One hundred years ago — on July 4, 1919 — Jack Dempsey battered Jess Willard over three brutal rounds to claim the heavyweight championship of the world.
The world was very different then. Women were denied the right to vote in many states. Five months earlier, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution had outlawed the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States.
Putting matters in perspective for sports fans, Harvard finished in the top spot that year in five college football national championship polls. Babe Ruth led the major leagues with 29 home runs. His closest pursuer, Gavvy Cravath, had 12. Neither the National Football League or its forerunner (the American Professional Football Conference) existed. Rocky Marciano had yet to be born.
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Dempsey-Willard is an important milestone in the history of boxing and symbolizes the essence of the sport. It doesn’t have the social and political significance of Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries, the rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling or the first encounter between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. But it’s 100th anniversary is an appropriate time for remembrance.
Dempsey was born in 1895 in Manassa, Colo. For five years beginning at age 16, he was what he later described as a “wandering man.”
Dempsey biographer Randy Roberts says of those years, “There was no romance in the life. He lived in mining camps and hobo jungles, rode the rods, and more than once begged for food. What separated him was his willingness, even eagerness, to work. He accepted any type of employment from washing dishes, cutting lawns, and scrubbing floors to the harder work of coal-mining, digging ditches, and picking fruit.”
Dempsey later recalled, “On the banks of the railroad tracks, generally near a fresh-water stream, hobos, tramps, and others who had fallen on hard times would gather, bundled up in layers of old clothing and newspaper, warming themselves and whatever food they pooled over a fire. As long as you threw a donation in the pot, you were welcome to eat. Moving was part of the business of survival. When all the peaches had been picked in one town, we’d hear that the beets were coming in a hundred miles away. I was a dishwasher and a miner. I dug ditches, punched cattle, and shined shoes. I went hungry for days rather than steal. I begged for any kind of job to earn a flop and a meal.”
During those years, Dempsey began fighting to make money. He later estimated that he had 100 fights under the name “Kid Blackie” in Colorado, Utah, and Nevada between 1911 and mid-1914.
“There were days when fighting only got me a buck or two,” he remembered. “I was knocked down plenty. I wanted to stay down; I couldn’t. I had to collect that two dollars for winning or go hungry. I had one fight when I was knocked down eleven times before I got up to win. I had to get up. I was a hungry fighter. When you haven’t eaten for two days, you’ll understand.”
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Meanwhile, by virtue of his 1915 victory over Jack Johnson, Willard had become one of the most famous men in America. But rather than stay active as a fighter, Willard transitioned to the vaudeville circuit and “Wild West” shows where he could make as much as $6,000 a week. He fought only one official title defense in the 51 months after beating Johnson, winning an unimpressive “newspaper decision” in 1916 over Frank Moran.
Finally, in 1919, Tex Rickard (America’s premier boxing promoter) lured Willard back into the ring with a $100,000 guarantee to fight an opponent of Rickard’s choosing. The promoter wanted a challenger who could beat Willard and would be a marketable champion. Dempsey was his man.
It was a time when the sweet science was emerging from the shadows in America. Religious reform movements were weakening. As the prohibition against boxing was lifted from state to state, fights were becoming cause for celebration and Fourth of July prizefights were common.
Tommy Burns had successfully defended the heavyweight championship against Billy Squires in California on July 4, 1907. More famously, on July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson devastated James Jeffries in Reno, Nev. Two years later, Johnson fought again on “America’s birthday,” knocking out Fireman Jim Flynn in New Mexico.
BoxRec.com reports that, in addition to Dempsey-Willard, there were fights at 62 other venues in the United States on July 4, 1919. Most notably, Sam Langford lost a decision to Harry Wills in St. Louis; Jack Britton decisioned Johnny Griffiths in Canton, Ohio; and Harry Greb decisioned Bill Brennan in Tulsa, Okla.
