Jack Dempsey: The
Sudden Rush Of Greatness
By Mike Casey
Suddenly it all clicked. All the pieces of the jigsaw fell into
place and Jack Dempsey was flying, ripping and barnstorming his way to a fight
with Jess Willard for the heavyweight championship of the world.
After all the mining camp brawls, after all the hobo struggles
and saloon fights and a sometimes brutal apprenticeship in the ring of rules and
regulations, the rare diamond had been polished to a sparkle.
The wise men like Jack Kearns, Teddy Hayes and Spider Kelley had
known it all along. Now the others knew it too. They could see and understand
the very exceptional talent that was Jack Dempsey.
The bronzed and muscled youngster had seemed to toil for an age
as he hacked his way through the vast field of competition from the mountains
and the deserts of the Old West to the Old Fun City of New York. There had been
spectacular knockouts, laboured and hard-fought victories and the occasional
setbacks. Dempsey was never happy with his own work and it riled him that his
successes went largely unnoticed in boxing’s sprawling heartland of America,
where great champions and great contenders teemed from every nook and cranny.
Jack judged himself by a tough and eternally self-critical
barometer. Every niggling, tactical error made him fume with frustration. In his
own mind, he was getting nowhere fast by the close of 1917. Why couldn’t he
knock out Gunboat Smith? Why did he always struggle with that fat guy they
called a clown, Slapper Willie Meehan? After a life-and-death struggle with the
Gunboat at the Mission Baseball Park in San Francisco, Dempsey stood in his
dressing room in despair, humbled and apologetic.
There was so much commotion going on that manager Jack Kearns and
second Spider Kelley couldn’t hear him at first.
“I guess I’m no match for Gunboat,” Dempsey said. “I’m real sorry
I let you guys down. I’m not what you thought I was.”
When he looked up, Kearns and Kelley were staring at him in blank
disbelief. “Kid, you won!” Kearns said. “The Gunboat hit you with a right and I
thought it’d kill you, but you nearly killed him!”
Spider Kelley nodded his approval and added, “You’re in, kid.
You’re in! What the hell are you apologising for? Save that for the Gunboat,
kid. You’re going to be the next champion!”
Dempsey had finally shed his learner plates. He was about to
embark on the knockout run that would take him all the way to a title shot at
Willard in the searing, Independence Day heat of Toledo in 1919. Has there ever
been a run quite like it? From 1918, Dempsey blitzed virtually every man who
came to test him. He packed nearly 30 recorded fights into that intense,
nineteenth-month period and possibly several more that have yet to be unearthed.
Full of blazing confidence, Jack ‘barnstormed’ in the run-up to Willard, daring
all-comers to challenge him.
Jack never could fully figure out the infuriating conundrum that
was Willie Meehan, but plenty of prize scalps went on the Mauler’s belt as he
tore through Fireman Jim Flynn, Bill Brennan, Arthur Pelkey and Carl Morris.
When Dempsey hooked up with Gunboat Smith again at Buffalo in
December 1918, the chilling slaughter that took place was portentous of things
to come. The Gunboat was decked seven times and wrecked in two rounds.
Such was Dempsey’s reputation by this time that huge money was
wagered by Buffalo gamblers on how many rounds Smith would last. The majority of
Jack’s followers bet on a win inside four.
Before entering the ring, Gunboat Smith told reporters that he
rated Dempsey a great heavyweight and was sure that Jack would defeat Jess
Willard. “This fellow Dempsey has everything. Dempsey is poison. He has youth,
strength, gameness and a good head. He is some scrapper.”
But it wasn’t the Smith fight that got the tongues wagging and
the typewriters tapping.
Back in the summer of that year, on July 27 at Harrison, New
Jersey, Jack had conceded nearly twenty pounds to the hard-hitting Fred Fulton
and destroyed him in just a fraction over eighteen seconds. A sharp intake of
breath was heard across America and not just from the easily impressed.
When Fulton crashed to the canvas, writer Robert Edgren was
sitting close enough at ringside to be able to reach out and touch the fallen
giant. Edgren, as knowledgeable and eloquent a scribe as there ever was on
boxing, was objective yet lavish in his praise for the lithe and vicious young
tiger of a man who had inflicted the damage.
Now Edgren completely understood what sparring partner Chief
Turner had said of Dempsey. “This is the most wonderful fighter I have ever
seen,” revealed the Chief. “I think I have done mighty well to last through a
week of training with him. He’s an awful hitter.”
Edgren wrote: “Dempsey makes the same impression on trainer or
fighter. He is not a boxer in the ordinary sense of the word. And yet it is
foolish to say that he doesn’t know how to box. He is a natural boxer. He uses
his hands as naturally as a tiger uses its claws.
