By Tracy Callis  

Jack Dempsey, born John Edward Kelly, was an extremely popular fighter in America during the 1880s. Only the great John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion, was more famous.

Jack began his athletic career as a collar-and-elbow wrestler along with his brother, Martin. Soon, he gave it up and switched to boxing exclusively. Most of his contests were fought with bare-knuckles or skin-tight gloves under London Prize Ring rules.

He was one of the “Three Jacks” trio of prominent fighters at the time along with Jack McAuliffe and Jack Skelly. Dempsey was by far the most famous of the three with McAuliffe second.

Jack started fighting as a lightweight and eventually won the Middleweight Championship of the World even though he never weighed more than a welterweight during his entire career.

Dempsey had his first fight in 1883 and was unbeaten until 1889 – when he lost for the first time on an “illegal” punch – a backhand (or elbow) delivered by George LaBlanche while fighting at close quarters. In all, Dempsey fought for thirteen years and lost only three times – the other two losses coming against ring greats Bob Fitzsimmons and Tommy Ryan when Dempsey was well past his peak and in a dissipated physical condition  (due to a losing battle against tuberculosis).

Grombach (1977, p 108)  wrote that he “… fought both with bare and gloved fists. For almost ten years, from 1881 to 1891, the original Dempsey was unbeatable. In many ways, he is considered the most extraordinary boxer in the epic of the ring. He actually was a welterweight in many of his battles. “  

There are a number of explanations as to how Jack obtained the moniker “Nonpariel”. Bromberg (1962, p. 7) wrote that he took his last name from his mother and borrowed “Nonpariel” from the great English pugilist, Jack Randall. Luckett Davis, eminent boxing historian, points out that “He outclassed his rivals so decisively …”.

Some boxing historians suggest Dempsey looked so good because his opposition was weak. This writer contends his opposition looked weak because Dempsey was so good. Gilbert Odd (1976, p. 45) wrote that Dempsey “ … was regarded as invincible in American estimation”.

Physically, Jack was slender, muscular, quick and agile. He had fast hands and a stiff right hand punch. He was crafty and elusive and utilized feints accompanied by a sharp, accurate left jab . Fight after fight, his opponents were battered, bruised, and cut up while he scarcely had any marks at all.

Richard Fox (1889, p. 8) wrote  “… his agility and quickness on his legs and his thorough knowledge of pedal motion - handicaps any boxer he faces in the roped arena”.

John McCallum (1974, p 125) says “Dempsey brought polished boxing skill … and an appreciation of the finer points of ringmanship to the modern ring”.

Richard Fox (1889, p. 7) says “His style and method of boxing has a neatness about it … He stops blows aimed at him by his adversaries with so much skill, and hits his antagonist with such terrific force and comparative ease, that he astonishes and terrifies his opponents beyond measure … those ambitious to win the title of the middleweight champion are soon convinced of his superior knowledge and athletic prowess”.  

Luckett Davis says “ … he used his intelligence and agility to defeat his opponents, making good use of feints and a quick left jab”. He adds “… he was an excellent boxer-puncher and ring general”.

Marshall Stillman (1920, p. 87) wrote that Dempsey “retained the middleweight championship for many years and was exceedingly scientific, securing his victories more through science than through rough tactics.”  

In addition to being an extremely clever boxer, he was quite valuable to have as a trainer or second during a contest. He seconded Joe Choynski against Jim Corbett and Choynski lasted 27 rounds. He seconded Jack McAuliffe against Jimmy Carroll and McAuliffe won the Lightweight title. He worked as trainer and second on many other occasions and even advised Bob Fitzsimmons later in his career.

Dempsey was not the typical pugilist type. He was handsome, well-spoken and mannerly. Also, he was personable and made friends easily. On most occasions, after trouncing an opponent in the ring, he was calm and rather indifferent towards the praise being heaped upon him.

With his ring savvy and exceptional skills, Dempsey usually made a fight go his way. But, when the going got tough, he was quite game.

On December 13, 1887, Dempsey fought Johnny Reagan at Manhasset on Long Island Sound, NY. The match lasted 1 hour and 8 minutes. Dempsey slogged through water and mud and won in 45 rounds to retain his Middleweight  Championship. The contest was fought in two rings due to the heavy rain and flooding conditions. Reagan put a four-inch gash in Dempsey's shin with his sharp spikes during an early round but Jack fought on.

