Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J)
… the “Manassa Mauler,” William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey (1895-1983)!
Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey (1919-1926) was a little Irish on both sides of the family, with a little Jewish ancestry on his father’s side—and also Cherokee on both sides of the family, making Dempsey possibly the first—albeit mixed—boxing champion of American Indian descent (and he certainly looked it). With jet black hair and tanned skin the press wags of the day liked to describe as “swarthy,” the muscled slugger cut an imposing figure when he strode into the ring with not much more than a white towel draped over his shoulders (generations later, Mike Tyson adapted much the same approach in homage). Although that aspect of his heritage was not played up in the sports pages of the day.
A fearsome and electrifying puncher in the ring, he fought in a low crouch with knockout power in both hands. Dempsey won the title in devastating fashion, by third round KO over reigning champion Jess Willard. Willard was an enormous man for his time, at 6′ 6 1/2″ and 235 pounds, when most “heavyweights” like Dempsey were in the 180s or 190s (Dempsey was just over 6′). Willard, the “Pottawatomie Giant” (hometown of Pottawatomie, Kansas) was also notable for having been the “Great White Hope” who had dethroned the great African American champion, Jack Johnson in 1915. Dempsey had been so confident he could beat Willard, his feisty manager Jack Kearns placed a side bet that Dempsey would KO Willard by a first round knockout. Dempsey dropped the game Willard seven times as a lumberjack would fall a tree, inflicting a severe beating—breaking his jaw, including several broken teeth, cracking his ribs, and bashing-in a number of fractures to his facial bones. A controversy resulted after so much damage had been inflicted on such a much larger man, however Dempsey’s hands and been checked by Willard’s corner, and an experiment paid for by a leading boxing magazine seemed to disprove that theory.
Regardless, Dempsey brought the roar to the roaring twenties, and a golden age of sport dawned at the same time as the flowering of the media age in that decade, led by Dempsey and New York Yankees home run slugger, Babe Ruth. Dempsey’s fights generated so much interest that that his fights set unimaginable records—the first “million dollar gate” and many more—for receipts and attendance.
After busily defending the title for a number of years, Dempsey took time off to enjoy the fruits of his celebrity—boxing exhibitions, product endorsements, appearances in movies—and did a lot of traveling and spending. Three years of rust accumulated (boxing organization in his era were not adamant about mandating title defenses). After failing to reach an agreement to meet the African American contender Harry Wills, Dempsey instead agreed to meet the only once-beaten “Fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney. Tunney’s masterful boxing skills, nonpareil discipline, and solid punching power were too much for the once-savagely dominant champion, and Dempsey returned to his dressing room after the bout bruised and battered. His wife, the actress Estelle Taylor, stunned at his appearance caused Dempsey to remark famously, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
Dempsey would have a shot at redemption, but that too ended in defeat at Tunney’s hands. But it was his valiant effort in defeat that perhaps earned Dempsey his greatest victory in the “Battle of the Long Count”: Popular affection. Like Mike Tyson, Dempsey was respected and feared, and the subject of intense fascination—but not so much loved. Defeat humanized him, and his near KO of Tunney in the controversial long count match cemented an image of bravery that he never lost throughout the rest of his long life.
For more on Tunney and the “Battle of the Long Count,” see my posting on Gene Tunney:
Pulp cover master Bob Doares rendered the cover for Bantam’s paperback edition of Ring magazine editor Nat Fleischer’s biography of Dempsey. Many of pulp’s great illustrators would later devote their painting careers to western themes, but Doares was devoted to his faith and turned to painting scenes from the Bible and illustrated books from Biblical stories in his latter years.
Bantam Books, 1949
Illustration: Robert G. “Bob” Doares