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The Wildest Heavyweight Title Match In History: Dempsey-Firpo

By Sean Crose

Although the first round of the Marvelous Marvin Hagler – Thomas Hearns middleweight title bout of 1985 still ranks as my favorite single round ever, there’s little doubt that the opening chapter of 1923’s Jack Dempsey- Luis Firpo heavyweight title bout, which went down 97 years ago this very evening, runs a pretty close second. Just how famous is that nearly century old three minutes of combat? Famous enough that some feel it’s even MORE exciting than the opening chapter of Hagler-Hearns. That, my friends, is saying something. It’s not just the opening round of Dempsey-Firpo that’s well remembered however. The whole brief battle was completely off the wall.

Picture, if you will, close to around 80,000 screaming fans packed into the New York Polo Grounds to see defending champion Dempsey – a menacing mystery from out west known as “The Mansassas Mauler” – face a steak inhaling Argentine brawler nicknamed “The Wild Bull of the Pampas.” If it sounds to you like the setup for a blood and guts whirlwind of ring insanity, you have the right idea. Dempsey was truly famous at the time. Not only was he the champ, he had emerged victorious from the first fight to have a million dollar gate a few years earlier. As for the colorful Firpo, he was known as a “bull” for a reason.

George Bellow’s Famous Painting Of Dempsey Getting Knocked Out Of The Ring

Both men were gracious to each other upon entering the ring. At the opening bell, however, the action started with a burst, as Dempsey moved in, focused on getting his man out of there as quickly as possible. Firpo was down in seconds, but got up. Firpo went down again. Then got up again. Firpo went down a third time, only once again rise. By the fourth knockdown it was clear that Firpo was through – only he wasn’t. Even a fifth, sixth, and seventh knockdown couldn’t keep Firpo off his feet for a full ten count.

Then, the seemingly unthinkable happened – Firpo sent Dempsey clear out of the ring with a thunderous right. Dempsey somehow beat the count by getting back in the ring before the referee counted to ten and the battle resumed. Incredibly, both men survived the round. Dempsey sent his man down again in the second, but Firpo – in what at this point was most likely a surprise to no one – got back to his feet. The end, however, was near.

An absolutely brutal right cross from Dempsey put Firpo on the mat near the one minute mark of the round. This time, the fearless challenger was unable to beat the count. Dempsey had retained the heavyweight title in thrilling fashion. Was it a fair fight, though? It is reported that, after getting knocked through the ring, Dempsey was pushed back inside by the media, that he otherwise wouldn’t have beaten the count. It’s also been said that Dempsey received the benefit of a long count, ironic since a long count for Gene Tunney would keep Dempsey from regaining the heavyweight championship four years later.

No matter what one thinks of the conclusion, there can be no doubt that Dempsey-Firpo was, and still is, the single wildest bout in heavyweight title history. One can only wonder what a rematch would have been like.

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