In Defence Of Jack Dempsey

By Stuart Cornwell - 02/08/2024 - Comments

Jack Dempsey was one of the finest heavyweight boxers of all time. He was arguably the best of them all. In the minds of several generations of fight fans he stood alone as the eternal champion. The world of boxing remained his kingdom years after his retirement from the ring. Subsequent heavyweights, however great they were to become, were doomed to be measured against the standards set by Dempsey. His shadow loomed large, his place in the long line of champions transcended and re-defined the concept of a champion. The championship, an almost holy and intangible object which the bare-knuckle pugilists of yore had apparently been willing to give their lives to possess and defend, was further enhanced by the legend of Dempsey.

Later champions, (many of whom were good or great fighters, to be fair) who failed to honour the standards personified by Dempsey, were dismissed and accused of disgracing the championship. On their best days, the likes of Max Baer and Max Schmeling were bestowed the optimistic compliment that they showed the promise to perhaps become “the next Dempsey”. But following defeats and unsatisfactory performances they could be labelled “stiffs” and “bums”, the only reference to Dempsey was that they could not be compared to him, nor, for instance, could they have lasted a round with him in his heyday.

Such was the impact of Jack Dempsey. And this trend continued well into the 1960s, only Joe Louis among his successors being allowed equal footing with “The Manassa Mauler”, and to those who could remember them both it was usually Dempsey over Louis.

In recent times however, Jack Dempsey’s standing among the great heavyweights has appeared to have taken a bit of a tumble in the overall consensus of the fans and among recent generations of boxing writers and magazine contributors. For some, for sure, he remains in the top five of all time, for others he is a solid and certain candidate for the top ten. But for what I feel is a disproportionate section of under-informed sceptics, he is an obsolete myth, a fraudulent antique and certainly not a legitimate all time great. These naysayers want him out of the running because, they reason, surely he has been overtaken by a dozen or so “modern” greats, and, they hasten to add, surely he was never that great anyway.

While I concede any attempt at establishing all time rankings is perhaps dependent upon matters of pure subjective judgment – mere opinions – what I find with many of those who insist on Dempsey’s inferiority is that they invariably back up opinions with a distorted or inaccurate attention to the facts. Here I will attempt to answer a few of the most common criticisms levelled at him and in doing so I will try to remain true to the facts.

1. He was “a crude barroom brawler”, “a primitive slugger with no skill”

This claim can easily be refuted by anyone who carefully studies the better quality film of Jack Dempsey in action. It is not always easy to pick up the subtleties of ring craft when viewing those old flickering, stuttering and shadowy sequences. We cannot hope to grasp as much skill and finesse as easily and as readily as if we were watching the multi-angled crystal-clear colour TV footage (with slow-motion replays) by which we can assess the current champions. But we are lucky that there does exist enough relatively good quality footage of Dempsey in his heyday to see first-hand the fighting skills and athletic abilities that made him such a formidable force in his time.

The best footage I have seen of Dempsey in his prime is the clear and close shot segments of his fights with Tommy Gibbons and Jess Willard, both filmed outdoors under the sun, and the sparring footage with the 6’7″ Bill Tate. Parts of his fight with Georges Carpentier are equally instructive, and much in his style can be picked up from his title fight with Bill Brennan, and the one with Luis Firpo, though the picture in these last two is perhaps more obscured and shadowed, at least it is on my copies. By the wonders of modern devices such as the lap-top computer with DVD-player software it is possible to watch the fights with the speed adjusted, to watch and re-watch key moments, to decipher his every movement and compare and contrast his skill and style with all those modern fighters who the critics insist were or are more sophisticated fighters than he.

