William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey (June 24, 1895 – May 31, 1983), nicknamed “Kid Blackie” and “The Manassa Mauler”, was an American professional boxer who competed from 1914 to 1927, and reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. A cultural icon of the 1920s, Dempsey’s aggressive fighting style and exceptional punching power made him one of the most popular boxers in history. Many of his fights set financial and attendance records, including the first million-dollar gate. Dempsey is ranked as tenth on The Ring magazine’s list of all-time heavyweights and seventh among its Top 100 Greatest Punchers, while in 1950 the Associated Press voted him as the greatest fighter of the past 50 years. He is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and was inducted into The Ring‘s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1951.
Born William Harrison Dempsey in Manassa, Colorado, he grew up in a poor family in Colorado, West Virginia, and Utah. The son of Mary Celia (née Smoot) and Hiram Dempsey, his family’s lineage consisted of Irish, Cherokee, and Jewish ancestry. Following his parents’ conversion to Mormonism, Dempsey was baptized into the LDS Church in 1903 following his 8th birthday, the “age of accountability”, according to Mormon doctrine. Because his father had difficulty finding work, the family traveled often and Dempsey dropped out of elementary school to work and left home at the age of 16. Due to his lack of money, he frequently traveled underneath trains and slept in hobo camps.
Desperate for money, Dempsey would occasionally visit saloons and challenge for fights, saying “I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.” If anyone accepted the challenge, bets would be made. According to Dempsey’s autobiography, he rarely lost these barroom brawls. For a short time, Dempsey was a part-time bodyguard for Thomas F. Kearns, president of The Salt Lake Tribune and son of Utah’s U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns.
Dempsey often fought under the pseudonym, “Kid Blackie”, though during his stint in the Salt Lake City area, he went by “Young Dempsey”. Much of his early career is not recorded, and stated thus, in The Ring Record Book as compiled by Nat Fleischer. He first competed as “Jack Dempsey” (by his own recollection) in the fall of 1914, in Cripple Creek, Colorado. His brother, Bernie, who often fought under the pseudonym, “Jack Dempsey”—this a common practice of the day, in fighters’ admiration of middleweight boxer and former champion, Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey—had signed to fight veteran George Copelin. Upon learning Copelin had sparred with Jack Johnson, and given Bernie Dempsey was nearing 40 years of age, he strategically decided to back out of the fight. He substituted his brother, still unknown in Eastern Colorado, as “Jack Dempsey”. The fans at ringside immediately knew this was not the man they’d paid to see.
The promoter became violently angry and “sailed into us, barehanded”, threatening to stop the fight. Copelin himself, who outweighed Dempsey by 20 lbs. (165 to 145) upon seeing Dempsey’s small stature in the ring, warned the promoter, “I might kill that skinny guy.” The promoter reluctantly permitted the fight to commence, and in his first outing as “Jack Dempsey”, the future champion downed Copelin six times in the first round and twice in the second. From there, it was a battle of attrition (“Neither Bernie nor I had taken into consideration the high altitude at Cripple Creek.”), until a last knockdown of Copelin in the seventh, moved the referee to make the then-unusual move of stopping the fight once Copelin regained his feet. Dempsey: “In those days they didn’t stop mining-town fights as long as one guy could move.” This trial by fire carried with it a $100 purse. The promoter, angered at the switch pulled by the brothers, had laid no promised side bets, “…and even if I did, I wouldn’t give you anything.”
Such lessons were hard, but fighting was something Jack Dempsey did well. Following the name change, Dempsey won six bouts in a row by knockout before losing on a disqualification in four rounds to Jack Downey. During this early part of his career, Dempsey campaigned in Utah, frequently entering fights in towns in the Wasatch Mountain Rangeregion. He followed his loss against Downey with a knockout win and two draws versus Johnny Sudenberg in Nevada. Three more wins and a draw followed when he met Downey again, this time resulting in a four-round draw. Following these wins, Dempsey racked up ten more wins that included matches against Sudenberg and Downey, knocking out Downey in two rounds. These wins were followed with three no-decision matches, though at this point in the history of boxing, the use of judges to score a fight was often forbidden, so if a fight went the distance, it was called a draw or a no decision, depending on the state or county where the fight was held.
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Dempsey worked in a shipyard and continued to box. Afterward, he was accused by some boxing fans of being a slacker for not enlisting. This remained a black mark on his reputation until 1920, when evidence produced showed he had attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army, but had been classified 4-F. After the war, Dempsey spent two years in Salt Lake City, “bumming around” as he called it, before returning to the ring.
