Hit the road,
Jack: Riding the rods and hanging tough with the Colorado tiger
By Mike Casey
Around 1911, within the dark and sweaty confines of a copper mine
in Bingham Canyon, Utah, sixteen-year old Jack Dempsey got angry and showed a
select audience what the future held for him. The lean and muscled youngster was
working quietly on his own when the bully of the crew started throwing dirt at
him for a laugh. Dempsey gave his tormentor every chance to desist, but then the
bully made his biggest mistake by starting to swing his fists.
Jack began to circle him in the chilling manner that he would
circle and snare so many great heavyweights in the years to follow. Fellow
miners who had picked up on the commotion began to lay bets as they waited for
the first blow to be struck. They didn’t have to wait long. Only one punch was
thrown as Dempsey crossed a right to the jaw and knocked his man out.
“Fighting soon followed me into the mining camp,” Jack would
later recall. “My powerful fists were my prized assets – my only assets, come to
think of it – and no one could take them away from me.”
This was the kind of tough life that Jack Dempsey led, before he
even got around to he tough business of prize-fighting in earnest. In the
gentler and more accommodating era in which we now live, it is essential that we
do not forget the unforgiving, rough-and-tumble canvas on which the fighters of
Dempsey’s era had to paint their masterpieces. In ranking the fighters of
different eras, most of us are guilty of setting the usual parameters and using
the familiar old yardsticks: number of fights, number of wins, championship
reign, quality of opposition etc. What we seldom do, in the case of older
boxers, is dig beneath the surface and assess the number of ‘life’ fights they
had to win before they became actual fighters.
There is nothing misty-eyed or romantic about making such
comparisons and highlighting the hardships of boxers from early times. For we
are certainly not harking back to the ‘good old days’ when everything in the
garden was rosy. Ordinary folk in Dempsey’s era had to work insufferably hard in
the hope of breaking even, often travelling huge distances to obtain work. Jack
and his family uprooted from the ‘feud country’ of West Virginia and hauled
themselves all the way out to Manassa, Colorado, for a new life and a new
chance. Many other poor families did likewise.
Ill health was dreaded, because so many illnesses were incurable.
Diabetes, now so common and manageable, was a killer before the discovery of
insulin in 1919. People with mental problems went straight to the asylum,
because they surely had to be mad. Captains of industry couldn’t rely on
analysts to tell them to wear a coat when it rained. A generation of young men
from Boston to San Francisco hacked away at menial jobs in the hope that
something better – anything better – would show up.
Jack Dempsey, before he met Jack Kearns and Tex Rickard, before
he even became Kid Blackie, was just one young man trapped in this frantic hive
of quiet desperation. He travelled for miles, rode hobo-style on the rods of
trains, worked at back-breaking jobs and frequently got knocked back. But
Dempsey had one crucial ace in the hole. Unlike so many of his contemporaries,
he wasn’t drifting aimlessly. He knew his strengths and he knew what he wanted
That initial victory in the Bingham Canyon mine, small and
irrelevant in the great scheme of things, had fired Jack. The other miners
wanted to shake his hand. Suddenly he was somebody special. He had worked the
mine with his older brother, Bernie, but no longer was he seen as Bernie’s kid
Great men, irrespective of their backgrounds, always seem to have
crystal vision. Assessing those early days of his life, Dempsey would say, “As I
covered ground, moving from place to place and from job to job, I came to the
conclusion that I was master of my own fate. I was determined that if I didn’t
find a way to become successful, I would make one. As a young man, I saw no
limits in what I could do. My options for success were countless. My long range
goal was to become a champion – and now I ate, slept and dreamed of it.”
History blurs our perception of many fighters, to the point where
we are often left with unfair and inaccurate stereotypes. Jack Dempsey is a
pertinent case in point. Generally grouped together with the likes of Rocky
Marciano, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson, Jack is lately classified as a swarmer and
a slugger. A good number of today’s fans even dismiss Jack as a ‘crude banger’,
presumably on the basis of the few old, herky-jerky movies we have of him.
Well, Dempsey could swarm and he could slug. But the natural
talent that he possessed in abundance was much more versatile than that. Nat
Fleischer, founder of The Ring magazine, compared Jack’s cunning to that of Jack
Johnson. As late as 1969, Fleischer wrote, “For all round superiority, no
champion in ring history compared with Dempsey. Dempsey had everything. There
was nothing lacking in his make-up.”
