Jack Dempsey was found dead in his New York city apartment yesterday. He was 87, the idol of generations of boxing fans, and holder of the world heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926. Authorities said he died of natural causes.
Dempsey, almost always the smaller in the ring, vaulted to fame as the Manassa Mauler with his speedy knockouts of the mastodonic Jess Willard and Luis Firpo.
Dempsey had been in ill health in recent years, but was a recognizable figure when walking with the aid of a cane in his East 53rd street neighborhood, where he was often an object of autograph seekers. Dempsey always complied, in the easy manner that had become his mark in later years.
The Jack Dempsey story repudiates the mold from which America's heroes are made. As a young man he lived in the hobo jungles and rode the rods beneath Pullman trains. At one point in 1916 he paused long enough in Utah to marry its best little piano player in a Salt Lake City saloon. Later in his life he would hear the ugly word "slacker" in wartime. Altogether, hardly the right stuff.
But out of it all emerged arguably the most famous warrior in all boxing history, the owner of a name that connoted the greatest ferocity ever known to the prize ring. America acclaimed him. 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 of it. He was the symbol of a great old champion wronged that night in Chicago, with most people convinced Gene Tunney retained his title only by grace of an extended, 14-second toll by the referee. This, after Dempsey had summoned up a last, desperation bid to get his title back. I was one of those at ringside and, 55 years later, still think Tunney was the lucky one.
More of the long count later. For now, let us speak of the enduring popularity of Jack Dempsey, of the hold he had on the imagination of the American populace and their uncommon affection for him.
Perhaps better than anybody else, Tunney himself would note in later years the extraordinary sentiment for Dempsey, perhaps reflecting his own envy and lack of the common touch due to his standoffishness. In the scholarly language Tunney affected, he said of Dempsey: "He had the most binding cords of association with the public of any man." Very perceptive, there.
Jack Dempsey did it with what he carried in his two fists. He excited America. He was the little man, in a crouch, bringing down big men when he found their chins. He gave the expression "bobbing and weaving" to the language. He brought back to boxing a welcome romance--the ex-hobo who was licking everybody, by quick knockouts most of the time.
In the earlier years, according to Mel Heimer in his book "The Long Count," young Jack Dempsey was living on the 75 cents a day that heavyweight Carl Morris was paying him as a sparring partner. A fascinating footnote here is that he later defeated Morris three times in regulation fights.
Jack Dempsey's young boxing career was at his darkest early in 1917 when he was knocked out in one round by Fireman Jim Flynn, and more matches were hard to find. Then came a letter from the manager who was to take him to the heights and the first $1 million dollar gate in boxing history. Jack Kearns had divined something about the young man he had seen fighting in Utah's saloon gyms and mailed him a train ticket and $5 with a note saying that if Dempsey came to Oakland, Kearns would arrange some fights.
Under Kearns, Jack Dempsey's career took off with a series of rapid knockouts against crude young fighters or old tired ones. In a rematch with Flynn, he repaid him in kind with a one-round knockout. During one stretch there were seven knockouts in a row, including a rapid dispatch of Fred Fulton, a man who towered over him. What he did to Fulton catapulted Jack Dempsey. He knocked Fulton out in 18 seconds of the first round. The American people were being alerted to the new name in boxing.
Jack Dempsey was to make his strongest reputation fighting bigger men--the giant 245-pound Jess Willard, down from 320 pounds; the 216 1/2-pound Luis Firpo. But it was a misimpression that Mr. Dempsey was a small man. His crouch and a thatch of tight, curly black hair on a smallish head merely made it appear he was always the undersized one. Against Tunney, he also looked like the smaller man, but at 192 pounds he actually outweighed Tunney by three pounds. When he chose to stand tall, Dempsey was 6 feet 3/4 inch.
When Willard was the champion, boxing was begging for something more than the big, crude, ex-cowboy with more bulk than punch. Even Jack Johnson, for all his skills, was not a knocker-out of the one-punch type. All those knockouts by Dempsey, especially that lightning kayo of Fred Fulton, were telling people Jack Dempsey had the big punch, that he was the Demolition Man.
Jack Dempsey's place on the American scene was assured on that warm July 4 afternoon in Toledo in 1919, when he ravaged Willard and took his title. Dempsey ignored Willard's 49-pound weight advantage, moved in and had Willard on the floor in 40 seconds. Again and again he floored the man who had never been knocked down in all his fights. Willard was a bleeding, half-butchered ox when the bell saved him at the end of Round One. At the end of Round Three, his second threw in the towel.
