It almost always is a mistake to turn your gaze from a fellow who is paid to hit you in the face. The night of July 21, 1927, Jack Sharkey didn't like what Jack Dempsey was doing to his body. So Sharkey, looking for mercy, turned to complain to the referee that Dempsey's punches were landing south of his chin.
Next thing Sharkey knew, he had gone sleepy-bye.
Someone asked Dempsey why he had thrown a left hook while Sharkey wasn't looking. Dempsey said, "What was I going to do--write him a letter?"
Jack Dempsey, 87, died Tuesday, causing reporters to call Sharkey for comment. The old fellow's words suggested he was proud to have been decked by such a great man. "He was a legend," Sharkey said. "I got hit with a haymaker. That was that. I was out on the canvas."
The names define The Golden Age of Sports: Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden and Red Grange. The decade after World War I was a party for America. The world still held at the center after the war to end all wars. There were heroes in those days, because America wanted heroes, whether they flew across the Atlantic or knocked out men who weren't paying attention.
From 1919 to 1926, Dempsey was the heavyweight champion. Only John L. Sullivan and Joe Louis ever held the title longer without interruption. As Bobby Jones yet is the standard in golf, as Ruth's 60 home runs still seem a dozen more than Maris' 61, as Grange and Tilden worked wonders that three succeeding generations have not matched, so did Jack Dempsey change his game forever.
His naked savagery was boffo box office, particularly when combined with hype that insulted either him or his opponent, or both. It is now and always was so an in-the-gutter game, as when patriots launched a nationwide search for a white man good enough to beat up Jack Johnson. It was Dempsey's skill and animalistic fury that first raised prize fighting to big-bucks heights.
He took it out of saloons and made people pay $25 a seat, an outrageous fee gladly forked over.
The first $1 million gate was the Dempsey-Carpentier fight July 2, 1921. More than 80,000 people paid $1,789,238 to get into a jerry-rigged stadium called Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City. Part of the attraction was the opportunity, as the promoters whispered, to see "the war hero against the slacker." Because he hadn't served in the war (and made the mistake of posing as a shipyard worker while wearing shiny new shoes), Dempsey came to the Carpentier fight as an unpopular favorite.
After knocking out Carpentier in the fourth round, Dempsey stood in the ring, "his arms extended on the ropes in a posture of resting (to quote Irvin S. Cobb's account in The New York Times). He has no doubt of the outcome. He scarcely shifts his position while the count goes on. I have never seen a prize fighter in the moment of triumph behave so. But his expression proves that he is merely waiting. His lips lift in a snarl until all his teeth show. Whether this be a token of contempt for the hostile majority in the crowd or merely his way of expressing to himself his satisfaction is not for me to say."
When Dempsey fought Gene Tunney a second time in 1927, the box office took in nearly $3 million. Tunney received $990,000. This when Babe Ruth made $80,000 a year and the national per-capita income was $5,000.
A New York Times editorial said, "No future chronicler of our times can fail to note that people will contribute about $3 million dollars to see two men fight for something less than 45 minutes. It will not only be an index of the prosperity of the period, but it will reveal to the historian how much the 20th-century American was willing to pay for a thrill."
Thrills: only eight seconds into a fight with a top-ranked contender, Dempsey's right hand knocked out Fred Fulton; he knocked down Luis Firpo 10 times; to win the championship, he ravaged hulking Jess Willard so completely that he was accused of wearing plaster of paris casts on his hands; he stood over Tunney too long and gave the champion 14 seconds to recover from a knockdown, a lapse that may have cost Dempsey the title.
"He was a real good fighter," said Ray Arcel, 83, who trained 19 champions and stopped on his way to Dempsey's wake to talk by phone about the great man. "He was a rough and ready guy. A tiger in the ring. Fred Fulton, he laid the guy out like a rug. Eight seconds after the bell rung, he knocked him out. You couldn't stop him.
"That's what happened in the long-count fight. Warren Brown was a Chicago newspaperman and a friend of Tunney's. He told the commission to be sure that if Dempsey knocked Tunney down, they'd make him go to a neutral corner. Otherwise, the second you picked your hands up off the canvas, Dempsey was slugging you while you were still down.
"Trying to stop Dempsey from doing that was like letting a tiger loose and saying, 'Wait a minute, tiger, don't chew up that leg, go over there and sit down a minute.' It was instinct with Dempsey. He was as vicious in the ring as he was gentle out of it.
"Warren Brown insisted on the neutral-corner rule. So when Dempsey knocked Tunney down, the referee didn't begin the count until he had Dempsey away from Tunney."
After losing that fight, Arcel said, Dempsey also lost interest. "He wasted his talent, messing around with acting and fighting only exhibitions. How great a fighter he might have been, we'll never know. The man only weighed 180 pounds, but he could knock you out with one punch. His main asset, besides the punch, was speed. He could move like a deer. He had everything. He even knew how to box. It was a waste, what he did after the Tunney fights.
"But I still have to rank him and Joe Louis as the two greatest heavyweights I've seen."