Dempsey compares favourably with any of them. The film shows a lightning-fast boxer of unparalleled ferocity and intensity, moving in on his toes, very agile, very athletic. Contemporary writers were fond of likening Dempsey’s style to that of a cat – a tiger, a panther, the fittest of alley cats – and it is true. His style is reminiscent of the light-footed stalking predator, operating with cunning, a shifty cleverness, pouncing with a precise savagery that suggests his skills were as instinctual as they were calculated. The skills of some of the most lauded modern fighters (eg. Duran, Tyson, Holyfield, Benn) are there to be seen in Dempsey. Superb footwork, compact and accurate combination punching, the slips, the ducks, the bob-and-weave, zig-zagging in on his toes, the jab, the hook, the uppercut, body punches and infighting, all displayed to perfection.

The critics are free to disagree. But I believe anyone who has honestly studied the film will come to the conclusion that Dempsey was a very skilful fighter with a familiarly modern style. The birth and perpetuation of a myth that he was a primitive slugger with no skill is probably an inevitable result of his sheer viciousness and punching power. Onlookers will always be awe-struck and even horrified by a heavyweight who manages to display such undiluted violence in a boxing ring and will no doubt completely miss the refined way in which he delivers it. I have heard it said a thousand times that Mike Tyson, for example, was “just a street-fighter”. Of course, serious boxing fans know better but in the case of Dempsey even serious boxing fans – who should know better – seem to fall into the trap, the reason being the inferior quality and quantity of the film available. With Dempsey we have to look more closely and only then does it become clear.

2. He was too inactive as champion

This is a legitimate criticism. It would be reasonable for someone to say Dempsey forfeits being placed in the top three, or the top five, because there were other great heavyweight champions who were far more active than him and they deserve to be credited for their busier schedules. That is not an unreasonable position to take. However, I do not see it as good reason for dropping Dempsey from the top echelons and dismissing his claim to being one of the true all time greats.

Dempsey won the world’s heavyweight championship in 1919 when he beat Jess Willard. He held the title for seven years, in which time he successfully defended it only five times. He defended twice in 1920 (against Billy Miske and Bill Brennan), once in 1921 (against Georges Carpentier), and twice in 1923 (against Tommy Gibbons and Luis Firpo). There followed a three year break before he returned in 1926, losing the title to Gene Tunney.

It cannot be denied that Dempsey was inactive as champion. But it must also be acknowledged that he was extremely active as a leading contender in the two years prior to winning the championship. In that twenty-four month period alone, according to the official compiled record (which may well be incomplete) he went 31-1-3 (25 KOs), with many blistering wins over solid seasoned professionals, some of the best fighters of the day. Like Jack Johnson before him, and Sonny Liston years later, what Dempsey did as a contender before winning the championship weighs heavily among his credentials as an all time great.

Jack Dempsey’s official record shows he fought at least 83 bouts in a 13 year career (1914 – 27). That is not the record of an inactive fighter. On top of this, there were hundreds of minor bouts that were billed as “exhibitions” but were no doubt in fact serious fights scheduled for short distances. In the United States in the 1920s the legal status of boxing was still in dispute, and distinctions were often made between a “prize fight” and a “boxing match”. Dempsey’s “exhibitions” were often in effect no different from some of the easy tune-ups and quick KOs that are credited as real results in the records of more recent fighters such as George Foreman and Mike Tyson. It can only be guessed as to how many pre-title Dempsey fights (fought in obscure towns in the early years) were never covered or have been lost, never to be discovered by the boxing historians who so diligently compile the records.

3. He lost to the only great fighter he faced (Gene Tunney)

I have no problem with accepting that Gene Tunney may well have been the greatest fighter Dempsey ever fought. And Tunney beat him twice. But was Tunney the only great fighter Dempsey ever fought ? Well, it all depends on how greatness is defined. Boxing enthusiasts – myself included – are too often guilty of fickleness in regards to who they see fit to label “great”, or merely “very good”. Many of those who insist Tunney was the only great fighter Dempsey faced would not consider him great at all if not for him beating Dempsey. There is a labyrinth of logical inconsistencies to be lost in there. I would rather keep it simple. Suffice to say, it does not make sense.

