Speed, skill and timing: Why Jack Dempsey was one of the greatest champions
By Mike Casey
On September 14, 1923, at the old Polo Grounds in New York, Jack
Dempsey, the great Manassa Mauler, made the fifth successful defence of his
heavyweight championship by knocking out the Wild Bull of the Pampas, Luis Angel
Firpo, in the second round.
These are the bare facts of what arguably still ranks as the most
thrilling heavyweight title fight of all time. In cold print, the simple stats
give us just a mere hint of the mayhem and wild excitement that the two
contestants crammed into the short space of two minutes and fifty-seven seconds.
The action was sustained and chaotic, the speed and punching
power of Dempsey phenomenal and the fighting courage of Firpo immense.
Dempsey floored the giant from Argentina seven times in all, but
also suffered two knockdowns himself in a frenetic first round, which saw Firpo
connect with a right to the jaw and an accompanying shove that knocked Jack
clear out of the ring.
I have a good quality film of the fight in my collection, which
is a revelation in measuring Dempsey’s greatness against past and future
champions. Jack comes through with flying colours, dispelling the modern myth
that the smaller heavyweights of his era would be meat and drink for the
super-heavyweights of today.
The major point that always seems lost on many of today’s boxing
(including so-called experts mind you), is that the punching
power of natural born, one-off hitters like Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky
Marciano doesn’t diminish against heavier opponents.
Dempsey didn’t just beat the gigantic and underrated Jess Willard
in winning the world title in the searing heat of Toledo. He slaughtered him
with a single left hook to the jaw in the first round, which effectively ended
the fight right there and then. The remainder of that so-called contest, with
the greatest respect to Willard’s courage, was little more than a morbid
Dempsey cut down big men in Carl Morris and the dangerous Fred
Fulton. In his destruction of Firpo, Jack was outweighed by forty pounds.
Joe Louis didn’t just beat such talented giants as Buddy Baer and
Abe Simon, he decimated them.
Do I believe that Dempsey would have torn through Lennox Lewis
and Vitali Klitschko? Absolutely.
Do I believe that Joe Louis would have trapped and finished
Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes inside fifteen rounds or even twelve? On Joe’s best
night, yes I do.
People who get over-excited about these things overlook the
evidence that we already have. Henry Cooper, at 183 pounds and outweighed by
nearly twenty-five, very nearly knocked out Ali with a single shot to the jaw in
the famous fight of the split glove incident at the Empire Pool, Wembley in
Prior to that, Doug Jones, never more than a puffed up
light-heavyweight, had made thousands believe that he had shaded Muhammad in
their ten-rounder at Madison Square Garden, after jabbing, hustling and
pressuring The Greatest throughout.
Oh, and by the way, how come little ‘ol Chris Byrd doesn’t get
steamrollered by all those 250-270lb guys?
The eternal fascination and appeal of the heavyweight division,
and one of the principal reasons why it has never been supplanted in the
professional game by a super-heavy sector, is that the normal rules of nature so
rarely apply. Natural punchers from the lower weight divisions frequently
discover that they cannot carry their power up to a higher weight, yet that law
of life has never applied to the heavyweights anywhere near as consistently.
Let’s take a further time out and look at Joe Frazier’s success
against Ali. Much as I loved Smokin’ Joe, he didn’t possess Dempsey’s natural
knockout power, nor his speed or punch resistance. Jack was also far more
versatile in his attacks, constantly circling and looking for new angles, while
Joe pretty much chugged forward in a straight line. Yet Frazier went 1-2 in his
three fights with Ali. Why, then, is it so fanciful to suppose that Dempsey
would have fared better against Muhammad in a similar trilogy?
Frazier was a hurtful puncher, but not a genuine knockout artist.
His come-on style was hugely effective and exciting against the right opponents,
but suicidal against a big, upright puncher like George Foreman.
