Tag Archives: Dempsey

The Most Controversial Sporting Event In History: Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey


The Most Controversial Sporting Event In History: Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey

Some contemporary boxers go month after month without a fight. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey went years. That’s years. How this was acceptable is a question we modern fans can chew on, but Dempsey’s extended layoff appears to have been at least somewhat accepted in his time. Perhaps the biggest sports celebrity of the 1920s (and let’s keep in mind this was the era of Babe Ruth). Dempsey looks to have been free to literally “go Hollywood” for three years without much backlash from the public. He stared in movies for Universal studios, boxed in exhibitions and married movie star Estelle Taylor. The heavyweight champion of the world was indeed living life in the fast lane.

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Yet at the same time, a son of an Irish laborer from New York City had Dempsey much on his mind. For Gene Tunney wanted Dempsey in the ring, so much so that it was said the man was thoroughly obsessed with the current champ. A former marine, Tunney worked his way up the hard way, accumulating a terrific record along the way. Although today the guy is known as a technical boxer (which Tunney certainly was), the New Yorker also accumulated a very large share of knockouts.

The most telling thing about Tunney, however, was the man’s heart. Tunney fought a total of nineteen times while Dempsey was on hiatus. That’s one short of twenty. In three years. What’s more, Tunney had beaten some of the best fighters out there within that time frame. Dempsey’s former foe Georges Carpentier was one of Tunney’s victims, as was the famous brawler, Harry Greb. Funny thing about Greb, he’s said to have made Tunney the fighter Tunney eventually became. For, after taking a ferocious beating by Greb in his only loss, Tunney came back a more complete, more effective boxer. To be sure, Tunney returned to best Greb four times, three of those times while Dempsey was on his hiatus.

Still, many didn’t give the Irish American much of a chance when he was finally set to face Dempsey in Philadelphia on the 23d of September, 1926. Tunney had come up from the light heavyweight division, which perhaps meant he wasn’t a “true” heavyweight in the eyes of many. Furthermore, this was Jack Dempsey Tunney was facing. Jack Dempsey. The celebrity. The legend. The movie star. The man who went through opponents like a hot scoop through ice cream. To think the guy could be taken out by the likes of Tunney, a man who had ambitions to rise up the social ladder, probably seemed a bit silly.

Maybe people should have given Tunney a closer look before writing him off. Sure, he wanted to use boxing to get ahead in life, but he was also a former marine whose immigrant father had worked as a longshoreman and who himself had worked as a lumberjack. There was also the matter of having come back from a horrible beating at the gloves of Greb. Tunney was no wimp. He was a smart fighter, though. One who was prepared to use a sharp game plan to take down the heavyweight king.

And so, during the ten round bout with Dempsey, Tunney proved to be the smarter, hungrier and perhaps even stronger fighter. To the surprise of many, Tunney put on a performance of defensive wizardry, making an art form out of hitting and not getting hit. After the judges’ scorecards had been read, the world had a new heavyweight champion on its hands. The great Jack Dempsey had been defeated. No great story ends simply, however, and there was to be an historic second act to the Dempsey-Tunney saga. After besting Jack Sharkey in controversial fashion, Dempsey was set to have a second shot at the man who had dethroned him.

The rematch was to occur on the 22nd of September, 1927 – just a day shy of the one year anniversary of the first Dempsey-Tunney match. Well over one hundred thousand people crammed into Solider’s Field in Chicago while the Chicago Tribune claims around fifteen million people were able to listen to the fight live over the radio. To say the match was quite the big deal would be, of course, an understatement. How many matches today cram over one hundred thousand people into a single stadium? How many sporting events of any kind can do as much? Sadly for the fans, though, the second fight looked like a replay of the first one, with the skillful Tunney holding off his man effectively.

Then, however, came the seventh round. That was when Dempsey finally caught Tunney and stunned him. Not one to let an opportunity pass, the former champion whaled away at his former conqueror, sending the helpless Tunney to the mat. That’s when things went from thrilling to downright odd. There was a new rule that fighters had to go to a neutral corner after dropping an opponent. In the heat of the moment, Dempsey understandably forgot that rule and hovered over his fallen prey, ready to pounce. Referee Dave Barry then took it upon himself to direct Dempsey to a neutral corner.

The problem was that, instead of picking up the time keepers’ count – as he should have – Barry started counting on his own, which allowed Tunney to be up at the count of nine. In reality, however, Tunney had been down for well over ten seconds – around fourteen, in fact. To make matters worse for Dempsey, Tunney went on to win the fight, even scoring a flash knockdown himself later on in the evening. By the time all was said and done, both fighters had made it to the final bell and Tunney was once again awarded a decision win.

The one thing Tunney wasn’t awarded, however, was a general sense of acceptance that he had won the second fight. What’s more, even now, with both Dempsey and Tunney having long since passed, the Long Count remains the most controversial sporting event in history.

