Getting JACKED: The Legacy of Jack Dempsey


Jack Dempsey Biography

In spite of having a five inch height and sixty pound weight advantage, the champion was knocked down seven times in the first round. He suffered a broken cheek bone. Five of his teeth were knocked completely out. He sustained two broken ribs and even suffered some long term hearing loss in what was a savage beating Jess Willard received from Jack Dempsey on July 4, 1919. Dempsey won the Heavyweight Championship of the World in three short, brutal rounds, but more importantly, captured the attention of the American boxing public.

Dempsey was unlike any other fighter that boxing fans had seen before. Prior to “The Manassa Mauler” coming onto the scene, spectators were used to watching most fighters compete in a more gentlemanly, reserved or “civilized” fashion. Dempsey’s approach could be described as anything, BUT that. His downright nasty demeanor in the ring and take-no-prisoners philosophy, took the sport to places it had never been. This unique, action-packed style of fighting soon caught the attention of fans, promoters and boxing aficionados across the country.

That ferocity and unbridled hunger he fought with, most likely came from a childhood that had him often doing without and formative years that forced him to be a man before he was even out of his teens.
Born in Manassa, Colorado (June 24, 1895) William Harrison Dempsey left school early. Since his father had trouble finding work, the family traveled a lot, so Dempsey began riding on railcars and slept in hobo camps, making his living as a laborer in the Colorado railroad stations and mining camps. It was in these seedy surroundings that Dempsey honed his hard edge and the kill or be killed fighting instinct that would become his trademark in the ring.

The wages of a laborer though just simply weren’t enough and, since he had grown up idolizing prizefighters, like heavyweight John L. Sullivan and middleweight Jack "The Nonpareil" Dempsey, fighting his way to the top seemed the logical choice. He then began frequenting local saloons, issuing challenges to other patrons, who were typically bigger and older men. "I can't sing and I can't dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house," he would boast. These barroom and backroom fist-fights would include side bets where he was able to raise extra money. According to Dempsey himself, he rarely lost any of these battles. As a result, his reputation grew quickly in the prizefighting circles and, because of his dark black hair, he was given the nickname "Kid Blackie.” Soon enough he was participating in organized prizefights and in 1914, he first officially competed as Jack Dempsey, taking on the name of his idol, "The Nonpareil."

Dempsey went on to put together some impressive wins with exciting action over the next five years, finally culminating in his huge upset of the “Pottawatomie Giant,” Jess Willard on July 4th, 1919 . After that, Dempsey’s popularity quickly transcended the fight game. His all-out aggressive style and movie matinee good looks allowed him to bridge the gap between athletes and Hollywood in a way that set the stage for other fighters who would follow. Because of his ability to be mingle with the stars of that era as well as put another fighter’s lights-out, he drew huge crowds, set financial and attendance records, including the first million-dollar gate, against George Carpentier in 1921. Even after losing to Gene Tunney five years later he was still able to command a $352,000 payday. By comparison the number one baseball player during that same time, Babe Ruth, who was also on track for hitting a record-setting 60 home runs, was only making $70,000 for an entire season.

Among the other lasting changes Dempsey left on the sport, was the requirement that an opponent go to a neutral corner after knocking his opponent down. Prior to his rematch with Gene Tunney, Dempsey demanded that be added to the rules of the contest. Before that bout, boxers were still able to stand over their opponents and strike them as soon as their knees left the canvas. Obviously, it is a rule that was upheld and was applied to future bouts.

After retiring with an official record of 56-6 and a career that spanned eighteen years, Jack Dempsey enjoyed an ongoing place of prominence in sports and the entertainment industry. He continued to earn money with a foray into wrestling, through boxing exhibitions, film appearances, and product endorsements and even opening his popular Dempsey’s Restaurant in New York City, across from the Madison Square Garden. Jack Dempsey battled the giants of his day and left a boxing legacy as hard-hitting and ferocious as his legendary left hook.

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