When Dempsey fought Bob Fitzsimmons, he met a man of similar weight in pounds but an entirely different physical structure. Fitz had the lower body structure of a welterweight but the upper torso of a light-heavyweight or heavyweight.

While Dempsey was, in the opinion of this writer,  one of the finest welterweight fighters of all-time, Fitzsimmons was the greatest middleweight of all-time as well as the best “pound-for-pound” man ever. Wilfrid Diamond (1954, p. 45) wrote “Jack Dempsey, the ‘Nonpareil’, was a great champion, but he had to give place to a greater one.”

Fitz dominated Jack, whose health had deteriorated from tuberculosis for the past two or three years. He was well past his peak. Bob knocked the Nonpareil down numerous times. Bob pleaded for Dempsey to stay down but Jack yelled out that Fitz would have to knock him out. Reports vary but Bob floored Dempsey anywhere from nine to fourteen times because Jack was so game and would not quit.

Marshall Stillman (1920, p. 36) wrote about the Dempsey-Fitzsimmons fight  “… Fitzsimmons was more than a match for his man … Dempsey took a terrible beating, and Fitzsimmons begged the referee to stop the fight, not wanting to punish (any further) such a game man as Dempsey proved himself to be. But, Dempsey refused to quit …”.

Dempsey’s last fight was against the great Tommy Ryan. Jack, at this time was almost a dead man, having been “done in” by tuberculosis. But, he still wanted a go at Ryan. It was clear that he was outclassed from the first bell but he fought on. The referee had to stop the contest after three rounds. Dempsey would not quit.

Size of the opposition never bothered Dempsey. He fought Dominick McCaffrey at a weight disadvantage of 152-175 and clearly outboxed the clever McCaffrey. He baffled and butchered LaBlanche in the famous “pivot” punch contest although outweighed 151-161. He defeated Billy Keough in four rounds weighing only 148 pounds to 180 for Keough.  

Nat Fleischer (1944, p. 75) tells the story of a private fight Jack had with a six-footer who was much larger and heavier than Jack. Fleischer says Jack was “…cat quick” and danced around the man “…poking him every once in a while with that wonderful left” until he wore him out.

Perhaps his greatest weakness as a fighter was his inclination to consume too much alcohol and to underestimate his opposition. The result was that sometimes he did not train well. However, his great skills usually overcame these problems.

The former great middleweight champion, Mike Donovan, came out of retirement to fight Dempsey in 1888 and, according to many accounts of the bout, probably beat the “out of shape” Dempsey, who most likely did not take Donovan seriously.

M.J. McMahon (of Portland) wrote a poem dedicated to the memory of Dempsey. Part of it reads as follows:

Far out in the wilds of Oregon,
On a lonely mountainside,
Where Columbia’s mighty waters
Roll down to the ocean side;
Where the giant fir and cedar
Are imaged in the wave,
O’ergrown with firs and lichens,
I found Jack Dempsey’s grave.

 O Fame, why sleeps thy favored son
In wilds, in woods, in weeds,
And shall he ever thus sleep on,
Interred his valiant deeds.
‘Tis strange New York should thus forget
Its “bravest of the brave”
And in the fields of Oregon,
Unmarked leave Dempsey’s grave.

Grombach (1977, p. 109) wrote that Dempsey was “… probably the greatest pound for pound boxer in modern history.”

It is the opinion of this writer that the Nonpareil was the second greatest welterweight fighter of all-time, behind Sugar Ray Robinson. It is also my opinion that he is the third greatest pound-for-pound fighter in boxing history behind Bob Fitzsimmons and Robinson.


Bromberg, L. 1962. Boxing’s Unforgettable Fights. New York: The Ronald Press Company

Diamond, W. 1954. Kings of the Ring. London: The World’s Work (1913) Ltd.

Fleischer, N. 1944. Jack McAuliffe, The Napoleon of the Prize Ring. New York: The Ring

Fox, R. 1889. Life and Battles of Jack Dempsey. New York: Richard K. Fox, Publisher.

Grombach, J. 1977. The Saga of Sock. London : Thomas Yoseloff Ltd.; Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc.

McCallum, J. 1974. The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Company

Odd, G.  1976. The Fighting Blacksmith. London: Pelham Books Ltd.

Stillman, M. 1920. Great Fighters and Boxers Volume III. New York: Marshall Stillman Association.

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