By: Sean Crose
He was, without doubt, the most popular fighter of his day. In fact, he may have even been the most popular ATHLETE of his day. That’s right, 1920s era heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey may even have been more famous than Babe Ruth at the time (and Ruth was wildly famous). Yet Dempsey, the great Manassas Mauler, went three years – that’s three years – without defending his title. That kind of layoff is the sort of thing that would shame even the most easygoing contemporary ring stars. Or perhaps they might actually see it as something to admire. It’s hard to tell anymore, really.
One thing is for sure – when Dempsey wanted to take it easy, the man REALLY took it easy. To be fair, Dempsey was one hell of a fighter. Watch the old fights on YouTube if you don’t believe it. Frighteningly aggressive, the Colorado native also had a sneaky defense. There’s little wonder a prime Mike Tyson idolized the guy. After beating poor Jess Willard pretty much senseless when he won the heavyweight title in 1919, Dempsey went on to defend his championship six times in less than five years. During that period, he emerged victorious against Georges Carpentier in the first million dollar gate, and bested Luis Firpo in an absolutely insane two round war of attrition (if there’s ever been a first round to compete with the opening chapter of Hagler-Hears, it’s Demspey-Firpo).
The Firpo fight, which saw Dempsey get knocked out of the ring before coming back and defeating his man, might have taken something out of Dempsey, however. For afterwards, he would keep out of the ring for over three full years. The man tried his hand at acting, married a Hollywood actress, got rid of his manager Doc Kearns, and got tied up in negotiations to face the feared Harry Wills. Does this sort of thing sound familiar? It should.
Of course, it’s easy to say Dempsey, who held the heavyweight crown an entire century ago, was a man of his time. People weren’t crazy about the layoff then, either, though. A talented and popular fighter shouldn’t be too popular and too talented to actually have to fight. And sure enough, when Dempsey finally did return to the ring in 1926, he was bested handily by the focused ex-Marine, Gene Tunney. Needless to say, Dempsey would never regain the title.
A word to the wise, perhaps.