden -- though not immediately -- than Jack Dempsey. Like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bill Tilden and Bobby Jones, Dempsey was the face of his sport. Dempsey popularized boxing as a sport and radio broadcasts of his matches along with broadcasts of baseball games, helped create modern mass spectator sports.
With angry scowl, teeth bared, flashing black eyes and unshaved chin, Dempsey was a warrior stalking his opponent. Fans flocked to see the former barroom brawler who had risen to the pinnacle of his profession. Game and tough with a ruthless spirit, he was a box-office magnet, attracting not only the first $1 million gate but also the first $2 million gate.
"In the ring, he was a tiger without mercy who shuffled forward in a bobbing crouch, humming a barely audible tune and punching to the rhythm of the song," wrote Pulitzer Prize winner Red Smith. "He was 187 pounds of unbridled violence. This isn't big by heavyweight standards, yet in the judgment of some, this black-browed product of Western mining camps and hobo jungles was the best of all pugilists."
Though Dempsey rose to prominence with several brutal early-round knockouts, it was not until he lost his heavyweight crown in 1926 did he win over all fans. Back at the hotel, after being sliced and battered for 10 rounds by Gene Tunney, he was asked by actress Estelle Taylor, the second of his four wives, "What happened?"
"Honey," Dempsey said, "I forgot to duck."
From that fight on, the Manassa Mauler's popularity grew. "He was reviled as a slacker during World War I, and although a jury exonerated him of a charge of draft dodging, the odium cling to him until the night Tunney punched him almost blind and took his title," Smith wrote.
Dempsey even became a folk hero after losing the 1927 rematch with Tunney. It was the battle that went down in history as "The Long Count," after Dempsey put Tunney down on the canvas for more than the 10 seconds required for a knockout. But Dempsey was a victim of his own behavior and didn't head to the farthest corner, as required, for several seconds, allowing Tunney time to recover.
"America acclaimed (Dempsey)," Shirley Povich wrote in the Washington Post. "In victory he was extolled as the invincible one. In defeat, he gained more stature. He was the loser in the battle of the long count, yet the hero."
William Harrison Dempsey was born June 24, 1895, in Manassa, Colo., to parents accustomed to living in poverty. The ninth of 11 children, he was called Harry during his boyhood. Growing up, the family moved to another part of Colorado and then to Utah. After Harry graduated from the eighth grade, he struck out on his own.
Legend has it that Dempsey became a hobo, but he actually was an itinerant laborer who rode the freights and camped by the wayside on his way to temporary work. Digging ditches, picking peaches, cutting timber and being a circus roustabout were among his jobs. Whenever he could, he fought in local clubs in Colorado, Utah and Nevada, using the name "Kid Blackie" or "Young Dempsey."
At 19, he switched to Jack Dempsey, the name that two of his brothers had fought under. He showed promise until he was knocked out in the first round by "Fireman" Jim Flynn in 1917, the only knockout he would ever suffer. Late that year, Jack "Doc" Kearns recruited Dempsey. Benefiting immediately from the management of the canny Kearns, Dempsey scored a string of quick knockouts. A year and a half later, he fought for the heavyweight title.
Dempsey was five inches shorter and 58 pounds lighter than the 6-foot-6, 245-pound champion, Jess Willard. But on July 4, 1919, under the broiling sun in Toledo, Ohio, Dempsey broke Willard's jaw with one of his first punches, a devastating left hook. He knocked Willard down seven times in the first round and walloped him for two more rounds. When Willard didn't come out for the fourth round, he had four teeth missing, his eyes were closed, his nose was smashed and two ribs were cracked, not to mention the broken jaw.
After successfully defending the title twice in 1920, Dempsey signed to fight Georges Carpentier on July 2, 1921. Wily promoter Tex Rickard saw the fight as "hero" against "villain." The "hero" was the Frenchman, the light-heavyweight champion who had distinguished himself as a pilot in World War I. The "villain" was Dempsey, who was labeled a "slacker" even though he was found not guilty in 1920 after being indicted for draft evasion. About 80,000 fans attended the fight in Jersey City, paying a then-record $1,626,580 -- the first million-dollar gate -- to watch Dempsey knock out Carpentier in the fourth round.
On Sept. 14, 1923, Dempsey had a slugfest with Luis Firpo, a 216-pounder from Argentina who was called "the Wild Bull of the Pampas." Firpo's first punch was a thunderous right to the jaw that put the champ down. Dempsey jumped off the canvas before a count could be started and proceeded to knock down Firpo seven times.
Before the round ended, an angry Firpo threw a clubbing right that sent Dempsey through the ropes and onto a sportswriter's typewriter. The writer and a Western Union operator helped the champ return to the ring before the count of 10. In Round 2, Dempsey registered two more knockdowns, the second ending the bout after 3 minutes and 57 seconds of mayhem.
Dempsey took the next three years off, cavorting around with his actress wife Taylor, and fought only a few exhibitions. When he returned on Sept. 23, 1926, the quicker Tunney turned the aging champ's face into a bloody mess. Before the Tunney rematch, Dempsey fought Jack Sharkey. When Sharkey complained to the referee in the seventh round that Dempsey was hitting low, Dempsey unloaded a haymaker, a left hook to the exposed chin. Fight over. When asked why he threw the punch when Sharkey wasn't looking, Dempsey said, "What was I supposed to do -- write him a letter?"
Dempsey-Tunney II, the jewel of the Golden Age of Sports and likely the most famous fight in history, drew a gate of $2,658,660 (about $22 million in today's dollars) at Chicago's Soldier Field on Sept. 22, 1927. Tunney controlled the first six rounds, but in the seventh, a barrage of thundering blows by Dempsey drove the former marine to the canvas. The timekeeper began his count.
The referee, Dave Barry, pointed Dempsey to a neutral corner to his left, ordering him there, but Dempsey ignored him and went to his own corner, about five feet behind Tunney. Barry pointed again to the neutral corner and at the count of three, Dempsey started there, arriving about two seconds later. The timekeeper was at five when Barry turned to Tunney. But instead of picking up that count in unison with the timekeeper, Barry called out, "One."
So began the Long Count. At Barry's count of four, Tunney raised his eyes from the floor and looked at the referee. When the count reached nine, Tunney, holding the rope, pulled himself to his feet. He had been down about 14 seconds. Tunney ran and danced away from Dempsey for the rest of the round. In the eighth, he floored Dempsey, and then went on to dominate the last two rounds to win easily. After the fight, Dempsey lifted Tunney's arm in salute and said, "You were best. You fought a smart fight, kid."
That was Dempsey's last bout. The Hall of Fame fighter retired with a 64-6-9 record, according to The Ring magazine. He lost about $3 million in the stock market crash, but recovered enough to become one of the most popular -- and gentlemanly -- restaurant owners in New York. On May 31, 1983, he died of natural causes at age 87.