In the annals of sports history, there are moments when the world collectively holds its breath, and there are times when the streets resonate with roars and celebrations. Such was the case in Buenos Aires on September 14, 1923, when the Palacio Barolo lighthouse, the city's tallest building at the time, lit up to signal a momentous event. This event marked the legendary boxing showdown between Luis Ángel Firpo and heavyweight world champion Jack Dempsey at the New York Polo Grounds.
Argentina's love affair with boxing traces its roots to the late 19th century. However, it was in the 1920s that the sport witnessed an explosion in popularity, largely due to Luis Ángel Firpo's historic fight against Jack Dempsey. This monumental clash, considered one of the most dramatic fights of the 20th century by American sports magazine Sports Illustrated, is the reason Argentina celebrates Boxer's Day on September 14th each year.
Luis Ángel Firpo was born on October 1, 1894, in Junín, Buenos Aires Province. Childhood hearing loss prompted his family's move to the capital city in 1906, seeking better medical care. Exempted from military service due to his hearing impairment, Firpo initially worked in a brick factory. It was a chance encounter with factory owner Félix Bunge, who witnessed Firpo single-handedly thwarting a robbery, that set him on the path to boxing. At the age of 26, Firpo engaged in clandestine fights, as boxing had been outlawed in Buenos Aires in 1892. His first official bout took place on January 12, 1918, at the Teatro Casino in Montevideo, where he faced defeat by knockout in the first round.
Firpo's journey to stardom began with two tours of the United States in 1922 and 1923, orchestrated by boxing promoter Tex Rickard. His resounding victory over Jack McAuliffe in front of 80,000 spectators in New York set the stage for a clash with former world champion Jess Willard.
The battle against Willard, then 42 years old and past his prime, was billed as the showdown to determine the challenger for the reigning champion, Jack Dempsey. Firpo emerged victorious with an eighth-round knockout, earning him the moniker "wild bull of the Pampas," courtesy of sports reporter Damon Runyon.
The climax of Firpo's journey arrived on September 14, 1923, at the New York Polo Grounds. A staggering 82,000 fans gathered to witness the epic encounter. In Buenos Aires, over 2,500 people paid to hear the radio broadcast at Luna Park stadium, while others eagerly awaited outside the Palacio Barolo, where two lights would convey the outcome. A green light was to signal Firpo's victory, while red indicated Dempsey's.
The fight was a roller coaster from the start. Firpo, nursing an injured left shoulder from the promotional tour, unleashed a relentless assault, aware that letting Dempsey dictate the pace would be detrimental. Despite seven knockdowns in the first round, Firpo made a remarkable recovery.
In a stunning turn of events during the first round, Firpo landed a series of blows against Dempsey, ultimately sending the champion flying over the ropes onto the journalists' desk. This iconic moment etched Firpo's name in boxing history.
The confusion that ensued saw Dempsey helped back into the ring by members of the crowd. The duration of his return remains a point of debate, with estimates ranging from 17 seconds. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have constituted a knockout victory. However, referee Jack Gallagher did not initiate the count.
In the second round, Dempsey seized the moment, securing victory in just 57 seconds with a devastating blow. Although Firpo was defeated, there was a momentary (albeit misguided) celebration in Buenos Aires, as a mishap in the Palacio Barolo lighting initially illuminated the green light, which was quickly corrected.
Legacy and Impact
The "wild bull of the Pampas" returned to Argentina as a national hero. Such was his influence that the ban on boxing, imposed in 1892, was lifted in February 1925. Luis Ángel Firpo continued to fight until his retirement in 1936, concluding his career with 33 wins, six defeats, and 28 knockouts.
On August 7, 1960, Firpo passed away and was laid to rest in Recoleta Cemetery. His legacy endures, and he is hailed as the father of Argentine boxing, forever remembered for that fateful night when he roared into boxing history.