Gene Tunney, a great fighter in his own right, beat a still-dangerous but far removed from his peak version of Jack Dempsey. The legs had gone, the full-on ferocity of his youth was effectively no longer there. Three years away from championship-level boxing and a foray into Hollywood had dampened Dempsey’s abilities. His deterioration may have begun much earlier, and was no secret. He was still a heck of a champion for Tunney to beat though, and Gene’s performance surprised almost everyone.

In his prime Dempsey faced Billy Miske (three times), Tommy Gibbons, Georges Carpentier and Battling Levinsky – all of whom I would see no problem in labelling “great” fighters. Any of those four were so capable that perhaps they too could have beat the version of Dempsey who Tunney faced. Likewise, Tunney may have lost to the version of Dempsey those men had to face (but of course, Tunney may have always had the measure Dempsey, we can never know for sure).

Other fighters on Dempsey’s record who were very good, solid, seasoned and formidable were Bill Brennan, Fred Fulton, Luis Firpo and of course Jess Willard, the champion Dempsey beat so brutally for the title. One of the very best fighters Dempsey ever faced was Jack Sharkey, who he faced after losing the title to Tunney. Dempsey, a deteriorated fighter by this time, knocked Sharkey out. Sharkey was good enough to win the world’s heavyweight championship five years later but always claimed his prime was in the 20s around the time he faced Dempsey. All of the opponents mentioned, aside from Gibbons who spoiled his way to survive a 15-rounder with the champion, were knocked out for the count or beaten into submission by Dempsey. His opposition stands up well under scrutiny.

4. He fought mostly light-heavyweights and small heavyweights

This is a criticism leveled not just at Dempsey, but at most of the great heavyweight champions who fought in eras when the average weight of a heavyweight was considerably less than it is nowadays. These days fighters weighing over 175 and under 200 pounds are considered “cruiserweights”, and Dempsey himself, along with the majority of his opponents, would fall into that range. That does not mean they were lesser fighters than their heavier modern counterparts. Many of the leading heavyweights these days are simply bloated up balloons, registering a falsely inflated body weight composed of excess flab and water. Many of those who pack on useful lean muscle mass are apparently incapable of making much use of it as they grow tired and arm-weary after a few rounds fought at a snail’s pace.

I do not dismiss the claim that there are many more heavyweight fighters these days who are genuinely stronger than those from the past. But I can also see with my own eyes that much recent heavyweight action consists of painfully slow pushing and pulling contests between men with plenty of power but not much hope of landing their bombs on a moving target. And not much hope of doing anything much at all after a few rounds. No one wants to get leaned on and squashed by a 260 pound opponent and not be able to do some leaning and squashing themselves. No one wants to be light enough to be pushed around easily, however strong they are themselves at the lighter weight. So the race is on among them to be bigger and heavier and often their fighting ability suffers as a result. But for many the idea of the advantages of bulking up remains a convenient one as they tuck into another bucket of southern fried chicken, guilt free. No one wants to live like Rocky Marciano did, depriving himself of the rich Italian food he so dearly loved and running every day to keep his weight down to where it had to be in order for him to be equipped to throw effective punches round after round for up to fifteen rounds. I digress. In short, I believe bigger is not necessarily better.

Three fighters who Dempsey fought who could be described as light-heavyweights – Tommy Gibbons, 176, Battling Levinsky, 175, and George Carpentier, 172 – were arguably three of the greatest light-heavyweights of all time. Billy Miske, 187, was great too and a bit bigger. Bill Brennan was a tough lean 6’1″ 197-pounder. Fred Fulton was 6’5″ and was lean and in tip-top shape at a reported 208, but had weighed a good ten or fifteen pounds more in some of his best outings. (Dempsey knocked Fulton, perhaps the leading contender, out in 18 seconds of the first round). Carl Morris, 226, was a quality veteran and stood 6’4″. Luis Firpo was 6’3″ and 216, a strong bull-like fighter. Jess Willard was 6’6″ and 245 pounds. Dempsey beat his fair share of good full-sized heavyweights.