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The Title Fight That May Have Brought Down A Town: Dempsey-Gibbons


The Title Fight That May Have Brought Down A Town: Dempsey-Gibbons
By: Sean Crose

You don’t hear much about Shelby, Montana these days, though just over a hundred years ago, it was supposedly quite the place to be. “Supposedly” is the operative word here. For the story of the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons fight, which, if you haven’t guessed by now, took place in Shelby, serves as a warning to those whose big dreams simply can’t compete with hard reality. According to the Los Angeles Times, a couple of local real estate guys from the time wanted to put obscure Shelby on the map. And what better way to do so than to host a heavyweight title fight featuring the great Jack Dempsey, arguably the world’s most famous athlete?

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Of course, these men had good reason to be confident. Shelby wasn’t even a town at the turn of the century. In other words, it didn’t exist. Someone had struck oil in the Montana wilderness, however, and the people and money followed. Hence, Shelby was born. And now it was time to really put Shelby on the map. Or so the thinking went.

Dempsey seemed like a sure bet. It’s easy not to recognize how important a decade the 1920s was for the United States. It was the time when off the rack clothing came into fashion, when cities – rather than farms – became the heart and soul of the country, and when popular culture became important. In a sense, each of us who wants in on the latest celebrity gossip is a spiritual descendent of what’s been called the Jazz Age. And then, like now, celebrities carried weight. Having Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the entire world, fight in Shelby would turn millions upon millions of heads towards the upstart town.

The problem, of course, was the fact that few things happen overnight. Towns and cities don’t suddenly explode, big bang style, into cultural epicenters. Such things take time, and tend to happen organically. It was a fact the citizens of Shelby were said to have learned too late. Loaded with confidence, the would be investors reached out to Dempsey’s manager, the slick Doc Kearns, with an offer of two hundred thousand dollars to have Dempsey fight in Shelby. To a man like Kearns, it was easy money. Before the citizens of Shelby knew it, Dempsey went from a two hundred thousand dollar payday to a three hundred thousand dollar one.

And that, figuratively speaking, was only the beginning. Roads were to be paved in the rustic town, an enormous outdoor theater which could seat tens of thousands was to be erected. Oh, and Dempsey’s opponent, Tommy Gibbons, would get a total of ten grand for himself, as well. And so a fight was set. Or was one? The investors had a hard time coming up with the money needed for the bout and Kearns refused to announce it. Indeed, Kearns at one point said the bout was off. Finally, the money came through. That was good enough for Kearns. Clearly, however, it wasn’t good for the town. For there was no way Shelby was getting a return on the money invested.

Travel was difficult in the 1920s, after all. And Shelby, Montana was an out of the way place. Air travel was minimal, and automobile travel certainly wasn’t as comfortable as it is today. Sure enough, the best way for the hoped for throngs of out of towners to arrive would be by train. Not knowing if a fight is actually going down or not until the last minute, however, doesn’t make for a good promotion. Dempsey and Gibbons, at least, held up their parts of the bargain, training locally and undoubtedly adding at least some sense of excitement to the disheartened natives.

Needless to say, the fight on July 4th, 1923 was a financial dud. Simply put, not enough people made the trip to Shelby. If that weren’t bad enough, good seats proved to be too expensive for the locals to purchase. Between ten and twelve thousand people ended up watching the fight live that day – a good sized crowd, to be sure. The stadium, however, had been erected to hold forty thousand fans. Ticket prices ended up being slashed and many were said to have watched the bout for free. To add insult to injury, the fight itself was rather dull. Documentary footage of that day claims Dempsey entered the ring protected by Chicago police officers since he had supposedly been threatened the day before. He clearly didn’t need protection from Gibbons.

For Gibbons was defensively minded. That made him hard for Dempsey to land on, though, and so the fight itself dragged on through fifteen rounds. Gibbons didn’t comport himself poorly. He certainly fared better against Dempsey than poor Jess Willard had. The Saint Paul native simply wasn’t good enough to defeat the champ, however, and that was all there was to it. Needless to say, Dempsey ended up pulling off a decision win in the sweltering western heat that afternoon. It certainly wasn’t his most spectacular victory, but it was a victory nonetheless. Besides, a fighter’s first priority is to win, not to dazzle an audience – something contemporary fight writers and analysts might want to be mindful of.

Long story short – money was lost that day. Lots of money – though certainly not by Kearns, Dempsey, or Gibbons, each of whom made out quite well, thank you very much. If anything, the Dempsey-Gibbons bout showed that even the greatest plans can end up being let downs at best, disasters at worse. Dempsey certainly proved he could be a draw. Eighty thousand people had shown up to Boyles Thirty Acres in New Jersey to watch the man fight the previous summer. Another enormous crowd would gather in New York a few months later for the man’s next fight.

There’s more to the fight game than ambition, however. That’s a lesson the people of Shelby are said to have learned the hard way. They certainly wouldn’t be the last to learn it, however. Boxing has a way of swallowing up the less mindful, then absorbing what it can before moving on, like dust in the Montana wind.