Jack’s weaving style was one of his greatest strengths. Unlike
most of the fighters he is now compared to, he rarely attacked in a straight
line. He circled constantly, mixed his punches and could box when boxing was
called for. It was Fleischer’s considered opinion that Dempsey possessed science
and cleverness far above the ordinary boxer.
Without doubt, however, Jack’s greatest gifts were his punching
power, his ability to hit correctly and his innate sense of timing. He was
blessed with tough, big-boned hands, which were unusually square across the
knuckles. The manual work of his early days equipped him with the powerful arms,
shoulders and back which were the engine room of his punching power. Hi leverage
was exceptional, as he combined the muscles of his legs with his upper body for
These were the important factors that set Dempsey apart from his
supposed soul brothers in boxing history. Jeffries, Marciano, and Frazier were
so often likened to marauding bears. Jack was a tiger, and there was the
difference. Only the prime Tyson matched him for the shocking speed and impact
of his attack.
By 1916, Jack Dempsey was still very much a rough diamond in need
of polishing, but the emerging talent was there for all to see as he began to
hit the road and take any fights he could get in the sprawling towns of the Old
West. He jumped a freight train and rode the rods into Salt Lake City, where he
had a great idea.
Jack needed stiffer competition and he knew it. He had been
fighting professionally for around two years, knocking over amateurs and
semi-pros whose names sparkled far more greatly than their talent: guy like
Chief Gordon and Two Round Gillian.
Walking into a gym, Dempsey introduced himself as Kid Blackie and
boldly announced that he would fight any man available. But Jack’s reputation
was already spreading and he found only a few takers, fighting them for peanuts.
He took a job as a porter at the Hotel Utah in return for free food and board,
engaging in fights when he could get them. But the competition was drying up
fast as many ambitious young fighters began to head East for the real action.
Dempsey still didn’t consider himself ready for that kind of move and made the
decision to head back to his native Colorado via the rods.
You have to ask yourself how many young fighters today would opt
for a less strenuous way of life in such trying circumstances. Dempsey was
giving of his best and getting no return. Just a year before, he had lost his
earnings of a hundred dollars after his losing fight with the tough Johnny
Sudenberg in the brutal heat of Goldfield. When Jack woke up the following
morning, stiff and bruised and feeling as if he had been in a stampede, he
discovered that his money had gone along with his carefree manager.
Dempsey sucked up all these disappointments, so determined was he
to make the grade. The tough life only served to make him a tougher man as he
rode the rods back to Colorado by way of the hobo jungles. There were times when
he was kicked off the train by rail officials, often in the middle of nowhere.
Hanging precariously to the rods, Jack would battle to keep himself warm in the
colder months while shutting his eyes to avoid the blinding cinders. Tiredness
was his most dangerous foe. The mail trains would hurtle along the track at up
to seventy miles per hour and Dempsey would tie his hands and feet to the
train’s lower rungs with light chains or anything he could find.
In Colorado, Dempsey would walk into saloons and challenge the
local toughs to fight him. Jack won most of these brawls, but the pickings were
still lean and he was going nowhere. He had to make the big move. The big move
Moving East meant only one thing in Jack Dempsey’s time: going to
New York. It was a daunting prospect for a still innocent youngster from a small
town, as Jack admitted: “The prospect of going to New York made me fairly leap
out of my skin. Only later did I realise that New York never wants you – it’s
you that wants New York. These were words that Damon Runyon repeated to me many
years later. He was absolutely right.”
When Dempsey and his latest manager Jack Price hit New York in
the summer of 1916, the Big Apple was experiencing a sapping heatwave. The two
men looked hideously conspicuous as the trudged the sidewalks. They had less
than thirty dollars between them and badly needed a bath and shave. Dempsey was
carrying what little he possessed in a cardboard suitcase.
But Jack was eager to get on and establish his presence in this
new and intimidating arena. He visited as many of the city’s sports editors as
he could find, eagerly telling them about his twenty-six knockout victories and
showing them his press clippings. He quickly learned that New York was a
parochial giant which had little knowledge or regard for anything going on
elsewhere. None of the sports hacks had heard of the kid from Colorado, nor of
some elaborately named guy called the Boston Bearcat, who was Jack’s most
notable victim to date.