5. He never beat a “skillful” BIG heavyweight

Faced with the fact that Dempsey did in fact beat men who were far bigger than what can reasonably be described as a “cruiserweight” even by the standards of today, the critics may resort to denigrating those big men Dempsey fought by downplaying their abilities as fighters. Sure they were big, the critics reason, but they were not real boxers, just big tough men. Thrown in as evidence are the films of Jess Willard and Luis Firpo, both of which are supposed to show that men that big of that era could not box with any semblance of skill.

Firstly, Jess Willard. No one of his era thought him a greatly skilled boxer, but they respected his strengths and the tools he brought to the ring. He was a tough man of immense strength and he could take a punch. The great Jack Johnson, a muscular and hefty 225 pounds himself by that time, had tried knocking Willard out for the best part of twenty-six rounds when they fought that epic marathon fight under the hot sun in Havana, Cuba. But it was Willard who delivered the knockout blow in the form of a devastating straight right to Johnson’s head. Willard seemed unstoppable ; a granite-headed giant impervious to punishment. His style was basic but not devoid of skill or strategic nous. He had a pawing measuring left and terrific right hand, perhaps best thrown in uppercut form. He knew how to cut off the ring or draw an opponent his way. His style was suited to the 20, 30 or 45 round schedules still common in his day.

But the thing is, whatever one thinks of Willard, it could not have been made to look any more inferior a fighter than Dempsey made him look that day in Toledo, Ohio in 1919. Dempsey annihilated him beyond all recognition. I seriously doubt any fighter who ever lived could have looked more impressive against Willard than Dempsey did.

Luis Firpo was certainly no finesse fighter either, nor was he a superbly polished fighting machine. He was probably the proto-typical Argentine fighter. Rough, tough, scruffy, awkward and unorthodox, strong as a bull and brave as a lion. Argentina, and South America in general, has a tradition of producing such specimens and they often have been a lot more than a mild nuisance to the boxers of North America and Europe. I do not know if Firpo inspired the style himself or whether he was just an early product of its manifestation. I do know that he was very effective at what he did. His style is not dissimilar to that of his latter-day compatriot Oscar Bonavena who gave Joe Frazier two tough fights and gave Muhammad Ali fits too. Firpo was significantly bigger, heavier and taller, and probably stronger and a harder hitter too.

The other big heavyweights who Jack Dempsey fought have not, as far as I know, survived on film. Fred Fulton has been described as a tall clever boxer with a long reach who used a quick straight left jab to keep his opponents at bay, and a quick straight right to knock them out with. Whatever he did it worked well enough for him to beat the great stocky boxer-puncher Sam Langford a year before he faced Dempsey. Of course, Dempsey made short work of him but Fulton was very highly rated at the time. It would be silly to make any concrete judgments on his style and level of skill without seeing the film. However that is exactly what the critics do when they insist the biggest men who Dempsey beat were serious lacking in skill.

6. He was a dirty fighter

This is true. Not all of Dempsey’s tactics were to be found in the rule book, or perhaps there were in the book but only under the heading “Fouls”. Dempsey was very fond of the rabbit punch, and he punched on the break and low too. He would hover over a fallen opponent waiting to hit them as soon as they were technically up (on two feet, hands and knees off the canvas) – this was before the furthest neutral corner rule of course. Sometimes his eagerness to land another blow at the earliest opportunity would result in him hitting his opponents while they were still technically down, or so it is alleged. On the inside he might hold-and-hit or recklessly follow his hooks through with an elbow, whether the fist landed or not.

The truth is, most of the great fighters are guilty of the same type of behaviour. In Dempsey’s time the referees were altogether more tolerant, and often, to be fair, the use of rabbit punches, holding-and-hitting and hitting on the break was agreed to be allowed by both the participants and the referee. Dempsey was rarely the only man in there mixing a few dubious moves in with his clean punches. Only the naive would single Jack Dempsey out as a dirty fighter when ranking him – or refusing to rank him – among the great heavyweights of all time.

