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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 fans,

(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 sideshow.

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 1963.

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, slippery opponent.



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 Ruth.

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 Firpo.

“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 second.’

“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 tank.

My ears pricked up. “A Jack Dempsey?”

He nodded. “Yeah, man, it’s a rogue fish that kills all the others.”



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