“The Dempsey fight against Fulton was the finest exhibition of
the fighting art that I have ever seen, for Dempsey didn’t waste a single
movement in the short time it lasted. His action was the soul of simplicity. And
fighting effectiveness isn’t in the step-and-tap-and-block taught by boxing
instructors, but in direct action along the lines of mechanical force.
“Bob Fitzsimmons was the greatest master of that. And if this
Dempsey lad continues as he has begun, he will eclipse even the great Bob.”
Emphasising Dempsey’s economy of movement, Edgren noted that the
Mauler covered the minimum of ground in the short time it took him to bomb out
Fulton. Jack was careful to come out of his corner a little slower than big
Fred. Dempsey had advanced just four or five short steps as Fulton met him and
missed with a jab. Jack moved forward one step. Fulton tried to tie him up, but
as Dempsey wrenched his arms free he fired a left upwards to Fulton’s head. The
punch travelled no more than a foot but jerked Fred’s head back and shook him
badly. The big man moved out to long range and started backing up towards the
ropes. He managed to get a lock on Dempsey’s arms for a few seconds before
breaking away and retreating across the ring to his own corner. Jack pivoted and
advanced three or four steps to within hitting range. It was then that Robert
Edgren observed something that intrigued him.
“Dempsey has a trick of shifting that is similar to that of
Fitzsimmons and Stanley Ketchel, except that Jack doesn’t reverse his footing
but merely drops his left shoulder back beyond the right and then puts the
pivoting swing of his whole body into a two-foot blow.
“Dropping that left shoulder back, Dempsey drove his left fist
into Fulton’s body. It was a tremendous blow and Fulton caved in at the waist.
Instantly Dempsey whipped another left up to Fulton’s head, knocking him over
sideways, and quicker than a flash shot his straight right across to Fulton’s
jaw. Fulton fell, completely knocked out, struck in a half-hitting position,
neck against the ropes and went on until he lay flat on his shoulder blades.”
Teddy Hayes had some kind of portfolio as a trainer. Among the
legends he handled were Mickey Walker, Jack Johnson, Battling Nelson, Ad Wolgast,
Joe Gans, Stanley Ketchel, Billy Papke, Tiger Flowers, Jack Britton, Benny
Leonard, Freddie Welsh, Johnny Dundee, Pete Herman and Lou Brouillard.
Who did Hayes consider to be the greatest of them all? Jack
Dempsey. As early as 1915, Hayes saw the enormous potential that was steadily
taking shape. “Dempsey had meanness. He had heart. Anyone who knocked down
Dempsey soon discovered they made a mistake. When Jack got up, that always meant
his opponent’s doom. Whether he slipped or was hit, he would be up at the count
of two with murder on his mind. He was the perfect fighting machine. There were
times when he didn’t seem at all human.”
Dempsey, of course was moulded and fired in an astonishingly
tough era that bred exceptionally tough men. The good old days? No, we wouldn’t
want to see their like again. There were too many injustices, too many illnesses
and most people didn’t live to a great age. It is simply a fact of life that
hard times represent a fertile soil for producing fighting men. What greater
motivation is there than to simply eat? Dempsey and many others knew what it was
like to go without a meal.
In his later years, Jack could only guess at how many official
and semi-official fights he had between 1911 and 1916. “The record books don’t
contain them,” he said, “and I couldn’t name the number or identify all the
faces today if my life depended on doing it. I’d guess a hundred. But that’s
still a guess.”
Boxing historian Mike Hunnicut, who had many conversations with
Teddy Hayes, points out: “Teddy wasn’t a ‘good old days’ guy. He was always
looking to tomorrow and the betterment of boxing. But he quite rightly observed
that the excellent athletes forged from hunger and poverty began to disappear
when life got easier and television helped to kill off the thousands of fight
clubs. There were suddenly fewer fights and fewer fighters. As a consequence,
there weren’t nearly as many fighters who had that inherent anger and ferocity.
Other sports became popular and young men didn’t have to box for a living.
“Going through my notes from my various chats with Teddy, he said
that Dempsey was the most perfect puncher with the most perfect hands ever. He
was a very fast, instinctive athlete, a great natural fighter with perfect
co-ordination and timing.
“He could take a punch – a real punch – and not ever be aware he
was hit. He was able to take fighters apart when he was out on his feet – as he
was in the first Gunboat Smith fight – like no other fighter ever. His hands
were not just huge, they were incredibly strong and the hardest fists Hayes had
ever seen. Every fighter has trouble with his hands at some time or another.
Dempsey didn’t. They were the perfect weapons.