Dempsey-Willard was contested in Toledo, Ohio, in a temporary arena constructed from unpolished pine boards replete with splinters and oozing sap. The temperature was 110 degrees when the bout began at 4:09 p.m.
Four years earlier, Willard had been 33 years old and weighed 238 pounds when he defeated Jack Johnson. Johnson, well past his prime by then, was four years older than Willard and had entered the ring at a career high 225 pounds, an indication that he wasn’t in the best of shape.
Now Willard was 37 years old and weighed 245 pounds. Dempsey was 13 years younger and weighed 58 pounds less.
Dempsey-Willard was a brutal fight. One minute into Round 1, the challenger landed a series of blows to the champion’s body followed by a left hook that all but caved in the right side of Willard’s face. In 1919, a fighter who knocked an opponent down could stand over him and attack as soon as his opponent’s knee left the canvas. Dempsey downed Willard seven times in the first round, smashing him to the canvas again and again while the champion was in the process of rising but not yet ready to defend himself. Willard suffered a horrible beating. His jaw and nose were broken. Six teeth were knocked out. There were cuts above and below both eyes. He was unable to answer the bell for round four.
Dempsey’s victory over Willard heralded the dawn of a new era in sports and was a harbinger of things to come in boxing. His wild brawling fighting style captured the imagination of America.
In the ring, Dempsey attacked with unrelenting ferocity, moving forward, chin tucked in, throwing punches with all-out aggression with both hands from the opening bell. Every punch he threw had the power to hurt his opponent. If he was knocked down, he got up and started punching again. He was the ideal vehicle for the implementation of Tex Rickard’s master plan.
“Rickard’s goal,” sports historian Randy Roberts explains, “was to make boxing a thoroughly respectable sport that would toss together wealthy heiresses, rich businessmen, members of the middle class, and strong-armed laborers in arenas.” In pursuit of that goal, he was aided by a new media that fueled the commercialization of sports through more compelling sportswriting, more sophisticated film techniques and radio.
Prior to Dempsey-Willard, the record gate for a prizefight had been $270,755 (generated by Johnson-Jeffries). Dempsey-Willard drew $452,224 in gate receipts.
Then Dempsey and Rickard took boxing to new heights. Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier was contested on July 2, 1921, in a temporary arena on the outskirts of Jersey City, N.J. More than 80,000 spectators (the largest crowd in America to witness a sporting event until that time) attended. The aristocracy was represented at ringside by Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, Fords, Harrimans, Biddles and Astors. The United States Senate and House of Representatives adjourned in anticipation of the event because 12 senators and 90 congressmen had tickets. The fight was also attended by a significant number of women. Ladies had been present at Willard-Dempsey but were confined to a special section. At Dempsey-Carpentier, they mingled freely with the men.
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The live gate for Dempsey-Carpentier was $1,789,238 (equivalent to more than $25 million today). It was also the first world championship match to be broadcast blow-by-blow on radio.
Two years later, on Sept. 14, 1923, more than 88,000 fans jammed into the Polo Grounds in New York to see Dempsey defend his championship against Luis Firpo. An estimated 35,000 fans were turned away.
Then, like Jess Willard before him, Dempsey retreated from the ring in pursuit of an easier life. He moved to Los Angeles and signed a contract to star in 10 feature films for a minimum guarantee of $1 million. Three years passed before he returned to combat, this time against Gene Tunney. On Sept. 23, 1926, the extraordinary total of 120,757 spectators filled Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia to witness the end of The Manassa Mauler’s reign. One year later, 104,943 fans crammed into Soldier Field in Chicago for the legendary Tunney-Dempsey “long count” rematch, and Tunney prevailed on the scorecards again.
Most former heavyweight champions fade from view. Dempsey remained a public figure all his life and kept his dignity as he aged. Even today, memories of him defy the erosion of time. He is still vivid in the imagination of fight fans, an iconic figure and enduring symbol of boxing glory.
Thomas Hauser’s new email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.