trainers and fighters on Dempsey: Simply the best
By Mike Casey
I got into it big time the other night with a good and valued
buddy of mine from White Plains, NY. I have dropped the name of Mike Hunnicut
here before and do so again unashamedly. Mike knows his boxing backwards and yet
doesn’t, if you’ll forgive my peculiar slice of Irish logic.
Despite a terrific knowledge of past and present fighters, a
mighty collection of real time films, tapes, books and original transcripts –
all of which he studies and analyses in incredible detail – Mike is the first to
admit that he doesn’t know it all. Hallelujah to him for that honest admission,
since the rest of us don’t know it all either.
But Mr H certainly knows quite a bit. Down through the years, he
has known and talked to such legendary figures as Ray Arcel, Jack Kearns Jnr,
Teddy Hayes and Lou Stillman, as well as a host of fighters.
Mike has his favourites like we all do, but coldly assimilates
and analyses his facts with an unprejudiced eye. It takes an awful lot of work
and dedication to do this, as any truly dedicated historian will confirm. We are
a serious lot, yes, and sometimes a little too intense when our passions run
high. But we judge our fighters fairly and never cheaply demean or denigrate any
Given Mike’s vast experience and his endless conversations with
the great trainers of the great fighters, I was eager to get his opinions and
impressions on the elite.
He dropped many illustrious names, including those of Benny
Leonard, Billy Conn, Mickey Walker and the great ‘Cuban Bon Bon’, Kid Chocolate.
But one man stands supreme on Mike’s list, and the lists of most others, as the
fighter who had the most of everything: the incredible Jack Dempsey.
It is vitally important to this writer, as indeed it should be to
others, that the fighting abilities of men such as Dempsey, Johnson, Louis and
even Muhammad Ali are not devalued and degraded by the corrosion of the passing
years; or, quite frankly, by the ignorance of dilettantes and present era
junkies who are not prepared to do their homework in their blind allegiance to
their small band of favourites. Already, as incredible as it seems to a man of
fifty like myself, we are seeing Ali being knocked down the pecking order by a
generation of well-meaning ignoramuses who believe that 360lbs of beef and
muscle is everything a heavyweight fighter will ever need. Please, play me
another song! A 500lb gorilla or a mighty Royal Bengal tiger can be knocked out
by a blow to the jaw by a man who has the presence of mind, the technique and
the brass balls to try it. These are proven, biological facts of life. Why,
then, are they apparently unknown to those who profess to know and understand
Fortunately, the evidence in Jack Dempsey’s favour continues to
pile up, as old and new testimonials and transcripts come to the fore and
re-introduce him to us as the exceptional natural born killer he was.
They come from men like legendary trainer Ray Arcel, who saw all
the great champions through Mike Tyson
Did Arcel dwell in the past as an older man? Well, he trained
modern fighters like Roberto Duran and saw the vastly underrated Argentine
master, Nicolino Locche, and couldn’t speak highly enough of those greats. In
the brilliant wizard Locche, Arcel saw a man he described as being even cleverer
than Willie Pep.
So how did the great Ray assess Dempsey and the other
heavyweights? Mike Hunnicut interviewed Arcel at length on different occasions
and picks up the story. “You have to understand,” Mike explains, “that guys like
Arcel are very measured and understated in their descriptions of fighters. It
takes a lot to impress them, because they get to see and handle so many quality
operators. If they tell you a guy was ‘pretty good’, they usually mean
‘excellent’. They may also take some time to warm to you and therefore warm to
“Arcel was a very quiet and polite man by nature, unbelievably
knowledgeable about the fight game, yet never one to brag about how much he
“But when we went deep on Jack Dempsey, Ray’s eyes lit up. For
him, there was no other fighter past or present who could compare.”
Arcel’s verdict on the Manassa Mauler was thus: “Dempsey would
have absolutely beaten any fighter who came after him – without a doubt. I know
all about Joe Louis and how he knocked guys’ teeth out. I have every respect for
Joe – I rate him number two. But Dempsey would have killed Louis, George
Foreman, any of those guys. What Jack had was God-given – you can’t develop the
kind of talent he had.