“Jack Kearns knew Dempsey was a hell of a fighter. He was
absolutely certain that nothing could stop Jack after seeing him rally from that
big shot from the Gunboat. Kearns saw that there was no quit in Dempsey.
“Teddy Hayes saw these qualities in Dempsey before Kearns did
after watching Jack knock out miners and the bully boys of the bar rooms.
“I would say that the nearest thing to Dempsey in modern times,
for an iron chin and unbelievable resilience, was Matthew Saad Muhammad. But
Jack of course was far more talented than Saad and probably even tougher.”
Nat Fleischer was another who noticed these almost surreal
qualities in Dempsey and the fact that Jack was an almost unique amalgam of
boxer and fighter. Fleischer could never sufficiently express just how thrilling
it was to watch the prime Dempsey from ringside.
Reflecting on Jack in 1968, Fleischer wrote: “Dempsey represented
the true fighting man. He was a destroyer, a demon once he got under way. When
the bell sounded, a wild man was unleashed. Flaying fists reached their targets
early and often. His teeth bared, he sprang into action bent on destruction. He
represented undeniable force.
“I have heard sports writers declare that a fight between Dempsey
and Marciano, each in his prime, would have resulted in the most thrilling, hard
hitting affair in ring history. I agree. But I disagree with those who at the
same time, declared that Rocky, in a punch-for-punch attack, would have stopped
“The fight would not have lasted long enough for Marciano to
spring such an attack as he did when he fought Jersey Joe Walcott and stopped
him in the thirteenth round, and against Archie Moore, whom Rocky halted in the
“Dempsey in his prime would have stopped Walcott and Moore before
the fifth got underway.
“Joe Louis, as a power hitter, was the equal of Dempsey. But
while the Brown Bomber had to get set before slinging his punches, Manassa Jack
at his peak tore in and unleashed an attack that was bewildering and invincible.
“Dempsey, with his bobbing and weaving style, was not easy to hit
with solid punches. He knew the tricks of the game and put them into operation
with crafty execution. In that, he was superior to most of those who followed
“Jack possessed steel fists and an iron jaw. His blows were
explosive, much like those of Benny Leonard.
“Dempsey drove his remarkable punching power from a pair of
splendid hands, big-boned and boasting a squareness across the knuckles that
does not belong to the average individual, a well developed wrist and forearm
and great strength in the hitting muscles of the upper arm, shoulder and back.
He also possessed the important faculty of proper leverage, brought the muscles
of his legs as well as his upper body into play and got both weight and impetus
behind his blows.
“Perhaps Jack’s chief punching asset was a perfect co-ordination
between mind and muscle, the ability to bring instant and overwhelming stress
upon any movement. He had a wonderful hitting instinct.
“Dempsey could take it and dish it out. The big punch and the
ability to take a solid one are the assets that count most in winning a fight.
Jack possessed both. He also was quick in recovery.
“Dempsey might be likened to a combination of a polar bear and a
panther. Strong as the first. Agile as the second. Fast as a top welterweight,
and that includes Ray Robinson, one of the greatest in that category.
“Dempsey’s style of attack was always a good defence. It
prevented an opponent accustomed mostly to ring cleverness or slow motion or
using a shuffling style for infighting, from penetrating the defence with fair
After blitzing Gunboat Smith in their second match at Buffalo,
Jack Dempsey held court in his hotel to a small and select group of journalists.
The heir apparent to the throne wanted to put the record straight on the one man
who got under his skin more than any other: big Carl Morris from Kentucky. Try
as he did, Dempsey could never warm to Morris. There was friction between the
two men whenever they crossed paths, right from the days when Jack was Carl’s
Morris had a condescending manner about him and a caustic sense
of humour to match. Every time he opened his mouth, Dempsey bridled. Now Jack
had finally shut him up. Just two weeks before despatching Gunboat Smith,
Dempsey had conceded 35lbs to crush Morris in one round at New Orleans. Finally,
a ghost had been laid to rest.
Jack had already posted two wins over Carl, outpointing the giant
at San Francisco and winning by disqualification in their second meeting in
Buffalo. But neither result was good enough for the size-obsessed ‘experts’ of
the age, who refused to believe that a David could whip a Goliath and then
rubbished the evidence when it was presented.
Morris paid a visit to Dempsey’s dressing room before their
second fight. It was a bad mistake. Tense and irritable, Jack roared, “Get outta
here, you cheap bastard, or I’ll flatten you right now!”
Dempsey didn’t get his chance that night. Morris, sensing a lost
cause, got himself thrown out in the sixth round after winging one south of the
border and re-arranging Jack’s wedding tackle. But Jack surely did flatten Carl
in the final instalment of their ill-tempered trilogy.
