My teacher consultancy’s bespoke course on combat sport history began with what could be seen as a new era. We watched footage depicting boxers who displayed more footwork, head movement and cleaner punches. The irony here is that Jack Dempsey, the fighter who occupied tonight’s spotlight, is often regarded as a brawler. When reviewing the fights and material, we have to bear in mind that film footage and camera work was improving at a rapid rate. Johnson’s defeat at the hands of Jess Willard had occurred in 1915 the same year that the first 12-real movie, “Birth of a Nation” was released. Feature films had arrived and going to the cinema had become an institution by the time we get Dempsey’s filmed challenge for the world heavyweight championship of the world in 1919. Furthermore, Dempsey’s fights were scheduled for less rounds than the previous era. This suited him well as did the no-corner rule. However, there was no doubting Dempsey’s fight temperament. All the filmed fights depict a relentless boxer who is consistently on the front foot even when paired with faster opponents. Dempsey, for all the criticism regarding him being more of a fighter than a boxer, is credited with innovating or popularising rolling/bobbing and weaving, he refined and took ownership of the pugilist drop-step and he is clearly very active on his feet. To top it all, Dempsey displayed an intrictate knowledge of the fight game and martial arts. His book, “Jack Dempsey’s Championship Fighting”, is held in high regard by many strike-based martial arts coaches and fighters.
The fight highlights a drastic change in boxing style. Jess Willard, the lumbering 6’6 1/2″ “Pottawatomie Giant”, who had been carefully managed to defeat an overweight and tired fugitive Jack Johnson and appease the collective racist hostility of certain white masses, had only defended his title once over his four year reign. As discussed in the previous lesson, his newspaper decision win over the game Frank Moran was not the most convincing of performances and the three previous world heavyweight champions in attendance all considered Willard to have been the loser. Years later Willard would claim that Dempsey had loaded his gloves and this lie would then be later be compounded by Dempsey’s embittered ex-manager, Jack (Doc) Kearns four decades later. However, the boxing correspondent and historian, Nat Fleischer, witnessed the taping of Dempsey’s hands, disputed the claim and said that Kearns was not present. Willard’s face was visibly a mess and it was later declared Dempsey had broken his jaw. This seems believable when watching the fight but is easily discounted when one learns that Willard gave an interview directly after the fight.
The first knockdown displays a classic Dempsey side to bobbing flurry of punches. Willard just looks bewildered. Most accounts have him as a gentle, simple soul who fought as his only means to make any decent money. His very defensive style came from the fact that he was freakishly large compared to his opponents, had tremendous strength and stamina, didn’t like to hit first and could easily manhandle his opponents. He seemed tailor made to defeat the weary Johnson during that 45 scheduled round title match under a Cuban sun. As previously discussed, Johnson’s defensive style could not be relied upon when this was the younger and much larger Willard’s only strategy. This isn’t to say that he didn’t have raw power. He had killed Jack “Bull” Young with one of his punches in 1913 and unsuccessully charged with second-degree murder.
When looking at the fight, one can see why there might be speculation surrounding the up-and-coming Dempsey. In a time where there was no TV and very few fights were recorded on film, the US was much more divided country. Willard and his management did not know much about Dempsey’s rise. He had only been fighting for five years at the time, but had been involved in 75 fights of which he had only lost four and drawn nine times. It is worth keeping in mind that draws were surprisingly common during this period, especially in places like New York where boxers weren’t legally allowed to compete and unless someone got knocked out they were viewed as exhibitions. Dempsey avenged his losses and the only fighter before Gene Tunney who could argue they got the better of him for the most part was the notoriously awkward Wille “Fat Boy” Meehan.
Nevertheless, Dempsey’s record shows the behaviour of a devastating knockout merchant and to this day is in most fight journalists’ top five knockout kings. His road to Willard saw him more often win by knockout than by decision and there are regular clusters of these victories occurring within the first round. Besides his reach and strength, Willard had few advantages over Dempsey who was happy to bring the fight to his slow moving, slow thinking and defensive opponent. Dempsey wasn’t big on the wrestling but was very happy to keep wading away on the inside when someone clinched him. He was also happy to shove and follow up with a continuing barrages of punches. Through his flurries we can see many future legends of boxing. Mike Tyson, who modelled so much on Dempsey, is an obvious comparison. Rocky Marciano’s relentless fury often makes me think of Dempsey. I even see the great middleweight, Marvellous Marvin Hagler, who fought inside against the clinch, as having unlikely shades of Dempsey. Willard just looks unmatched and makes terrible mistakes that work perfectly for Dempsey, such as standing straight up after getting knocked down. Usually a fighter paces themselves after a knockdown. They either then move out of the way or move into their opponent. Willard comes over as someone who is incredulous to his predicament. This happens six times before the champion starts to do something rather than just stand there looking bewildered and gormless. It should also be noted that Jess Willard went into semi-retirement after his loss to Dempsey and did not try for the crown again. He fought a few exhibition bouts and then had two official comeback fights. The first of these was an impressive TKO victory over Floyd Johnson. Many thought Willard was going to lose, but he knocked Johnson down in the 9th and then again in the 11th round. However, this would be a brief gilmpse of his former glory and Luis Firpo would knock him down in round eight from where the gentle giant could get no further than a genuflect position.