“Marciano? Same result. Dempsey would have murdered Rocky. I tell
you, Jack would have chased everyone out of the ring. I trained Max Baer a
couple of times and often got asked how good that booming right of his was and
whether it was as good as anything Dempsey had. Are you kidding? It wasn’t even
“Mike Tyson might have got through a round with Dempsey, maybe
two. People always asked me what Jack’s weaknesses were. That’s the point – he
didn’t have any.”
Former heavyweight champ Jack Sharkey expressed similar
sentiments in a 1986 interview. Mike Tyson had just surged to the head of the
division and Sharkey said of Mike, “There is only one heavyweight that I can see
who would fit into the old school and that’s Tyson. They’re all cream puff
punchers today except Tyson, and his secret is that he doesn’t waste many
Then Sharkey turned his attention to Dempsey and others “Jack
Dempsey was the best because he was a real fighter, and if he hit you in the
shoulder he could dislocate it.
“Ali was a real good boxer but he took too many punches in his
training, which he didn’t have to take.
“Joe Louis was nothing sensational, being a methodical fighter,
but he was a great finisher when he had his man in trouble.
“Rocky Marciano was very good and I almost put him up there with
Dempsey. It would be a tough fight between those two but Dempsey, I’d say, was a
One has to understand the savagely tough era that bred such a
savagely tough fighting man as Dempsey. As a callow sixteen-year old, Jack was
already knocking out giants of men in fights down the mines, in old-fashioned
fight-to-the-finish street brawls and in bars. Not merely knocking them out, but
pulverising them and almost killing them. A fight to Dempsey was a struggle to
the death. That is how he saw it. That was the kind of special fire that burned
in his blood.
Jack’s future manager, Jack Kearns, was quick to recognise this
exceptional and almost unique quality. Cagey Kearns, along with trainer Teddy
Hayes, knew that if that raw talent could be honed and polished correctly, the
fighter of all fighters would come from it.
The knowledgeable men of boxing all saw and recognised this
spine-chilling side of Jack Dempsey’s nature. They saw something that they had
never seen before. They saw something that they would never see again.
Before his 1923 title defence against Luis Angel Firpo, Dempsey
and his brother Bernie were interviewed by Grantland Rice. The article that
followed would be published just a few days before the fight. Rice said to
Dempsey, “If you got knocked down, you feel the fight would just be starting?”
“Just that way,” Jack replied. Then brother Bernie stepped in and
told Rice that very few people had ever seen his brother really fight. “And you
never will until he gets knocked down. Then you will see a wildcat just
beginning to get started. I know. I’ve seen it happen.”
Dempsey’s great trainer Teddy Hayes recalled, almost in awe, how
Jack roared back against Firpo. “Then he was again the real Dempsey, the one I
had seen take out a dozen men in ten minutes in the old days in the Salt Lake
fleshpots. His energy surged back to him. He dropped Firpo twice more, the last
time for the full count.
“This was part of Dempsey’s great appeal to everyone, this
passion that swept him out of his corner to slug and flail until his opponents
no longer remained before him. I called it battle lust. In the heat of the
moment, the niceties of ring comportment went by the board.”
Max Schmeling, always a very astute observer and commentator on
the game, was similarly fascinated by Dempsey’s almost mystical qualities. In
his twilight years, Max was asked to name the boxers who had impressed him the
most down through the decades. “Trying to name them all would be a little too
much,” Max replied.
“But, in alphabetical order, my short list of those boxers who
will never be forgotten includes Muhammad Ali, Henry Armstrong, Georges
Carpentier, Julio Cesar Chavez, George Foreman, Harry Greb, Marvin Hagler,
Thomas Hearns, Jack Johnson, Ray Leonard, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Carlos
Monzon, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Ray Robinson and Mike Tyson.
“But now I want to add, all by myself, one more name: Jack
Dempsey. Despite all the class shown by the others, Dempsey was not only my own
idol, he remains for me to this day the greatest of them all. He was the big
daddy. He embodied the complete perfection of a professional boxer.
“Jack, the ninth of eleven children of an impoverished family of
Mormon itinerant workers in Colorado, welded brilliant technique and strategy
with a stupendous punch like no other boxer. His punches came packed with the
full power of his entire shoulder span. He was a nightmare of an opponent. He
hated sharing the ring with anybody else. He appeared to be a fist fighter from
another planet. It was no coincidence that they called him ‘the man killer’.
