40 years ago today in New York, a true boxing legend passed away, this at the advanced age of 87. Jack Dempsey, born William Harrison Dempsey – a man who ruled the heavyweight division from July 1919 to September 1926 – carved out a career that made him become nothing short of beloved, Jack meaning so much to so many millions of people.
Dempsey, born into poverty, part Irish, part Cherokee, overcame a tougher than tough start in life. As a young tearaway, the teenage Dempsey would fight in saloons, he would ride the rods, he would at times live the life of a hobo. Going by the name of “Kid Blackie,” Dempsey fought God knows how many fights, none of these brawls going on the record.
It wasn’t until 1914 that Jack first fought under his real name, Dempsey boxing a draw with Young Herman. Just four years later, Dempsey, at age 23, was sporting a 45-3-9 record. This was no guaranteed road to riches, or to the world title. Dempsey, raw, uneducated, yet revoltingly hungry, kept on pushing.
Willie Meehan gave Dempsey problems, as did Jim Flynn. While Jack took care of Gunboat Smith, Billy Miske (who also lodged a win over Dempsey), Fred Fulton, Battling Levinsky, and Carl Morris, as he worked his way towards a title shot.
When the title shot came, on July 4 of 1919, Dempsey, in arguably his most celebrated fight/performance, hammered Jess Willard something terrible. Dempsey smashed the big yet hapless Willard to the mat no less than seven times in the opening round, his win coming at the end of round three, this when Willard had suffered anything from busted ribs, a busted nose, a broken eye socket, maybe even a broken jaw.
To this day, stories that say Dempsey wore loaded gloves persist. While other tales say the extent of Willard’s injuries were much exaggerated.
Whatever the case, Jack was now world heavyweight king. A genuine superstar, Jack would become synonymous with ‘The Roaring Twenties.’ In fact, Dempsey was arguably the one sportsman who made the decade roar its loudest.
Just five title retentions were logged by Dempsey, with him engaging in a ‘Million Dollar Gate,’ a ‘Fight of the Century,’ and a 12-knockdown brawl that was immortalised in a painting by George Wesley Bellows.
It was of course Gene Tunney who took Dempsey’s crown in 1926, this in a huge upset. And then, in the infamous ‘Long Count’ affair, Tunney beat Jack a second time, this after Tunney surviving a heavy, much-discussed/debated knockdown in round seven.
Dempsey declined any offers for a third fight with Tunney, and he retired with an official record of 64-6-9(53).
So, where does Dempsey rank in YOUR greatest ever heavyweights list? At just 187 pounds in the Willard fight/slaughter, and standing 6’1”, the feeling is, Dempsey would have been “too small” for today’s heavyweight giants. Maybe. We will never know. On one hand, it’s quite easy (and delightful) to picture a peak Dempsey tearing clean through a Tyson Fury or an Anthony Joshua, or a Deontay Wilder. On the other hand, it’s not too hard to imagine a Fury, An AJ, or a Wilder being too tall, too heavy, and too keen on leaning on and wrestling with Dempsey as they abused their physical advantages in an effort at winning.
And that’s just supposing how Dempsey would have got on with today’s best (a fight between Dempsey and Oleksandr Usyk would have been nothing short of fascinating!) As for Dempsey against Ali, Louis, Liston, Marciano, Frazier, Johnson, Foreman, Holmes….well, who has a lifetime of debating in them!?
Dempsey was great. Jack left an enormous mark on the sport. Dempsey gave us some epic fights that will never be forgotten, instead always appreciated. And Dempsey was king for seven years.
Whichever way you cut it, or analyse it, that’s some legacy.
Jack Dempsey, a true legend.