Back to 1919 and Willard did not make it out to the fourth round. His time against Dempsey is considered one of the most heroic defences and it is incredible to think he kept coming back after the battering he received in round one. Never has the phrase “saved by the bell” sounded so sickeningly hollow than when it is applied at the end of this round. Willard is knocked to the canvas yet again and as he struggles to climb the ropes the referee backs away as Dempsey comes in from almost behind him with another barrage of punches. A seated Willard continues to look bewildered as the bell cuts the referee’s count short. Willard is helped to his feet by his side in a scene reminscent of the bareknuckle pugilism days of the previous era, although it should be mentioned every time those fighter went down it signalled the end of the round and they got a 30 second break. The champion emerges in round two and, to his credit, he remains vertical. He throws punches that easily skim off or completely miss the bobbing and weaving head of Dempsey, and spends most of his time trying to control a clinch. Dempsey just continues to batter him. His vicious left hook is on display but there is certainly power in both of his hands. Willard’s corner did not let him out for the fourth round. Interestingly, Willard could have won the fight on a disqualification. This had nothing to do with the way Dempsey had fought him, but the fact that he left the ring at one stage thinking the fight was already over. Apparently Willard’s corner were not astute enough having been hired on the cheap.
The next fight up for examination was Dempsey’s bout against Bill Brennan. Surprisingly this fight isn’t often shown in Dempsey’s highlight reel of his six successful title defences. A recent podcast I listened to skipped it in favour of a later bout with Tommy Gibbons. Gibbons was a tough defensive fighter who lost to a points decision over Dempsey who not only retained his title but also won Ring magazine’s first recognised world title. I opted for the earlier Brennan fight. This was a tough evenly matched spectactle between two knockout merchants. Dempsey had previously defeated Brennan by technical knockout in 1918. The 1920 bout saw a better conditioned Brennan give it his all against Dempsey and the two are often like twins in their relentless battering styles. In round 10 Brennan severely split Dempsey’s ear. Finally, in the 12th Dempsey said he dug a right up to his wrist in his opponent’s solar plexus before finishing him with his signature left hook to the ribs.
The below article gives a colourful account of Dempsey bridging the ages and his fight with Bill Brennan. I especially like it because it demonstrates the strong connection between showbusiness and boxing traditions, especially the circus.
Speaking of which, Paul Gallico, an author who would mention my family’s circus in “Love, Let Me Not Hunger”, apparently rose to fame off the back of an article he wrote about Dempsey flattening him in a sparring session. Read that one here.
Next up we watched the much publicised Georges Carpentier bout. This was the first bout officially recognised and sanctioned by the newly established National Boxing Association (now known as the World Boxing Association) in 1921. As incredible as it seems, Carpentier was cast as the hero in this match-up. Dempsey had a huge fan-base and following that had been singing his praises over the time that Willard wasn’t defending his title, but he wasn’t the massive national icon he was about to become. That would only happen when he eventually lost the title Tunney. At this point, Carpentier, despite being French, was the popular American choice. This is largely put down to the fact that Dempsey had been granted a deferrment to the draft of 1917 as he was sole earner in his family. However, based on claims made by his ex-wife, Dempsey was indicted for draft evasion. His name was cleared in 1920 at his trial, but the mud stuck when he went up against Carpentier who had fought in the air force during World War I. Carpentier was very photogenic and charismatic plus he had the underdog status being the light heavyweight champion of the world. Carpentier fought valiantly but he was totally dominated by Dempsey. It was worth watching just to see Dempsey as the heavier opponent where his speed was still apparent.
Finally, we watched the incredible match with Luis Firpo from 1923. Firpo has the distinction for being the first Latin American to challenge for the world heavyweight title. By this stage not only had Dempsey beaten the resilent Gibbons but he had also won the Round one of the fight was as explosive as anything else we had seen. At the beginning the larger Firpo took the initiative and almost immediately dropped Dempsey who took the count on one knee. He then proceeded to knock Firpo down seven times. Just before it looked like we were back in familiar territory, Firpo immortalised himself in Argentinian popular culture by driving Dempsey into the ropes with a right to the chin and then send him to the outside. Dempsey made it back in on the count of 14 with a cut to the back of his head from a ringside typewriter. A ringside artistic depiction of the moment Firpo sent Dempsey through the ropes was painted by George Bellows towards the end of that year. The fight went to a second round, where Dempsey knocked Firpo down twice and claimed his victory.