William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey (June 24, 1895 – May 31, 1983) was an American boxer who held the world heavyweight title between 1919 and 1926. Known as "The Manassa Mauler," Dempsey was a tremendous puncher famous for his exciting fights, many of which set financial and attendance records. Dempsey's fight with Georges Carpentier generated boxing's first million-dollar gate. His colorful personality and savage, in-your-face style made him as popular a figure as Babe Ruth or Red Grange, who were huge, charismatic figures in their time. Dempsey's swagger and brash behavior played perfectly to the spirit of the "Roaring Twenties," and wherever he went men stared in admiration and women swooned. He has a fish named after him that is colorful and aggressive.
In the ring, Dempsey employed a two-fisted attack. He boxed out of a low crouch, bobbing, weaving, and bombing at will. He continually stalked his opponent and was an unrelenting and remorseless warrior. In his 84-bout career, Dempsey compiled 52 knockouts, with 25 of them in the opening round. At the size of a modern cruiserweight, Dempsey often fought men 10 to 25 pounds heavier than himself, and actually handled bigger, stronger men more easily than he handled lighter, quicker ones. Boxing experts Charley Rose, Nat Fleischer, and Herb Goldman have ranked him as the number three, four, and five All-Time Heavyweight, respectively.
Born in Manassa, Colorado, Dempsey grew up in a poor family of mixed Irish origin, and with little education. Because his father had difficulty in finding work, the family traveled often. Dempsey left home in his mid-teens, eager to start a better life for himself. Because of his poverty, he frequently had to travel underneath trains and sleep in hobo camps. However, Dempsey was a strong, powerful youth who quickly discovered he had a talent for fighting. With the help of his older brother Bernie, he began training to be a professional boxer.
Dempsey's exact fight record is not known because sometimes he boxed under the pseudonym, "Kid Blackie." This practice continued until 1916. He first appeared as "Jack Dempsey" in 1914, after an earlier middleweight boxer Jack "Nonpareil" Dempsey, drawing with Young Herman in six rounds. After that fight, he won six bouts in a row by knockout, before losing for the first time, on a disqualification in four rounds to Jack Downey. During this early part of his career, Dempsey often campaigned in Utah. 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 and then he met Downey again, this time resulting in a four round draw.
Ten wins in a row followed, a streak during which he beat Sudenberg and was finally able to avenge his defeat at the hands of Downey, knocking him out in two. Then, three more non-decisions came. (Early in boxing, there were no judges to score a fight, so if a fight lasted the full distance, it was called a draw or non-decision.)
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Dempsey worked in a shipyard while continuing to box. After the war, he was accused by some boxing fans of being a draft dodger. It was not until 1920 that he was able to clear his name on that account, when evidence was produced showing he had attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army but had been turned down.
Among his opponents were Fireman Jim Flynn, the only boxer ever to beat Dempsey by a knockout. Dempsey lost to him in the first round. Many believed the fight was fixed because Dempsey was desperate for money. He also fought Gunboat Smith, formerly a highly ranked contender who had beaten both World Champion Jess Willard and Hall of Famer Sam Langford. Dempsey beat Smith for the third time on a second round KO. Around this time Dempsey hooked up with Jack "Doc" Kearns, an experienced, clever fight manager who carefully and skillfully guided Dempsey to the top.
In 1918, Dempsey boxed 17 times, going 15–1 with one no decision. He avenged his defeat against Flynn by returning the favor, knocking him out in the first round. Among others he beat were light heavyweight champion Battling Levinsky, who had never been knocked out before facing Dempsey. Among others he beat were Bill Brennan, Fred Fulton, Carl Morris, Billy Miske, and Homer Smith.
Dempsey began 1919 winning five bouts in a row by knockout in the first round. Then on July 4, he and World Heavyweight Champion Jess Willard met at Toledo, Ohio, for the title. Few gave Dempsey a chance against the larger champion and many called this fight a modern David and Goliath. Minutes before the fight started, manager Kearns informed Dempsey that he had wagered Dempsey's share of the purse on Jack to win with a first round knockout. As a result, the first round of the fight was one of the most brutal in boxing history. Dempsey dealt Willard a terrible beating and knocked him down seven times in the first round. Willard had a broken cheekbone, broken jaw, several teeth knocked out, partial hearing loss in one ear, and broken ribs. At the end of the third round the champion was forced to give up. Dempsey won the title, but he received no money for doing so.
After winning the title, Dempsey traveled around the country, making publicity appearances with circuses, staging exhibitions, and even starring in a low-budget Hollywood movie. Dempsey did not defend his title until September 1920. This was against Billy Miske in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Miske was a good fighter but past his prime, and was KO'd in 3 rounds.
Dempsey's second title defense was much tougher, against Bill Brennan in December 1920 at Madison Square Garden, New York City. Brennan had given Dempsey a tough match two years earlier. After 10 rounds, Brennan was ahead on points, and Dempsey's left ear was bleeding profusely. However, Dempsey rebounded and stopped Brennan in the twelfth round.
Dempsey's next fight was against Frenchman Georges Carpentier, who had been a war hero during World War I and was extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The bout was shrewdly promoted by Tex Rickard, emphasizing the differences between the two men, and George Bernard Shaw claimed that Carpentier was "the greatest boxer in the world." The betting odds were 50 to 1 against Dempsey.
Dempsey-Carpentier took place in July, 1921 at Boyles Thirty Acres, New Jersey, generating the first million-dollar gate in boxing history. A crowd of 91,000 watched the fight. Though it was deemed "the Fight of the Century," the match was not nearly as close as many assumed it would be. Carpentier got off to a fast start and reportedly even wobbled Dempsey with a hard right in the second round. A reporter at ringside, however, 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 severely hurt his chances. In the third, the bigger, stronger Dempsey began to take charge and administered a brutal beating to his opponent. The Frenchman was eventually stopped in the fourth round.