Among his opponents for World Heavyweight Champion were Fireman Jim Flynn, the only boxer ever to beat Dempsey by a knockout when Dempsey lost to him in the first round (although some boxing historians believe the fight was a “fix”), and Gunboat Smith, formerly a highly ranked contender who had beaten both World Champion Jess Willard and Hall of Famer Sam Langford. Dempsey beat Smith for the third time on a second-round knockout.
Before he employed the long-experienced Jack Kearns as his manager, Dempsey was first managed by John J. Reisler.
One year later, in 1918, Dempsey fought in 17 matches, going 15–1 with one no decision. One of those fights was with Flynn, who was knocked out by Dempsey, coincidentally, in the first round. Among other matches won that year were against Light Heavyweight Champion Battling Levinsky, Bill Brennan, Fred Fulton, Carl E. Morris, Billy Miske, heavyweight Lefty Jim McGettigan, and Homer Smith. In 1919, he won five consecutive regular bouts by knockout in the first round as well as a one-round special bout.
On July 4, 1919, Dempsey and World Heavyweight Champion Jess Willard met at Toledo for the world title. Pro lightweight fighter Benny Leonard predicted a victory for the 6’1″, 187 pound Dempsey even though Willard, known as the “Pottawatamie Giant”, was 6’6½” tall and 245 pounds. Ultimately, Willard was knocked down seven times by Dempsey in the first round.
Accounts of the fight reported that Willard suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, several broken teeth, and a number of deep fractures to his facial bones. This aroused suspicion that Dempsey had cheated, with some questioning how the force capable of causing such damage had been transmitted through Dempsey’s knuckles without fracturing them.
Other reports, however, failed to mention Willard suffered any real injuries. The New York Times’ account of the fight described severe swelling visible on one side of Willard’s face, but did not mention any broken bones. A still photograph of Willard following the fight appears to show discoloration and swelling on his face.
Following the match, Willard was quoted as saying, “Dempsey is a remarkable hitter. It was the first time that I had ever been knocked off my feet. I have sent many birds home in the same bruised condition that I am in, and now I know how they felt. I sincerely wish Dempsey all the luck possible and hope that he garnishes all the riches that comes with the championship. I have had my fling with the title. I was champion for four years and I assure you that they’ll never have to give a benefit for me. I have invested the money I have made”. Willard later claimed to have been defeated by “gangsterism”.
After being fired by Dempsey, manager Jack Kearns gave an account of the fight in the January 20, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated that has become known as the “loaded gloves theory”. In the interview, Kearns claimed to have informed Dempsey he had wagered his share of the purse favoring a Dempsey win with a first-round knockout. Kearns further stated he had applied plaster of Paris to the wrappings on the fighter’s hands.
Boxing historian J. J. Johnston said, “the films show Willard upon entering the ring walking over to Dempsey and examining his hands.” That, along with an experiment conducted by a boxing magazine designed to re-enact the fight have been noted as proof that Kearns’ story was false.
The Ring magazine founder and editor Nat Fleischer claimed to be present when Dempsey’s hands were wrapped, stating, “Jack Dempsey had no loaded gloves, and no plaster of Paris over his bandages. I watched the proceedings and the only person who had anything to do with the taping of Jack’s hands was Deforest. Kearns had nothing to do with it, so his plaster of Paris story is simply not true.
Deforest himself said that he regarded the stories of Dempsey’s gloves being loaded as libel, calling them “trash”, and said he did not apply any foreign substance to them, which I can verify since I watched the taping.” Sports writer Red Smith, in Dempsey’s obituary published by The New York Times’ was openly dismissive of the claim.
Another rumor is that Dempsey used a knuckleduster during the first round. Some speculated that the object used was a rail spike. In the Los Angeles Times on July 3, 1979, Joe Stone, an ex-referee and boxing writer, asserted that in a film taken of the fight an object on the canvas could be seen after the final knockdown. He further asserted that the object appears to be removed by someone from Dempsey’s corner. In the same film, however, Dempsey can be seen at various times during the fight pushing and holding with Willard with the palm of the glove in question, making it unlikely that he had any foreign object embedded in his glove.
Further controversy was fueled by the fact that Dempsey left the ring at the end of the first round, thinking the fight was over. This was seen as a violation of the rules, however Willard’s corner did not ask for enforcement in order for the referee to disqualify Dempsey.
Following his victory, Jack Dempsey traveled around the country, making publicity appearances with circuses, staging exhibitions, and a low-budget Hollywood movie. Dempsey did not defend his title until September 1920, with a fight against Billy Miske in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Miske was knocked out in three rounds.
Dempsey’s second title defense was in December 1920 against Bill Brennan at Madison Square Garden, New York City. After 10 rounds, Brennan was ahead on points, and Dempsey’s left ear was bleeding profusely. Dempsey rebounded to stop Brennan in the 12th round.