Before Sonny, Mike And George There Was Jack!
Jack Dempsey was a hobo who rode the rails and made a buck anyway he could. Loading docks, coal mines...it didn't matter. When work became scarce, he would jump a train and move on to the next town. Occasionally, if the chance arose, he would fight in a mining town for extra bucks. After some success at it, he decided to try his hand as a pro and in 1914 officially started his career as Kid Blackie.
He had an all out, two-fisted style that drew attention quickly. Just as he started to make a name for himself Kid Blackie had a minor set back and was KO'd by Fireman Jim Flynn. It was somewhere during this time that Dempsey met a man named Tex Rickard. Rickard was a former drifter himself and newly involved in the sport when he met Dempsey. He knew that a future was to be had between the two. Little did either know at the time exactly how much of a future was in-store; they were about to change the sport forever.
After a few comeback fights and a rematch win by KO over Flynn, Dempsey then KO'd two top fighters; Gunboat Smith in two rounds and Arthur Pelkey in one. These wins had earned him a title shot against champion “Big” Jess Willard. Though Willard was big, he wasn't all that skilled. Add that to a long layoff from the ring and the night was a recipe for disaster.
From the start, Dempsey was brutal, beating Willard with disdain. He knocked Willard down seven times in the first round alone. Keep in mind, this was at a time that you could stand over your opponent while he was down.
Dempsey was known for lurking over his opponents, waiting for them to start to rise. Then as they started top get up, he would unload on the almost defenseless opponent, earning him the name "Manassa Mauler" due to his staying on top of his opponents and Manassa, Colorado being his hometown.
By the third, Willard couldn't get up for the bell and sat on his stool in a pool of blood. The era of Dempsey as champion and Rickard as top promoter had officially begun.
In yet another statement to how vicious Dempsey’s fights were, he took part in what many historians call boxing's most brutal round. It was September 1923 and Jack was defending his title against the capable Louis Angel Firpo. Firpo somewhere had developed bad blood towards Dempsey. When the fight started, Louis Angel showed no respect for the champions reputation. He went right after Dempsey showing he was braver than skilled.
Firpo was down quick in the first round. Seconds after he got back up, Dempsey sent him back down with a left hook that should have ended it. By time the fight ended in the second round, Firpo was knocked down nine times. Some from clean stand up shots to the head, some from Dempsey standing over him, hammering him while he tried to stand back up and fight.
In the midst of being knocked down so much, Firpo managed to fight enough to knock Dempsey out of the ring towards the end of the first round. Dempsey was saved from the floor by the press and a KO by the bell. The fight continued and ended in the first minute of the second round when Firpo went out cold for the ninth and final time. There has yet to be a round and a minute with so much savage intentions. This was boxing's second million dollar gate.
Just before the Firpo fight, Jack faced a Frenchman named Georges Carpentier in what was the sport's first million dollar gate. By now, the fans hated Dempsey. So hated that 80,000 showed up from around the globe to see the mild mannered Frenchman try to take the title from the man from Manassa.
To have this kind of attendance was something unheard of in this era. Sorely, for the crowd and unfortunately for the “Orchid Man” (a name that Carpentier was dubbed by Rickard's publicist), the champion ended the affair in just four rounds. With this fight, Rickard and Dempsey opened the big money gates for the sport. In fact, they had five million dollar gates in a row. This is something that even today doesn't happen often. Most of today’s money is made with TV rights and PPV revenue.
Dempsey continued his reign over the next few years, disposing of all his opponents in almost the same fashion. During this time he and Tex became rich, but like many champions in that day, he had started to defend the title less and less, becoming more involved in the nightlife than the ring life.
It wasn't until 1926, when he met an ex-marine named Gene Tunney, that Dempsey would find out the price paid for such a lifestyle. Tunney took Dempsey’s title from him via decision in a hard fought battle. The rematch between the two had generated so much interest though the first million dollar purse was paid out. This again opened up the big money gates for fighters. It is also one of the reasons heavyweight boxing has became so profitable. Dempsey lost the rematch, but this time there was controversy.
You see, like I mentioned earlier, you could stand over your downed opponent and start to hit them as they rose off the canvas. Between the first fight between the two and the rematch, this rule had changed. The neutral corner rule we use still to this day had taken effect. Jack, in the middle of all the excitement, had forgotten this.
With Tunney on the floor, Dempsey stood over him in his traditional Mauler style. This halted the referee’s count until Jack went to a neutral corner. All in all, it was estimated that Tunney was down 14 seconds and in actuality, Jack had won his title back but his mistake had cost him time. Tunney made it back to his feet and ended up winning a decision. Still, to this day, that moment is known as the “Long Count”.
Soon after this, Dempsey had retired from the ring, coming back only briefly some years later to fight in exhibition matches for fun. Dempsey went on to open up a restaurant and became a successful entrepreneur. He lived a fairly clean life and died at the ripe old age of 87, with his legacy intact and forever part of American culture. Although he became a loveable character to the fans of the sport eventually, that wasn't till long after his years in the ring.
As a kid, I used to watch old fights of Dempsey’s on my fathers 32 mm projector. For any of you out there who haven't had the chance to see his gloved handiwork, take my word on it, Jack was one of the most fearsome men to ever step in the ring.
Mike Tyson used to speak of Dempsey and the films he watched with Cus D’Amato and admit the awe he had for him. If Dempsey were around today, he certainly would be one of the sport's biggest stars, not to mention most feared.
At his size of only 6’1” and about 185 lbs, there would be no way he could compete as a heavyweight but the cruiserweight division would certainly have more exposure. The fact that film of him is limited to the public, many of today’s fans can't fully understand how good and how mean Dempsey really was in the ring.
We speak of guys like Sonny Liston and his walk through wins, how his opponents were in fear before the fight would even take place. We marvel at the power of George Foreman; his destruction of Joe Frazier is one of boxing's most talked about beatings. The way Mike Tyson terrorized the heavyweight division in the 80’s and left his opponents on the floor looking up, made him one of the sports highest earning athletes. The fact that he won the title at 20 years old put him in the history books.
We talk about guys like David Tua, The Klitschko brothers and Sam Peter, with their one punch knockouts and almost scary power. But long before they came along, we had a man who made a name for himself doing all the things theses modern day fighters do. He was meaner than the Liston’s and Tyson’s. He left his opponents in pain just as much as Foreman. His promoter made him just as rich as the Don Kings and Bob Arums. He was the pioneer of big money and brutality in the ring. He was Jack.