Dempsey did not defend his title again until July 1923 against Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana. Gibbons was a skilled, clever boxer, but was not powerful enough against the bigger Dempsey, who won a 15 round decision. The last successful title defense for Dempsey was in September 1923 at New York's Polo Grounds. His opponent was the huge, powerful, yet limited contender Luis Angel Firpo, from Argentina. Attendance was 85,000, with another 20,000 trying to get inside the arena. Dempsey won via a second round KO, but it was an exciting battle. Firpo was knocked down repeatedly yet continued to battle back, even knocking Dempsey down twice. The second time Dempsey was floored he went sailing head first through the ring ropes, landing on a reporter's typewriter, and reportedly taking several more seconds than the ten stipulated by the rules to recover.
These fights, plus his many exhibitions, movies, and endorsements, had made Dempsey one of the richest athletes in the world.
After the Firpo brawl, Dempsey did not defend his title for another three years. There was pressure from the public and the media for Dempsey to defend his title against black contender Harry Wills. Politics and racial fears prevented the Dempsey-Wills bout. There is disagreement among boxing historians as to whether Dempsey avoided Wills. Dempsey always claimed he was willing. Instead of defending his title, Dempsey continued to earn money by boxing exhibitions, making movies and endorsing products.
Dempsey also did a lot of traveling, spending and partying. During this time away from competitive fighting, Dempsey married actress Estelle Taylor, and broke from his long-time trainer/manager Jack "Doc" Kearns. This break-up did not go smoothly, and Kearns repeatedly sued Dempsey for huge sums of money.
In September 1926, Dempsey fought former U.S. Marine and Irish-American Gene Tunney in Philadelphia. Tunney was an excellent boxer who had lost only once in his career. Nevertheless, Tunney was still considered the underdog.
In a big upset, Dempsey lost the title on points in ten rounds. No longer displaying his legendary punching power or hand speed, Dempsey was easily outboxed by the slick Tunney. The attendance for this fight was a record 120,557, the second largest attendance ever recorded for a sporting event. When the battered Dempsey returned to his dressing room, he explained the defeat to wife Estelle Taylor by saying..."Honey, I just forgot to duck." This phrase was later used by President Ronald Reagan to his wife after Reagan was shot during a failed attempt on his life in 1981.
Dempsey contemplated retiring, but after a few months of rest decided to try a comeback. In July 1927, at Yankee Stadium, he knocked out future heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey in the seventh round of an elimination bout for a title shot against Tunney. Sharkey was beating Dempsey until the end, when the fight ended controversially. Dempsey had been hitting Sharkey below the belt, and Sharkey turned to the referee to complain, leaving himself unprotected. Dempsey took advantage and crashed a left hook onto Sharkey's chin, knocking him out cold. The referee then counted Sharkey out.
The Tunney rematch took place in Chicago, Illinois, on September 22, 364 days after their first bout. This fight generated even more interest than the Carpentier and Firpo bouts, garnering an amazing 2 million dollar gate, a record that stood for many years. Millions of people around the country listened to the bout on the radio, and hundreds of reporters covered the event. Tunney was paid a record one million dollars for the Dempsey rematch. Dempsey earned about half that.
Dempsey was losing the fight on points when he knocked Tunney down with a left hook to the chin in the seventh round. A new rule for boxing at the time mandated that when a fighter knocks down an opponent, he must immediately go to a neutral corner, but Dempsey seemed to have forgotten that rule and refused to immediately move to the neutral corner when instructed by the referee. The referee had to escort Dempsey to the neutral corner, which bought Tunney at least an extra five seconds to recover.
The official timekeeper for the fight counted the time Tunney stayed down as 14 seconds. However, the referee started his count when Dempsey finally went to a neutral corner, and Tunney got up at the referee's count of nine. Dempsey tried to finish Tunney off before the round ended, but he failed to do so. A fully recovered Tunney dropped Dempsey for a count of one in round eight, easily won the final two rounds of the fight, and retained the title on a unanimous decision. Ironically, the new rule had been requested during negotiations by members of the Dempsey camp. Because of the controversial nature of the fight, it remains known in history as the fight of "The Long Count."
Demspsey retired after this bout and made many exhibition bouts afterward. In 1935, he opened Jack Dempsey's Broadway Restaurant in New York City's Times Square, which he kept open until 1974. He divorced Taylor and in July 1933 married Broadway singer Hannah Williams with whom he had two children. He divorced Williams in 1943 and married Deanna Rudin Piatelli, and was married to her at the time of his death.
When the United States entered World War II, Dempsey had an opportunity to refute any remaining criticism of his war record of two decades earlier. He volunteered for national service and was commissioned as a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, charged with developing a physical fitness program for U.S. soldiers. Later, he served as a morale officer in the Pacific and in 1945 became a hero to many when, at age 49, he insisted on going into battle on Okinawa with a group of men he had trained.
He made friends with Wills and Tunney after retirement, and had many books written about his life. Dempsey even campaigned for Tunney's son John when he ran for the U.S. Senate, from California. One of Dempsey's best friends was Judge John Sirica who presided over the Watergate trials.
In May 1983, Jack Dempsey died of natural causes at age 87. His wife Deanna was at his side, telling her..."Don't worry honey, I'm too mean to die." He is buried in the Southampton Cemetery, Southampton, New York.
Dempsey wrote a book on boxing, Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defence, which was published in 1950. Many boxers—professional and amateur alike— praise it as "the finest treatise on boxing ever written." The book was also seen as the first serious study of the sweet science, causing Dempsey to be proclaimed by some to be the world's first modern boxer.