One of the world's greatest heavyweight boxers, William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey (1895-1983) was so popular that he drew more million-dollar gates than any prizefighter in history.
William Harrison Dempsey, more commonly known as "Jack" after age 20, was born in Manassa, Colo., on June 24, 1895, the ninth child of Hyrum and Cecilia Dempsey, both sharecroppers. The family was so poor that Jack began farming at the age of 8. From age 16 to 19 he lived in hobo jungles.
Dempsey's early boxing often took place in back rooms of frontier saloons under the name "Kid Blackie." His first fight of record was in 1915 against "One-Punch" Hancock. Dempsey's one-punch win earned him $2.50; his highest purse. Eleven years later his purse was $711,000 for his first match with Gene Tunney. Eventually called the "Manassa Mauler," Dempsey earned more than $3,500,000 in all in the ring.
Dempsey's appeal lay in his punching ability: he was a ruthless tiger stalking his prey, fast as any big cat and deadly with either paw. He won the world's heavyweight title on July 4, 1919, against Jess Willard in Toledo. With his first real punch Dempsey shattered Willard's cheekbone and knocked him down seven times in the first round. Willard was unable to answer the bell for the start of the fourth.
Two years later Dempsey drew the world's first million-dollar gate against Georges Carpentier of France, in Jersey City, NJ, scoring a fourth-round knockout. Another million-dollar bout was in 1923 against Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina; few bouts have packed such unbridled fury and spectacular savagery. Dempsey was knocked down twice, once through the ropes and out of the ring; 10 times Firpo went down, the tenth time for keeps—all within the span of 3 minutes 57 seconds. The Mauler was dethroned in Philadelphia in 1926, when Gene Tunney outpointed him before the largest crowd ever, 120,757 spectators, to witness the championship game.
Dempsey knocked out Jack Sharkey before the second Dempsey-Tunney fight a year later in Chicago. This last bout became the focus of an enduring controversy. Dempsey floored Tunney in the seventh round but refused to go to a neutral corner according to the rules. The countdown was delayed, and Tunney, given this extra respite, recovered sufficiently to outbox Dempsey the rest of the way.
For several years after his defeat, Dempsey refereed, announced boxing matches, and mentored young fighters. He attempted a comeback in 1931-32 but failed.
During the years of the Great Depression, Dempsey concentrated on various business interests including retailing, real estate, and two restaurants in New York City. After the outbreak of World War II, Dempsey joined the Coast Guard, serving as director of the physical fitness program. As the war drew to a close in the Pacific, he was sent on a three month's tour of combat areas to assess needs for athletic and physical training.
During his time as a highly respected restauranteur on Broadway, Dempsey enjoyed a fantastic popularity, revered as one of the true titans of American sports. He died on May 31, 1983.
The most authoritative book on Dempsey is his autobiography, Dempsey, written with Bob Considine and Bill Slocum (1960). The best statistical background is in Nat Fleischer's Ring Record Book (1970). Dempsey's manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, appraises him in The Million Dollar Gate, written with Oscar Fraley (1966). The second Dempsey-Tunney fight is in Mel Heimer, The Long Count (1969). □