Here is what Dempsey told those few reporters on the final day of
1918: “Going down to New Orleans, I had two days’ time to think things over. I
boxed Morris in Buffalo and knew his style pretty well. But I realised he was
tough. I made up my mind not to take unnecessary chances as the New Orleans
fight was booked for 20 rounds. I figured it out that Morris would want to stick
the limit and that he’d play a defensive game and make me carry the fight to him
– that he would wrestle in the clinches and make me carry his weight and try to
get me tired. It’s no cinch, you know, to lug a big guy like him around for six
or eight rounds.
“Going down on the train, I doped it out this way: I’d let Morris
set the pace, nailing him when he left openings but never going in and mixing
with him. What I planned to do was outbox him and wait for a chance to sink the
“When the referee calls us to the centre of the ring, Morris was
so polite I became suspicious. It was Jack this and Jack that. He Jacked me to
death. When we get our instructions from the referee and are going back to our
corners for the first bell, Morris yells out so everybody could hear him, ‘Make
this a clean fight, Jack, no rough stuff’.
“Out we come, Morris laughing and leading with his left. It fell
short. I tapped him with a left on the nose. He keeps on laughing. He swings his
right. I duck and he grabs me. Right off the reel he starts the rough stuff The
moment he got hold of me, what does he do but rush me across the ring and slam
me into the ropes, throwing all his weight on me and rubbing my back ten or
fifteen feet along the top rope You know what that does, don’t you? Just burns
your back, that’s all. And there’s the guy who says make it a clean fight.
“The referee was wise and cautioned Morris. Morris excused
himself and we break. I hooked him with a left to the chin. He was hurt. He lost
his noodle, I guess, for he rushes in and grabs me again, though I tried to pull
away from him. He got a good hold, like Zbyszko (the wrestler) and slams me into
one of the corners.
“He puts one of his ham-like hands against my forehead and
deliberately tried to jam my head back over the ropes so my skull would hit the
iron post. Trying to knock me out that way. Bum stuff.
“The referee rushes in, yelling at Morris to quit trying to foul.
I yelled at the referee to let him go. ‘I’ll take care of him,’ says I as we
break away. I lost all regard for Morris. I tore loose, driving a left to the
pit of his stomach with every ounce of strength I had, and as he doubled up and
begins to sink to the floor, I whipped my right to his chin and he went down
like a log. Both his feet were up in the air. The referee counted ten and it was
a long, generous count too.
“I don’t think I ever hit a man as hard as I belted Morris in the
stomach. Say, that referee could have counted a hundred. Morris didn’t move. His
seconds dragged him to his corner.
“I went over to shake his hand, willing to let bygones be
bygones, but I got an awful shock. Morris was as white as milk and as limp as a
rag. His lips were purple. On the square, I thought he was done for. I was never
so frightened in my life. You know, I don’t want to hurt no man. I turned in and
helped his seconds revive him. We worked over him for four minutes before he
opened his eyes. I was a happy lad when he looks up and I see he’s all right.
“You see, I went in planning to box him six or eight rounds, but
when he tried to burn my back on the ropes and knock my head against the iron
post – well, no man is going to do that to me and get away with it. Morris made
me knock him out in two minutes.”
Seven months after Morris, Dempsey would take his controlled fury
to Toledo and brutally sever Jess Willard’s grip on the heavyweight
Life And Death
There were many titanic struggles for Jack Dempsey before the
eventual glories and riches of the roped square. He sent a fellow hobo flying
into the wilderness after a vicious brawl on top of a fast moving freight train,
never knowing whether it had literally been a fight to the death.
It had been a battle of survival, one cameo among the many small
wars of the hobo jungle. Hungry and desperate men waged such perilous fights
constantly in that stark and ferocious era.
There was another occasion when Jack wasn’t so fortunate, as he
later recalled: “I hopped a freight train moving out of Grand Junction,
Colorado, one cold afternoon, right after running away from home. I was headed
for Delta, forty miles away. I had just grabbed the ladder when a railroad man
on top of the freight spotted me.
“He had a long broomstick in his hand, like a cop’s billy. He
yelled at me to jump off. I couldn’t. The train had picked up too much speed.
So, very systematically, and while the train picked up more speed, he kept
belting me with that club and split open my head. I jumped or fell off, crashing
face down in the cinders along the way. I thought I’d never stop rolling.
“I walked the forty miles to Delta while the blood dried.”
This was Jack Dempsey’s grounding in life. These were the battles
he fought before his boxing career even began. Is it any wonder that he was so
special? He was still slugging out street muggers in his old age.
I remain convinced that this incredible man, at his irresistible
best, would have taken the measure of any heavyweight in boxing history.
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