The great irony of the criticism of ‘small heavyweights’ like
Dempsey, and Louis is that they were given the most trouble by smaller men. Jack
got the run-around by Tommy Gibbons and Georges Carpentier before winning
through. Louis nearly blew it against the speedy and artful Billy Conn in their
first meeting. But then if we’re being pedantic, every heavyweight champion
there has ever been has been made to look a little foolish by a smaller,
There is another crucially important point to take into
consideration here. As well as possessing an instinctive, God-given feel for
their chosen profession, Dempsey and Louis were well tutored and learned to
punch correctly. There were no Rocky Balboa-like haymakers from the bleachers
when Jack and Joe applied the coup de grace. The punches were short, fast,
sometimes hard to catch at first sight, and had as much to do with immaculate
timing as power.
The combination of speed and timing make a potent force. As a
fascinated twelve-year old, I remember watching the clever Jimmy Ellis, at
194lbs, twice decking Oscar Bonavena (208) in their 1967 Louisville fight,
simply by outmanoeuvring Oscar and catching him on the fly.
Jimmy Young, outweighed by sixteen pounds, sent George Foreman
tumbling after tying him in knots with hand speed, movement and angles.
We are really only talking about the boxing equivalent of a
skilful baseball player sending a fastball straight out of the park. The
genuinely great hitters of the diamond appear to do little more than gently
stroke the speeding bullet.
The left hook with which Dempsey disposed of Jack Sharkey,
lightning fast and perfectly timed, travelled no distance at all yet quite
literally lifted Sharkey off his feet before he crashed to the canvas. Sharkey
would later say of his conqueror, “You came out of a fight with Dempsey full of
welts and bruises and every bone aching.”
Watch the films, but open your eyes and watch them carefully.
Look past the boring, grainy black and white of the day and the occasional skips
and jumps. Look through all that and see the evidence that is so often ignored
by the ‘right here, right now’ brigade whose historical perspective might just
go all the way back to the late 1980s.
When Dempsey and Louis hit opponents, a quite visible judder
would go through their bodies. Delayed knockdowns were not uncommon as the force
of the blows registered shockingly, in the way of thunder following lightning.
Check out Billy Conn’s reaction when Louis strikes him with the payoff punches
in the fateful thirteenth round of their epic first duel. Billy actually hovers
in mid-flight for a split second before falling slowly to the canvas.
Mike Tyson, a terrific exponent of short-range power punching,
destroyed Trevor Berbick in similar fashion. Alas, even Mike’s fabulous
championship form is already being dismissed and buried by the dreaded
revisionists, who base their judgement on the disturbed and de-motivated ghost
that he has been for at least the last ten years.
For all the times I have seen the film of Dempsey knocking out
Firpo, I still have to rewind the tape and play it back on some of the
knockdowns in order to fully appreciate the flashing hooks that Jack is burying
in Firpo’s stomach and bouncing off his chin. Dempsey’s pet combination of a
right hook to the body and a left hook to the chin was delivered with incredible
speed. I would argue confidently that his speed of hand and foot still stands up
against any of his fellow heavyweight champions, Ali included.
No less an authority as the fearsome Sam Langford praised Dempsey
as the greatest heavyweight fighter he ever saw.
For me, one of the most beautiful ironies of modern technology,
specifically the digital re-mastering of old fight films, is that so many
long-held myths about the fighters of old are now being blown out of the water.
These guys were not slow and ponderous, and their punch-per-round rate in many
cases has been proven to be right on a par with that of today’s fighters.
It is perfectly true that quick-fire combination punching is a
relatively new aspect of the game, but how many of its exponents are more
accurate hitters than their predecessors? I see so many young prospects firing
off a salvo of ten or twelve shots and hitting nothing but the other guy’s
gloves. It’s beautiful to watch, but any judge who knows his business shouldn’t
be scoring points for it.
