We in The West are in love with the iconic antihero, from the lovable lout The Tramp, played with ebullient charm by Charlie Chaplin to John Wayne’s shoot first question later gunslinger. Or the grizzled ruggedly handsome Harrison Ford who gave us Indiana Jones and Han Solo.
We love our heroes with scratches and scars. Imperfect and troubled.
We love our Angels with a dirty face.
Jack Dempsey was our first antihero.
A man who symbolized our strength and resilience.
A man of ferocity, who for those trapped in meager circumstances and powerless to fight back could live vicariously through.
The Manassa Mauler
William Harrison Dempsey was born in 1895. One of 13 children.
He adored his Mother.
His father Hyrum was shiftless. A drifter & failed at nearly everything to which he put his hand.
Lately, that was prospecting for gold & so the family moved out west to Manassa, Colorado.
The Dempsey’s lived in squalor.
Jack later recalled the embarrassment of his mother at being unable to pay the train conductor for the stage coach ride.
Jack resolved that would never happen again.
Young Jack took odd jobs as a laborer. However, the family was always desperate for money.
So, Jack would walk into saloons exclaiming "I can't sing and I can't dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house."
And he did.
Crisscrossing the nation from Nevada to New York often riding in hobo cars Dempsey fought every single man he could.
Finally, on July 4th, 1919. Independence Day. Dempsey challenged Jess Willard for the Heavyweight Title.
Willard had somehow beaten the great Jack Johnson.
The Pottawattamie Giant. Six-feet-six-and-a-half inches tall. Weighting 245 pounds.
Dempsey was five-foot-eleven. Maybe six feet. Depending on which account you read.
And at best 195 pounds.
The literal manifestation of David versus Goliath.
And what followed was one of the most savage beatings in boxing history.
Willard was down seven times in just the first round.
Dempsey stood over the giant, snarling.
There was no neutral corner rule then. Jack would win at all costs.
A broken jaw, facial fractures, broken ribs and missing teeth is what Willard got for his trouble.
Dempsey got the title.
The Golden Age – The Roaring Twenties
It was a time of gangsters, speakeasies and bathtub gin.
Babe Ruth smacked ‘em outta the park.
And Jack Dempsey was heavyweight champion of the world.
If you were some Mick living in the Bowery guaranteed there were two portraits in your home: Jesus Christ and Jack Dempsey.
World War I was behind us. However, the memories were raw.
Everyman was to do his part.
Challenger Georges Carpentier was a war hero.
Dempsey was labeled a slacker. A black mark that stayed with him all his life.
Tex Rickard shrewdly promoted the fight as the War Hero against the Black Hat.
July 2nd, 1921 at Boyle’s Thirty Acres 91,000 people attended Dempsey vs. Carpentier.
Dempsey won in the 4th.
The painter George Bellows would immortalize the slugfest between Jack Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo.
Dempsey was knocked off his feet, out of the ring, nearly landing on the floor in the 1st round.
Dempsey came back – charging like a wounded animal and stopped Firpo in the 2nd by Kayo.
Jack Dempsey was the most famous athlete in the world.
Dempsey was Champ for nearly seven years and took on all contenders – all white contenders.
Dempsey would not take on black fighters.
Jack Johnson had offended America’s delicate sensibilities. There was no appetite for another Black Champion.
So, contender Harry Wills never got his shot.
A Bon Vivant
Jack Dempsey was rich. Popular.
After growing up and living through such deprivation early in life Dempsey became Jack.
He partied and spent money that flowed like liquor. He starred in the serial Daredevil.
He did endorsements and traveled the world.
He married Estelle Taylor. A lady of the evening who’d been Dempsey’s constant companion since his days bouncing in brothels.
Few challenges to Dempsey’s title existed.
Life threw the most telling blows.
Dempsey lost his brother Bruce years before. He’d been stabbed to death during a fight.
Then his brother John shot and killed his wife before turning the gun on himself.
Honey I Forgot to duck
The beast in Dempsey's belly wouldn't rest.
Waiting in the wings now was The Fighting Marine Gene Tunney – in his prime.
Dempsey was never a technician, he had guts. He had guile.
The living personification of unbridled violence.
But the game has changed.
Tunney was a brilliant boxer.
When Dempsey retired to his dressing room his wife was aghast at his appearance.
Dempsey said only “Honey I forgot to duck.”
With that, Dempsey took off the black hat forever & endeared himself to the public.
Dempsey was not done yet.
He faced Jack Sharkey for a shot at the rematch with Tunney.
Dempsey was aging… not gone.
Sharkey ended up on the business end of left hook ending a fight he’d been winning.
The Long Count
One year later millions listened by their radios & many thousands attended the fight at Soldier Field.
Dempsey was losing again when he knocked Tunney down…
1, Dempsey’s blood is up.
2, he stands over Tunney.
3, referee Dave Barry attempts to separate the men.
4, Dempsey won't back off.
5, The dog is coming out again.
7, Barry moves Dempsey to a neutral corner.
8, 9, 10…11, 12, 13…
Barry fails to keep time and restarts the count at 1…
Tunney rises and battles back & wins the next two rounds.
Tunney remains champion.
Dempsey raised his foes hand & congratulated Tunney.
"You were best. You fought a smart fight, kid."
Dempsey had passed to the next phase in his life – the elder statesman!
On the corner of 8th avenue & 50th street Dempsey opened Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant.
Wide eyed tourists came from all over for three attractions: the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn bridge & Jack Dempsey.
He always had a kind word, a clap on the back, he never said no to an autograph or request for a picture.
Jack would always make an effort to leave a personal message.
“Keep punching!! Yours, Jack Dempsey.”
In 1971 two thugs mistook Dempsey for easy pickings & tried to rob him.
Even as an elderly man Dempsey possessed a mighty punch. He laid both men out.
They remained on the ground until police arrived out of fear.
Jack would say to his wife Deanna “don't worry honey, I'm too mean to die!”
Those would be his last words.
With the passing of Jack Dempsey the Golden Age of boxing finally passed on as well.
More than that the last light of bygone era faded away also.
A time of bunkhouses, stage coaches, saloons & steam whistles & wide open country…
The Old West was finally gone… there were no tough guys anymore.
Men who made their living by their wits & by the steely resolve of the guns and the cards they drew.