“Writer Joyce Carol Oates, in her famous essay, ‘On Boxing’, was
right on target when she said that Dempsey’s style of fighting – fast, direct
and merciless – has forever put its stamp on the sport of boxing in America, and
not only there.
“She is also not wrong when she says that today’s boxing matches,
compared with those of Dempsey’s, appear to be harmless minuets. By no means do
I mean to over-glorify him or above all the first half of the twentieth century
in boxing. But the fact is that our fights back then were definitely much
tougher, much more brutal.
“I was still boxing with only four and five ounce gloves, and
after two rounds they were mostly already torn apart, with only a few patches of
tough leather covering my knuckles. The punches were extremely painful.
“Back then, there were also only eight weight categories, in
which there was, logically, only a single world champion. It was extremely
difficult to box your way to the top.”
Gene Tunney, the great Fighting Marine, was as cool and
calculated as any fighter that ever lived, the man who tamed the ferocious Harry
Greb. When Tunney dethroned Dempsey in 1926, he beat an ageing warrior who had
not boxed for three years and had been living the high life. Yet Dempsey still
got into Tunney’s head and terrified him in the run-up to that first of their
two memorable battles.
In later years, Tunney recalled, “One night, in a lonely cottage
on Mount Pleasant, I had a nightmare. I was in the ring with Dempsey. He was
battering me frightfully. I was bloody and only half conscious and he came at me
snarling He knocked me down. I got up and he began pummelling me again. The
referee stopped the fight. I woke up. The bed was shaking. I was practically out
of it. After that, I stopped reading the newspapers and maintained a calm
approach to the fight.”
Gene Tunney never did lose his admiration for the grim reaper who
had come to claim him in the lonely darkness and who would later become a
In a 1952 interview with ‘Look’ magazine, Gene spoke of Dempsey
thus: “Jack Dempsey, I’m convinced, was our greatest heavyweight champion. In
his prime, when he knocked out Jess Willard to win the title in 1919, he would
have taken the four leading heavyweights of today – Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky
Marciano, Harry (Kid) Matthews and Ezzard Charles – and flattened them all in
“These four men are honest, earnest, capable professionals. If
they are not touched with ring genius, neither are they stumblebums. So I do not
mean to deprecate them when I say Dempsey would have levelled them all in the
same evening as follows: Matthews, two rounds. Charles, two rounds. Walcott,
five rounds. Marciano, one round.
“A total of ten rounds. Even then, I don’t consider I’m giving
Dempsey any the best of it. He might have demolished each of the four in less
than one round. He was eminently equipped to do it. He had many championship
gifts, including a great fighting heart and the ability to absorb a tremendous
punch and recuperate astonishingly fast.
“He learned his trade the hard way against fighters of all sizes,
shape and brands from mining camp, deadfall and dance hall to huge arena and
“Jack was no wild slugger. He was an extremely clever fusion of
fighter and boxer. He fought out of a peculiar weave and bob and was very
difficult to hit with a solid punch. In the 20 rounds I fought him – 10 at
Philadelphia in 1926 and 10 at Chicago the following year – I never did get a
clean shot at his jaw. He was always weaving and bobbing away from the direct
line of fire.
“Dempsey was criticised for not being able to knock out Tommy
Gibbons – one of the all-time great boxers. Actually, that fight was one of
Jack’s most impressive performances. Unable to reach his clever opponent with a
knockout punch, he was still a fine enough combination of fighter and boxer to
outscore Tommy all the way.
“But it was Dempsey the savage puncher, the scowling attacker,
who thrilled the sports world. He was a great hitter. His right hand to body or
jaw was explosive. Even more devastating was his left hook to liver and jaw.
Weaving and bobbing, he feinted opponents into leads, slipped those leads and
jolted home his short punches to body and head. He hurt and stunned opponents.
He knocked them down and, eventually, kept them down.
“The most remarkable thing about Dempsey’s fighting make-up was
the shortness of his punching. His blows seldom travelled more than six inches
to a foot. He had a trick of hooking his left to the body and then to the head
in practically the same movement.
“In his fight with Luis Firpo, Jack floored the huge Argentinian
seven times in the first round and twice in the second before knocking him out.