7. He refused to fight black fighters, he ducked Harry Wills

I have saved answering the most damning criticism until last. Critics have claimed that Dempsey cynically used the racist segregationist attitudes of white America to avoid the best fighters of his time by drawing the “color line” and refusing to fight black fighters. Some claim he would have lost had he faced the leading black heavyweight Harry Wills in the 1920s.

It is a matter of fact that Harry Wills was denied a well-earned shot at the championship because of racial prejudice. I believe Harry Wills was a great fighter. He was at least as deserving of a crack at Dempsey’s title as any man who was given a shot, and almost certainly more so. However, his not getting a shot at Dempsey is unlikely to have been of Dempsey’s own doing. The circumstances and the origins of the injustice were far bigger than anything one man’s fear or prejudice could dictate.

Here are some things to consider. Boxing, or prizefighting as it was then known, was still a barely legal activity in the 1920s. Like liquor, which was officially prohibited in the United States during that decade, boxing was at the height of its popularity but nonetheless morally and politically marginalised by a hypocritical society’s contradictory standards. Boxing was, to many, symptomatic of society’s moral decay. Racism was at its height, and very few whites of the time can be exonerated from perpetuating the inequalities, injustices and brutalities endured by their neighbours of darker hue. In such a climate, where boxing matches were seen as violent spectacles for rowdy mobs likely to incite riots and restlessness, the prospect of a massive inter-racial heavyweight championship fight was welcome in few quarters. And that is without mentioning the Jack Johnson dimension.

Jack Johnson, a historical figure so remarkable that it is bewildering to contemplate how he even existed. The first black heavyweight champion of the world, so superior to his white opponents that he merely played with them as they tried with all their might to knock the gold-toothed smile from his dark shaved head. So confident in his own abilities that he taunted and mocked his white opponents as he handed them a beating in front of hate-filled crowds of white onlookers. Outside the ring he enjoyed automobiles, flash clothes, the lifestyle of a rich gentleman, and white women. This was in 1910 ! When he defeated the great white champion Jim Jeffries in a one-sided battle that sent the comebacking Jeffries straight back into retirement, race riots and lynchings swept the nation resulting in at least 25 deaths. When Johnson, grown fat and aging, was finally defeated by Jess Willard in 1915 there was a strong sense among the white promoters who staged big time prize fights that never again could they risk a black man becoming champion. Harry Wills, a rising contender at the time of Johnson’s defeat, was an unfortunate victim of the legacy.

Jack Dempsey fought black fighters in his early career. I do not think there is any substance in a claim that he refused to fight black men out of any ideological racism on his part. There is some evidence to suggest that – after hooking up with his manager Jack “Doc” Kearns in 1917 – the “color line” may have been invoked opportunistically at times, as a bargaining chip or a public relations ploy to satisfy certain promoters and certain sections of the white press and public. However, there is even more evidence to suggest that Dempsey was willing and planning to fight Wills, who he considered just the sort of big fella he excelled against – for the right money. With Dempsey, once he had won the championship it all came down to money. He had struggled fighting in the harshest conditions at the start of his career ; homeless, hungry, fighting for his first warm meal of the week. As champion he soon realised how much he could make and which promoters could deliver it. He signed to sign Harry Wills twice but the promoters failed to deliver on their promises. The only promoter Dempsey really could trust was ‘Tex’ Rickard who was one of those dead set against the match.

It is obviously a shameful chapter in boxing history that Harry Wills was never given a shot at the heavyweight championship. And he is not the only black fighter to suffer from the inequality of opportunities. Of course, it is also merely a microcosm of something that was way bigger and way more significant than the world of boxing. Harry Wills should be remembered as a great fighter, and not just as the fighter who was denied his shot at the title. Jack Dempsey should be remembered as a great fighter too and should be judged on who he did fight and not on who he did not fight. Both were great fighters of their time.

Last Updated on 02/08/2024