Commentary

Iconic Dempsey exemplified the Roaring '20s

Colorado's Jack Dempsey wasn't just one of the greatest heavyweights to step into the ring, he was also one of the most celebrated fighters of his time -- and an icon of the Roaring 20s.

Originally Published: July 17, 2008
By William Dettloff | Special to ESPN.com

Jack Dempsey & Babe RuthAP PhotoOnly Babe Ruth, left, rivaled Jack Dempsey as the most popular athlete of the 1920s.
It's been debated, often and sincerely enough, whether the times make the man or vice versa. Jack Dempsey, the modern fight game's first real superstar, certainly was a product of his era, but no sports figure better epitomized what we recall in history books today as the Roaring '20s.

Forget pugs in general. There were some great ones in the 1920s -- Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Benny Leonard and Jimmy Wilde, to name a few. Dempsey was on another level. His fame was such that he could mix with the fight game's various and sundry criminals and lowlifes as well as he could with Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and Charles Lindbergh.

More people in America knew the name "Dempsey" than followed the exploits of infamous gangster John Dillinger in the daily papers. He was -- to apply a term that's overused in our modern, celebrity-based culture -- an icon.

Rudolph Valentino & Jack Dempsey
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesWhen he wasn't fighting, Dempsey was rubbing elbows with Hollywood actors like Rudolf Valentino, left.
Dempsey "was the greatest and most beloved sports hero the country had ever known," wrote author and writer Paul Gallico, whose career was launched by an article he wrote about Dempsey's having flattened him in a sparring session when Gallico worked for the New York Daily News.

You could argue that Dempsey was just one of many iconic figures enthralling the rabble in what sports historians consider the golden age. Indeed, Babe Ruth was a beloved figure, as were Bobby Jones and Red Grange, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean and others. Commercially, though, none approached Dempsey.

At the height of his career, Ruth made about $70,000 a year. Dempsey made a staggering $300,000 for his 1921 title defense against Frenchman and light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier at Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City, N.J.

When the receipts of roughly 91,000 spectators were totaled after Dempsey's four-round knockout, they equaled $1,789,238 -- boxing's first million-dollar gate.

It's true that much of the success of that event was attributable to the promotion of brilliant Tex Rickard, who enflamed the passions of the fans and the press in the buildup by touting Carpentier's successes during World War I. Why was that important?

In 1917, Dempsey had registered for the draft and was granted, as the sole support of family, a deferment. In the wake of World War I, he was indicted for draft evasion based on the claims of his ex-wife, Maxine Cates, 15 years his senior, who swore under oath that she had made her own money.

At the trial in San Francisco in June 1920, Dempsey produced a letter from the secretary of the Navy that supported his claim, and the jury acquitted him. But the damage had been done -- the country saw him as a "slacker," especially after a wartime publicity photo was circulated that showed him supposedly working in a Philadelphia shipyard but wearing patent leather shoes.

Thus was the first "good" versus "evil" match born in boxing. Carpentier was the former, scowling, menacing Dempsey the latter.

As a result, even the New Jersey crowd rooted for Carpentier, but that didn't help him in the ring, where he was no match for the "Manassa Mauler."

[+] EnlargeDempsey-Tunney
AP PhotoJack Dempsey's hesitance to retreat to a neutral corner might have cost him the fight against Gene Tunney, right.
"It was impossible for us to root for Dempsey," Heywood Broun wrote in the New York Tribune. "He was too methodical and too efficient. It would have been like giving three long cheers for the guillotine as Sydney Carton went to meet it where it waited."

It wasn't until Dempsey's decision loss five years later to Gene Tunney that he fully became a national hero and fan favorite. Enjoying the spoils of being the world heavyweight champion, he hadn't fought in three years when he and Tunney met in Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium.

No fewer than 120,000 fans endured a steady rain to watch Dempsey, who -- soft from inactivity and easy living -- chased Tunney ineffectually for 10 rounds.

That was all it took for the world to love him: the loss of the heavyweight title -- especially to Tunney, an erudite, well-spoken college boy about whom humorist Will Rogers later opined, "Let's have prizefighters with harder wallops and less Shakespeare."

The rematch, which Dempsey earned with a knockout of former champion Jack Sharkey, drew another hundred thousand fans, this time 104,493 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

"The Battle of the Long Count" was the last of Dempsey's career, and the paydays of the participants demonstrated its importance, though Dempsey came out on the short end for the first time; he made $450,000 to Tunney's $990,000.

It was another first for Dempsey, boxing's first $2 million gate, and the controversy over how long Tunney was down and whether he could have gotten up not only added enormously to Dempsey's legend but became a permanent fixture in fight game lore.

"I look back on that fight, he wasn't hurt too bad," Dempsey told author Peter Heller in 1970. "Tunney would have got up. Naturally, I was in hopes he wouldn't get up. I stood there because I was anxious to get at him, see? I should have went back to the right corner but I didn't do it. If he hadn't have got up, maybe we could have had another fight."

[+] EnlargeJack Dempsey
AP PhotoJack Dempsey, standing, overcame an early knockdown to flatten Luis Firpo in two rounds.
By that time, Dempsey's fights were exercises in melodrama, as was the case in his highly dramatic second-round knockout of Angel Firpo in 1922, a fight that drew a whopping 80,000 to the Polo Grounds in New York.

The story of how the ringside media -- specifically, the New York Tribune's Jack Lawrence and telegraph operator Perry Grogan -- helped shove Dempsey back into the ring after Firpo knocked him through the ropes is known to virtually every self-respecting fight fan the world over.

How exciting was it? A full 30 years later, a respected group of veteran sportswriters voted it the most dramatic sports moment of the century.

Dempsey's title-winning knockout of Jess Willard in 1919 was no less memorable and even today is recalled as one of the most brutal beatings ever administered by a challenger in a heavyweight title bout.

In all, Dempsey made better than $4 million over his 13-year career, and even though he lost most of it in the 1929 stock market crash, he did all right for himself after retirement, boxing countless exhibitions and opening a popular restaurant and nightclub in New York.

Jack Dempsey
AP PhotoAfter retiring from boxing, Dempsey opened a popular restaurant and nightclub in New York.
Many deride him still for the lethargic rate at which he defended what then really was the most coveted prize in all of sport -- he made just five defenses in a seven-year reign -- and also for avoiding Harry Wills, his top contender for much of that time.

Dempsey insisted until his death in 1983 that it wasn't because he was afraid to fight Wills.

"I would have fought Wills," Dempsey told the New York Post in 1953, "but nobody would promote it. When Wills challenged, Tex Rickard would have nothing to do with the fight. He said he had instructions from Washington not to promote a mixed[-race] bout for the heavyweight title."

It sounds wholly contrived now, absurd even, but in the 1920s, just a few years removed from the reign of Jack Johnson, it seems perfectly plausible.

Even if Dempsey did duck Wills, and even if he was a lazy champion, his merit solely as a prizefighter has withstood the effects of the decades that wear down the accomplishments of lesser legends.

At various times in the past decade, The Ring magazine has named him the seventh-hardest puncher of all time, the 16th-best fighter of the past 80 years, the fifth-best heavyweight ever and the sixth-greatest fighter of the 20th century.

Sharkey, who was knocked out by Dempsey and later by Joe Louis, said, "If Dempsey and Louis ever went into a phone booth to fight, I have no doubt Dempsey is the one who would walk out [the winner]."

That can be forever debated. This cannot: Dempsey would have been great in any era. The Roaring '20s made him a legend.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.