Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Remembering the Great Jack Dempsey

William Harrison Dempsey

He was one of the most popular boxers in the world.  Jack Dempsey held the world heavyweight title from 1919 till 1926.  Born William Harrison Dempsey on June 24, 1895, he grew up in Manassa, Colorado and in Utah.  His parents, Hiram Dempsey and Mary Celia Smoot Dempsey were poor and always on the move.  One of eleven children, Dempsey left school in the eighth grade to go to work and help support the family.  In 1911, at the age of 16, he left home to ride the rails, where he discovered a knack for fighting. 

A Young 'Jack' Dempsey
Dempsey was known to stop by taverns and issue the challenge, “I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.”   He was rarely known to loose these wagers.  With his brother Bernie’s support, Dempsey began his boxing career in 1914 in Salt Lake City, Utah, fighting under the names ‘Kid Blackie’ and ‘Jack Dempsey.’  By 1916 his fights were all billed as ‘Jack Dempsey,’ a name he took in honor of Jack ‘Nonpareil” Dempsey, a middleweight boxer of the late 1800’s.  Dempsey also became known as the ‘Manassa Mauler’ later in his career.  Dempsey was well known for his knockout victories, which usually occurred in the first minute of a fight.

During WWI, Dempsey worked in a shipyard and continued to train and box.  Boxing fans questioned why he had not served his country during the war and labeled him a draft-dodger. In 1920, after a federal indictment, it was released that Dempsey had tried to enlist but had been refused. However, the damage had been done and a stain would remain on his character until the mid-twenties.

Dempsey in the early 20's.
 Dempsey’s record speaks for itself; out of 83 fights, he won 66.  51 of those by knockouts.  There were 11 bouts called as draws. During his career, he lost a total of six fights, only one loss by a knockout, administered by Fireman Jim Flynn

Jess Willard

The most controversial fight of Dempsey’s career came on July 4, 1919 when he went against world heavyweight champion, Jess Willard.  The size match-up was so off kilter, many touted the fight as a modern day David and Goliath match.  Willard didn't see Dempsey as a threat and did little training for the fight. Dempsey proceeded to knock Willard down seven times – in the first round - and won in the third.  Cries of cheating and a fixed fight spoiled the win and Dempsey gaining the title of World Heavyweight Champion.  Dempsey did not attempt to defend his title for over a year.  Then in September 1920, he took on Billy Miske and knocked him out in three round.

Carpentier - Dempsey fight
It was July 2, 1921 when Dempsey took on Frenchman and WWI hero, Georges Carpentier.  Carpentier was touted as the ‘Greatest Boxer in the World’ and the fight was billed as the ‘Fight of the Century.”  Odds were set at 50 to 1 against Dempsey.  It was the first million-dollar gate in boxing history.  Almost 100-thousand people watched the four-round fight, from Jersey City, New Jersey.  RCA provided live radio coverage of the bout, with commentary, making it the first national radio broadcast telegraphed from KDKA in Pittsburgh.  Dempsey won and maintained his title as World Heavyweight Champion.

Gene Tunney
Dempsey then spent several years making movies, endorsing products and doing boxing exhibitions, making him one of the richest athletes in the world.  It was September 23, 1926 when he fought again, and lost his title to U. S. Marine Gene Tunney in Philadelphia, in the tenth round.  This fight garnered boxing’s largest paid attendance, over 2.6 million dollars.

Dempsey took on Tunney again in 1927, hoping to reclaim his title. He knocked Tunney down in the seventh round but because he did not immediately go to a neutral corner, the referee delayed the count.  Tunney was able to get up on the count of nine and won the bout three rounds later on a decision.  In the end, the count of nine was estimated to be a count of 14 and speculation would always remain concerning the bout that became known as the ‘Long Count’ and the final decision.

Jack Dempsey's Broadway Restaurant
After the Tunney match Dempsey hung up his gloves, and became more popular than ever.  He spent his time on exhibition fights and working in films about boxers. In 1935 he opened ‘Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant” in New York’s Times Square.  He retired professionally from boxing in 1940.

Lieutenant Dempsey
During WW2, he joined the New York State National Guard and was commissioned as a first lieutenant.  He resigned that commission in 1942 to become a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve.  He served onboard the USS Arthur Middleton for the invasion of Okinawa.  He was given an honorable discharge in 1952.

In an Associated Press poll of 1950, Dempsey was named the greatest fighter of the first half of the twentieth century.  In 1954 he was a charter inductee to the Boxing Hall of Fame and in 1980 he was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.  Some still consider him as the best of all pugilists.

Courtesy of Ace Preston
Courtesy of Ace Preston
Dempsey died on May 31, 1983.  A true fighter to the end, Dempsey told his wife, Denna Piatelli Dempsey, “Don’t worry honey; I’m too mean to die.”  He succumbed of heart failure and was buried at Southampton Cemetery in Southampton, New York.  

Jack Dempsey
Courtesy of Ace Preston
Dempsey was officially inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 and named the seventh best puncher of all time in boxing history by Ring Magazine in 2003.  According to sportswriter Grant Riceland, Dempsey was the finest gentleman and gentle man he had ever met in the world of sports.  In the world of boxing, he lives on as a heavyweight hero.

~ Joy


  1. I believe it was John L. Sullivan who would enter taverns and challenge any SOB in the house. Nice article on Dempsey!

  2. The second picture is James J Jeffries. Not Jack Dempsey...