Some years ago, I uncovered an eyewitness account of one of
Charley Burley’s fights. The gentleman lucky enough to have seen this great ring
mechanic in the flesh made two interesting observations. The first was that
Burley frequently threw only one shot at a time. The second was that he so
rarely missed. Such was Charley’s stunning accuracy, the few mistakes he did
make showed up as glaring errors.
To his dying day, Archie Moore lauded Burley as the greatest
master of the ring he had ever faced.
If the Jess Willard fight defined Jack Dempsey’s talent as a
ferocious fighter, the Firpo victory defined his future perception in the eyes
of America. All of five years after the end of World War 1, Jack was still being
booed into the ring as a ‘slacker’. He and manager, Jack ‘Doc’ Kearns had
registered for the draft and been deferred because of Jack’s family needs and
those of the Doc’s mother.
But the public misread the situation, and the scowling, unshaven
Dempsey was conveniently cast as the bad guy.
The Firpo fight changed all that. No longer was Jack the villain.
He was America’s hero forever more, boxing’s slugging answer to baseball’s Babe
Jack further endeared himself to the public with his honesty and
self-effacing humour when discussing his own talent and his less than glorious
moments in the ring.
Recalling the incredible Firpo fight years later, the Mauler’s
thoughts were thus: “I sure underestimated Luis. They’re still talking about the
Firpo fight and I guess they always will.
“When the introductions and the boos were over that night at the
jam-packed Polo Grounds, I went across the ring after the big fellow as fast as
I could move. I jabbed him, hit him with a kind of sounding-out left. Then I
missed a right.
“I reared back and, just as I did, he caught me with a right hand
on my cheekbone. If I hadn’t been going away, he would have knocked me cold.
Flat on my back. As it was, it knocked me out on my feet.
“If you’ve seen the movies of the fight, you know what happened
the rest of the round. Seeing the pictures the day after the fight was the only
way I ever learned about what happened.
“I knocked him down six or seven times. I hit him a couple of
times before he got off the floor.* I stepped over him a couple of times. I
didn’t know what I was doing. I was dazed and out on my feet.
“I have no memory to this day of the most spectacular thing that
has ever happened to me in my fighting life – being knocked out of the ring by
“There was just this fog in front of my eyes, and through it I
could see this big guy getting up every time I knocked him down, and the crowd
was screaming so loud it made it even harder for my brain to try to think. It
was still the first round.
“Then he was up again and on me like a giant. He outweighed me
(by) forty pounds. I backed up as he came on, trading punches. I was
instinctively waiting for my back to touch the ropes, I guess. But just before I
could touch, and with about ten seconds left of the first round, he half hit and
half shoved me with a right to the face.
“I went out of the ring backward, between the top and middle
ropes, and landed on my neck on Jack Lawrence’s typewriter in the first row of
the press section.
“I don’t remember getting back into the ring. The first clear
thing was that I was sitting on my stool and the three guys in my corner –
Kearns, Benjamin and Jerry the Greek – were cursing one another. They couldn’t
find the smelling salts, that’s what the argument was about. Finally Kearns
found the bottle in his shirt pocket and pushed it under my nose. They slapped
me a lot.
‘What round was I knocked out in?’ I said.
They were rubbing my back and arms now.
‘You just slipped,’ Kearns said. ‘You’re coming out for the
“My head was now clear and I could think.
“I went out after him again, but this time with respect. I wasn’t
going to get nailed again. I stuck a right under his left hand and finally
crossed him on the chin. He was swaying like a ship at sea. Two good lefts to
the jaw and that was all there was to it.”
Does Jack Dempsey continue to transcend boxing all these years
later? Any doubts I had on that score were banished by my nephew, who is
seventeen and knows absolutely nothing about the noble art. He was very
despondent, because he had recently bought some tropical fish and they were
dying by the day.
“I’ve got a Jack Dempsey in there,” he moaned, gesturing at the
My ears pricked up. “A Jack Dempsey?”
He nodded. “Yeah, man, it’s a rogue fish that kills all the
> The Mike Casey Archives