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The Great Battering: Dempsey-Willard


The Great Battering: Dempsey-Willard
By: Sean Crose

Jess Willard may not have been a modern heavyweight, but he was certainly built like one. Standing over six and a half feet tall, the guy towered over the competition of his day. Born in the late 1800s, the man known as the Pottawatomie Giant had actually worked as a cowboy and only started boxing pro in his late 20s. Due to the man’s incredible size and strength, he was able to make his mark on the heavyweight division. Possessed of a terrific jab and, according to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, notable speed, the western giant climbed the ranks of the fight world.

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Willard really made his presence felt, however, when he faced champion Jack Johnson in Havana in 1915. Fighting in an outdoor venue in well over one hundred degree heat, the fight was most certainly a grueling, if not exciting affair.

Indeed, a viewing of the bout can be rather monotonous, as not much seems to happen – until, of course, the 26th round, where a single Willard punch sends Johnson down for the ten count. Johnson, who was well past his prime and clearly out of shape, later claimed he took a dive. Willard replied that, if that were the case, he wished Johnson had done it sooner, since it was so hot in the ring that day.

That was Willard. Big, tough, and likeable. The guy went on to hold the heavyweight championship for years, but seems to have been more of a celebrity than a truly active athlete. Willard’s one true successful title defense was against Frank Moran in 1916. Aside from that he performed in – wait for it – Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (which was quite the big deal at the time). He also did some circus work. In fairness, it’s said he didn’t want to fight while World War One was raging. While Willard was having his moment in the sun, however, a dark and ominous cloud was heading towards his direction.

Jack Dempsey was actually born William Harrison Dempsey in Colorado. A drifter with something of a shadowy background, Dempsey brought what could be described as a new style to fighting. Watching old bouts from the late 1800s onward, there is clearly a change in styles when Dempsey (and also Sam Langford) show up on the scene. Whereas boxing was largely an affair which involved a lot of holding in the early part of the 20th century, Dempsey had no time for such niceties. Oh, a fighter could hold Dempsey if he wanted – but he’d actually have to find a way to contain Dempsey in his grasp first. That was hard to do, as Dempsey was violence in motion, a twister tearing apart all in his path.

If you want to see the lasting influence of the man, look no further than Iron Mike Tyson. Similar hair style. Similar menacing, enigmatic air. Similar ring entrance. Its clear Tyson studied Dempsey and studied him well. Both were frightening customers. Willard, however, was the man to beat as America and the world headed towards the 1920s. With his enormous size, strength and – yes – skill, it’s hard to imagine someone like Dempsey, who wouldn’t even be a heavyweight by today’s standards, giving him trouble.

Yet those who argue that a good smaller fighter can’t beat a good larger fighter haven’t seen the Dempsey-Willard bout. Or maybe they just understand that Dempsey wasn’t just a good smaller fighter, but a great one, and that’s what made all the difference. For Dempsey was more than just an attack dog. He possessed solid defensive skills, as well. On top of that, he was hungry. By the time Dempsey stepped into the ring to face Willard for the heavyweight championship on July 4th, 1919, the man was ready for war. All these years later, it’s safe to assume that the massive Willard had no idea what was coming that afternoon in Toledo, Ohio.

For Dempsey ripped into his man from the word go. He dropped Willard not once, not twice, but seven times in the first round alone. That’s seven knockdowns. Of course, it’s important to remember that back then a fighter didn’t have to go to a neutral corner after his opponent hit the mat. Therefore, Dempsey stood over Willard after a given knockdown, only to viciously bang away again the moment he had the chance. It was brutal stuff, to be sure. Dempsey, however, almost lost the fight. After some confusion at the end of the first round, Dempsey left the ring, assuming he’d won. Needless to say, he had to get back before the referee counted to ten.

After safely returning in time to resume the match, Dempsey proceeded to bludgeon Willard for the next two rounds. It actually says something about Willard’s heart and strength that he was able to endure such a savage beating for so long. Even giants have their limits, though, and after the third, Willard had simply had enough. By refusing to get off his stool, he gave the heavyweight title to Dempsey, a man considerably smaller, but far, far more violent. Reports have survived in popular culture for years that Dempsey did seriously physical damage to Willard that afternoon. While those reports were most likely exaggerated, the brutality Dempsey inflicted on the man is still notable by today’s standards.

There was another rumor concerning the fight, though, one which doesn’t seem to have entirely been put to bed, which is far more disturbing. That rumor? That Dempsey had his gloves loaded that day. If true, what Dempsey did to Willard would literally be a crime. Here’s the thing, though – it’s probably not true. There’s no real evidence out there to strongly suggest or even imply that Dempsey had anything in his gloves that day other than his own potent fists.

The truth is most likely that Dempsey simply caught the bigger man by surprise, in the process laying down a first round thrashing Willard was unable to recover from. Willard and Dempsey were simply two men from different eras of boxing – and Willard’s era was just no match for the one Dempsey helped ring in.

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