Dempsey held the title for seven years, 2 1/2 months. At his death, he was the last survivor of the folk heroes of the Golden Twenties--Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones and Dempsey. He figured in boxing's first five $1 million gates. He rose above the slacker thing--a camera caught him posing as a shipyard worker in highly-polished patent leather shoes. He said he had posed as a favor for a government agent trying to get more workers into the shipyards.
Fourteen months after he fought Willard, he consented to a match with an old friend, Billy Miske, who had boxed him twice before in no-decision bouts. The idea was that Miske needed the money because, in fact, he had a sickness. It was a knockout for Dempsey in the third round, a tender one, it is presumed.
There were desultory cries of "slacker" in Jersey City when he entered the ring against Georges Carpentier in 1921. In contrast, Carpentier, who had been an aviator in World War I, was introduced as "a soldier of France." But Mr. Dempsey quickly commanded the cheers of the American fans. He knocked out the overgrown light heavyweight in the fourth round.
Jack Dempsey's fame was more securely cemented in 1923 with his spectacular conquest of the big Argentinian, Firpo, in New York. Dempsey was battered to one knee in the first 10 seconds of the fight. Then came his reply. Against the man who outweighed him by 24 pounds, he forsook his boxing skills and went primitive, hammering Firpo to the floor five times in that same first round.
But that first round was not over yet, because Firpo with one wild swing hit Dempsey fairly and knocked him between the ropes and into the press seats. It was only with the help of the willing hands of nearby sportswriters that he could get back into the ring at the count of nine, saving his title. Technically he could have been disqualified. But back in the ring, he was the master again. Firpo lasted only 57 seconds of Round Two, and Jack Dempsey's reputation was embellished.
Came 1926, and the first fight with Tunney, in Philadelphia, the saddest day for Jack Dempsey and his fans. He lost his title. It was a dull 10-rounder, first time the heavyweight title had ever passed on a decision. He was rusty from three years out of the ring, excepting some exhibition bouts. Tunney was fresh, eager and not scared, a methodical fighter who exploited his rival's dull condition. At the finish, Jack Dempsey knew he lost and was a gentleman about it.
Was it the end for Dempsey? No, there was clamor for a second Tunney fight, and Dempsey would show his fitness by taking on Jack Sharkey, a strong young heavyweight with a punch, in July of the next year. That appeared to be a mistake. For six rounds, an outboxed ex-champion was being speared by the younger Sharkey, losing every round, and on his way to losing the fight. Dempsey was resorting to body blows, many of them low. In the seventh, Sharkey complained once more, turning his head to the referee. That was his mistake. Dempsey brought up a left hook that found Sharkey's exposed chin, and the fight was over. I have my notes on that one, too.
So came the Tunney-Dempsey rematch, again for 10 rounds, and in the early rounds it did not look good for Dempsey who, by the sixth, was fighting like an old, tired challenger. And then, in the middle of the seventh, there was the flash of the old Dempsey.
In his own corner, Tunney was caught by a left hook from the Dempsey days of yore. He was hurt, and came another Dempsey fist. Tunney sagged, and a frenzied Jack Dempsey rained blows on his head until the champion was on the floor.
Now it appeared that Dempsey would have his title back. But curses, he wasn't obeying the rules, wasn't retreating to a neutral corner, and referee Dave Barry wasn't picking up the count until he personally escorted Dempsey to that farthest neutral corner. Five more precious seconds had been given Tunney to recover, before the count began. With the help of the ropes, Tunney was up at nine.
But Dempsey had punched himself out, and could not catch up again with a Tunney who smartly backpedaled out of range. In a vain gesture, Dempsey could only motion to "come in and fight," using a circular movement of his gloves, but Tunney was no dunce. Tunney won the ninth and 10th. He was still champion, had made the most of his luck. But he also was a good fighter.
Thereafter Dempsey made some desultory efforts to return to boxing, at the age of 36 and again at 37, but it was obvious that as a fighter he belonged to history. He redeemed himself of those World War I slacker charges by seeing active duty as a first lieutenant in the fighting Coast Guard in World War II. I saw him wade ashore at Okinawa, just like all the others whose landing craft had foundered on the beaches.
Everywhere along the way, Jack Dempsey reached out to people, signed autographs eagerly, had a good word to all in passing. Like other champions, he was sometimes heckled by inebriates eager to take a punch at him so they could go back to the boys at the bar and brag: "I took a punch at Dempsey."
He averted one of those incidents one night in San Francisco where the hotel clerk phoned his room to say: "I know it's midnight, Mr. Dempsey, but there's a chap down here in the lobby and he says he can win your title, and he wants you to come down, and he won't go away."
"Just tell him," said Dempsey, "that he can have my title. But I want it back in the morning."