Back in Ogden, Utah, in February of that year, Dempsey had
knocked out the enormous Bearcat with a salvo of punches in the first round. To
Jack, that meant everything. Rumour had it that even the great Sam Langford
hadn’t been able to knock the tough and charismatic Bearcat off his feet. But
that was Ogden, Utah, and where the hell was that? Most New Yorkers were more
familiar with London.
Only one man gave Dempsey the time of day, and that was the
astute and worldly Damon Runyon, who originally hailed from a very different
Manhattan in the wilderness of Kansas. Runyon put himself around just as Dempsey
did. He had seen Jack fight and had liked what he saw. He told the disillusioned
youngster that it was a devil of a job to make an impact in New York and not to
give up the fight.
Dempsey would remember those words and learn their value as he
soldiered on, gamely trying to sell himself to the big city whilst hoping to
hook up with one good and honest manager who could stay the distance. Jack Price
was already close to heading back home after receiving a wire to say that his
mother was ailing in Salt Lake City. He and Dempsey were getting on each other’s
nerves in the cheap room they shared, where the luxuries included a bed, a sink
and a light bulb.
Dempsey was training at Grupp’s 116th Street Gym and
had one more fight under Jack Price’s management, a risky assignment at the
Fairmont Athletic Club against a blond giant called Andre Anderson. It was a
wild slugfest and very nearly a disaster for Dempsey, who was pitching his
173lbs against Anderson’s 215. Big Andre went for the fast knockout and decked
Jack several times in a tumultuous opening round. Some ringsiders urged the
referee to stop the fight, but Dempsey clawed his way back into the fray and had
Anderson on the run at the end of ten bruising rounds. The fight was a
no-decision affair, but Damon Runyon tabbed Jack the winner and praised the raw
young tiger in his morning report. It was the night that Jack officially became
Jack Dempsey. Runyon dubbed him the Manassa Mauler.
One step forward and two steps back. This was the story of
Dempsey’s life as he struggled to break free from the pack and surge through the
fiercely competitive field of his day. When Jack Price went back to Salt Lake
City, Dempsey had another nasty surprise. Business was very often conducted on a
simple handshake at that time, and Dempsey never did have an official contract
with any of his managers, including Jack Kearns. Along came a character called
John ‘The Barber’ Reisler to inform the young fighter that he was under new
management. Reisler claimed that Price had sold him Dempsey’s non-existent
contract. John The Barber also had some fancy ideas about Dempsey’s next
opponent, dropping the names of such established killers of the ring as Sam
Langford and Gunboat Smith.
Jack couldn’t believe it. This guy Reisler was trying to get him
slaughtered. Dempsey protested and still wasn’t happy when the tough John Lester
Johnson was finally selected as his next foe. The fight was staged at the Harlem
Athletic Club and Dempsey never forgot it. “Johnson had the reputation of being
rough and dangerous,” Jack later recalled. “That was an understatement. My bout
with him almost finished my career. He socked me like a bulldozer and grunted
every time he made contact.”
One ferocious body blow from Johnson in the second round doubled
Dempsey up and had him in big trouble. Suspecting that Johnson had cracked a few
of his ribs, Jack was in terrible pain for the duration of the fight. Again,
however, the young Mauler impressed the crowd by hanging tough and punching back
with such success that the assembled sportswriters were divided on who had won.
Dempsey needed time to rest his aching body and contemplate the
jam he was in with John The Barber. He took some vacation time and went back to
Colorado to see an old friend, but the fresh air and gentle scenery failed to
soften the blow of coming back to New York. John The Barber was still full of
lofty ideas and brought up the name of Gunboat Smith again as an opponent.
Dempsey was at the end of his tether with such fanciful suggestions, and his
mood darkened further when his so-called manager suggested the big punching
Frank Moran as an alternative choice. Jack knew he still wasn’t sufficiently
prepared for such formidable competition. The pounding he had taken from John
Lester Johnson was surely proof of that.
He and John The Barber had a violent argument, which concluded
with Jack storming out and making the decision to pack his bags and get out of
the great and sprawling city. He couldn’t have dreamed then that one day he
would become one of its permanent fixtures and a living legend.
In those stormy days of 1916, it seemed that the grey giant of
New York had slain the young tiger and drained him of his resilience. But Jack
Dempsey was made of sterner stuff. Over three breathtaking years, he would
become the complete fighter and begin his fantastic run to the world
When he returned to the concrete canyons, he was the prince of
the city and the king of the world.
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