Yet, of all the punches he threw, only the last – a right to the jaw – was a
“All the others were short, murderous jolts and digs to the heart
and the kidney and the jaw. This ability of Dempsey to generate such punishing
power over a few inches of swing, without seeming leverage, traced from a quick
power inherent in his unusual shoulder conformation, with its high and bulging
“Beating Dempsey in his prime probably would have been something
beyond them all, including Jack Johnson, Jim Jeffries and Joe Louis. My friend
Harry Grayson, sports editor of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, may be
right when he says that Louis would go in the first flurry of punches.”
Gruff, strict and taciturn, the legendary and brilliant Lou
Stillman ran his famous New York boxing gym with a rod of iron. Like Ray Arcel,
Lou could be shy and guarded in giving his opinion of different fighters. One
has to remember that such special men – along with the likes of Angelo Dundee,
Manny Steward, Buddy McGirt and Teddy Atlas today – are constantly quizzed on
which fighter they think was the best. They are so wary of getting into endless
arguments on the subject. Many fans don’t react kindly when a trainer’s verdict
doesn’t happen to dovetail with their own.
Stillman saw thousands of fighters over a great span of years:
champions, contenders, preliminary boys, ordinary men just working out. But one
day Stillman saw one thing he never forgot. It was the angry punch with which
the retired Dempsey knocked out Tony Galento in a sparring session. The sight
and sound of that mighty blow being driven home was hard for even Stillman to
believe. Right to the end, Lou maintained that it was the hardest shot he had
ever seen and that Dempsey was the greatest heavyweight.
Ray Arcel was also a witness to the chilling incident and
recalled that the punch nearly decapitated Galento.
Mike Hunnicut recently told me that the ‘real time’ film of the
Dempsey-Willard fight (not the familiar, herky-jerky version by which Dempsey is
so often misjudged) remains the most terrifying vision of a destructive fighter
he has seen in all his years of studying motion pictures.
Says Mike, “When you watch the films of Joe Louis and zoom in,
it’s incredible to behold what Joe could do – fantastic.
“But a real close-up view of Dempsey in real time has an almost
surreal quality to it – his incredible animal-like moves and co-ordination, his
terrific punch and all-round toughness. It absolutely floors the viewer. These
are the qualities that the Lou Stillmans and the Ray Arcels were referring to.
“Jack’s many illustrious opponents were rightly proud of their
own toughness and fighting abilities, yet look how many came in praise of him.
They would talk of him as a man apart.
“Dempsey’s footwork, his overall boxing ability and his reflexes
were genuinely exceptional. You can’t conveniently group that man with anyone
This, then, was the remarkable and unique fighter that was Jack
Dempsey. Was he the greatest of all the heavyweights? In this writer’s opinion,
yes. But that gorgeous question is always gloriously open to interpretation. The
eternal beauty of boxing is its subjectivity, and none of us ever know if we are
right or wrong.
But please, if nothing else, let us sweep away once and for all
the ridiculous and oh-so-trendy theories of the ‘current’ crowd that the
heavyweights of the past would be too small and too lacking in power to compete
with the erratic, occasional and often unwilling meat-laden plodders of the
How many perpetrators of these patent falsehoods visit boxing
gymnasiums on a regular basis? How many actually phone up trainers, managers and
fighters and talk to them at length about boxing technique? How many bother to
seek out the ‘real time’ films of the old fighters and study them for hours? I
do all these things every day of my working life, because writing about boxing
is my profession. My title of ‘boxing writer and historian’ wasn’t cheekily
The great rush to embrace anyone and everyone as being ‘great’ is
now reaching ludicrous proportions. Wladimir Klitschko was massively found out
by Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, yet is already right back up there as an
all-time ace (in the estimation of all the usual suspects) because he pummelled
little ol’ Chris Byrd. Funny how size is never a factor when it’s the little guy
who’s getting walloped.
The crashing evidence against these ill-researched theories is
there by the bucket load for those who want to seek it out and not just look but
SEE. Those who don’t are surely just passing through or simply do not want their
cosy, pre-set little agendas to be blown out of the water.
The chilling term of ‘man killer’ wasn’t casually lumped on Jack
Dempsey in the throwaway manner that nicknames are handed out today. It was
thoroughly earned in the toughest schools the fight game has ever seen. It was
earned thrillingly, violently and sometimes shockingly by a unique force of
Dempsey was indeed a ring killer of men who could have killed
anyone past or present on his best day.
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