Every debate on the greatest heavyweight champion begins with Jack Dempsey. Dempsey had a 14-year professional career that spanned from 1914 to 1927. HE reigned as the heavyweight champion of the world for most of that time from 1919 to 1926 he held the most prestigious crown in all of sports. Born William Harrison Dempsey in Manassa, Colorado, he grew up in a poor family in Colorado, West Virginia, and Utah. As the famous folklore goes, Dempsey who was desperate for money, would visit bars and saloons and often a challenge to fight any patron in the house, saying “I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.” If anyone accepted the challenge, bets would be made. This all-out aggressive style, non-compromising confidence, and ruggedness are what made Dempsey a cultural icon of the 1920’s. His aggressive and offensive fighting style made him not only a fan favorite but one of the most dominant heavyweight champions of all-time.
Dempsey turned pro on August 18th, 1914 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, against a fighter named Young Herman, unlike most of his barroom brawls Dempsey was not victorious in his first professional bout earning a six-round draw. Herman never fought professionally again perhaps retiring up top and having nowhere to go but down. Herman can say he fought Dempsey and went the distance and fought the legend to a draw. That’s retiring on a high note. Dempsey fought on and his career did not take off for a while. An Iron Mike style start to his career, he did not have. Dempsey would pick up his first professional win a few months later knocking out Billy Murphy in the first round. Dempsey won just six of his first 10 professional bouts, compiling a record of 6-1-3. Including a loss to Jack Downy and two draws with Johnny Sudenberg in one of their two draws Dempsey was floored nine times in the first round. In addition to the less than stellar start to his career Dempsey fell under heavy scrutiny upon the US entry into WW1 in 1917. Dempsey worked in a shipyard and continued to box and accused by many of being a slacker for not enlisting. This remained a black mark on his reputation until 1920 when evidence showed Dempsey, had indeed attempted to enlist in the Army but had been classified 4-F a classification that marks someone as unfit to serve.
Things were certainly beginning to turn around for “The Manassa Mauler” in 1918, Dempsey fought 17 times, going 15–1 with one no-decision. Dempsey continued his hot streak in 1919, he won five consecutive fights all by knockout setting up his bout with Jesse Willard on July 4th, for the heavyweight crown. Dempsey put together the best performance of his career putting Willard down seven times on his way to securing a third round stoppage and securing the heavyweight crown. Dempsey made his first title defense against Billy Miske, putting him down for the first time in his career in the second round and finishing him off in the third. These two victories made Dempsey a celebrity, traveling around the country, making publicity appearances with circuses, staging exhibitions, and even starring in a Hollywood movie.
Dempsey successfully defended his heavyweight title five times over the next three years, in what is considered one of the greatest runs in boxing history. This streak included one of the greatest heavyweight brawls. On September 14th, in the Polo Grounds, Dempsey, outweighed by 25 pounds stopped Louis Firpo in the second round. Firpo was down a total of seven times in the first round, before sending Dempsey through the ropes with a single right hand. Dempsey struggled to climb back through the ropes and survived the round. After a total of 11 knockdowns between the boxers, Dempsey finally stopped the bigger, heavier Argentine fighter in the second. This win combined with his loss to Gene Tunney is actually what turned Dempsey’s legacy around. Changing the popular view of him from a movie star into what he is remembered as, an all-action blood and guts warrior. After the amazing win over Firpo, Dempsey lost two of his last three fights in memorable slugfests to Tunney with a knockout victory over Jack Sharkey sandwiched in-between the two Tunney losses.
Dempsey retired following his second loss to Tunney on September 22nd of 1927. His official record is 54-6. He remained a prominent cultural figure. He opened Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant in New York City, where he was known for hospitality and willingness to chat with any customer about his career boxing and entertainment. He tried his hand at acting again. He and his wife, actress Estelle Taylor, co-starred in a Broadway play called The Big Fight, additionally, Dempsey appeared in a handful of films, including The Prizefighter and Sweet Surrender. During World War II, Dempsey put all questions surrounding his war record to rest by serving as a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard. Dempsey passed away on May 31st, 1983.
Jack Dempsey battled every giant of his day and left a fighting legacy as a hard-hitting and ferocious left-hooker who changed the landscape of professional boxing from what was a gentleman like sport to blood and guts warfare. That style and his unique,all-action style of fighting captured the attention of fans, promoters and boxing aficionados across the world. Dempsey fights set financial and attendance records, at the time, including the first million-dollar gate. Dempsey is ranked in the top 10 on The Ring magazine’s list of all-time heavyweights and seventh among its Top 100 Greatest Puncher. In 1950 he was voted the greatest fighter of the first half of the century. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was inducted into The Ring’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1951. RIP champ.