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A Man of the People
The best tickets in the 1920s were those to Jack Dempsey's heavyweight bouts. His brawls repeatedly drew 100,000 superstars, gamblers, and gate-crashers -- the rabble-rousers who gave "The Roaring '20s" its name. In A Flame of Pure Fire, acclaimed sportswriter Roger Kahn re-creates the scene of Dempsey's stirring fights and tells the story of a cultural phenom and a phenomenal man.
"Boxing is a very tough game," said Dempsey, "and not many fellows who grow up with butlers in their homes are willing to put up with all the training and all the punishment you have to take." Born in Manassa, Colorado, in 1895, Dempsey grew up in a broken and poverty-stricken family that he was forced to support at an early age. He mined and begged for money and was admittedly "a hobo, but not a bum."
At 16 years old and 150 pounds, Jack Dempsey first made his living as a "freelance bar fighter," challenging any man in a mining-camp bar to a brawl for a buck. There he fought some of his toughest bouts and honed the skills that would make him a champion. Though later thought of as more of a "fighter" than a "boxer," Dempsey perfected the skills of his craft: A shifty bob and weave made him tough to hit; he carefully protected his chin with his left shoulder; and his devastating left hook was set up by a well-rehearsed clinching maneuver.
On July 4, 1919, Dempsey challenged the mammoth Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio, for the heavyweight championship. Willard, who had previously killed John "Bull" Young with a brutal uppercut, was wary of his potential to similarly bludgeon Dempsey. Giving away nearly 50 pounds to Willard, Dempsey also feared for his life. Kahn masterfully recaptures the prefight scene with descriptions of the city, the crowd, the seedy promoters, and the journalists who covered it all. It was 114 degrees in Toledo that day, and the sweltering atmosphere was the crucible in which Dempsey earned the heavyweight championship of the world.
Kahn covers the subsequent Dempsey epics in similar fashion. Each has its own storyline. In 1921, Dempsey fought Georges Carpentier, a stylish, secretive French war-hero who was a darling of the press. Though the bout was fought in New Jersey, the Frenchman received more crowd support than the American "slacker." The match, later deemed "The Battle of the Century," drew an unprecedented official gate of 80,183 fans. The actual crowd was larger. Writes Kahn, "If you want to select a date when it was proven publicly that American sports had become big business, July 2, 1921, certainly makes sense."
Following his mashing of Carpentier, Dempsey met Tommy Gibbons in a fiasco in Shelby, Montana. When it turned out that the overeager promoters couldn't support the bout, Dempsey insisted on fighting anyway. Ultimately Dempsey gave a lackluster performance, and he and his swindling manager, Doc Kearns, were the only participants paid for the showing -- poor Gibbons fought 15 terrifying rounds for nothing.
The champion's boxing career climaxed on September 14, 1923, with a thunderous knockout of the huge Argentine Luis Angel Firpo. For one and a half rounds, the giants blasted each other. There were 12 knockdowns in four minutes of fighting. At one point, Firpo knocked Dempsey clear out of the ring. Controversy ensued. Reporters helped lift Jack back up, which technically should have disqualified the champion. Nonetheless, Dempsey had clearly proved that he could give and take punches like nobody else.
Dempsey's next serious bout came three years later. More than 135,000 fans watched the champion fight Gene Tunney in Philadelphia. Tunney, a heavy underdog, was obsessed with beating Dempsey. His strategy of jabbing and retreating worked to perfection. For 10 rounds, the rusty Dempsey chased Tunney around the ring, unable to catch him. Reporters were stunned at the outcome. Some speculated that Dempsey had been poisoned before the bout, but he denied that any possible poisoning had an effect. Gracious in both victory and defeat, Dempsey gave full credit to the new champion.
When they next fought, in September 1927, Dempsey was 32 years old and well beyond his fighting prime. The match took place in Chicago, and the arrangements seemed slanted in Tunney's favor -- the ring was of the largest allowable dimensions, and the referee was of a shady background. Kahn asks, "Where but in Chicago during the 1920s could a bootlegger, or a bootlegger once removed, a working criminal, so to speak, be hired to referee a heavyweight championship fight?" By most accounts, Dempsey would have won the rematch had it not been for the infamous "long count." As it stands, the former champion went down swinging.
Kahn colors the narrative of the championship bouts with cultural icons of the era. Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes trial, the philandering President Warren Harding, Bill Tilden, Charles Lindbergh, and Al Capone all take a bow. In a show of his ethics and good sense, Dempsey declined Capone's offer to bankroll a fight, and he later pleaded with the Mob leader not to interfere in Dempsey-Tunney II.
During the Roaring '20s, prejudice, corruption, and moral ambivalence were all the rage. Kahn vividly illustrates the bureaucratic ineptitude of New York state boxing officials, as well as the blistering insidiousness of racism. During Prohibition, the fight promoters made sure that alcohol flowed smoothly for reporters, whose articles could help rake in money or convince public opinion of the victor. In an age of loosening morality, Dempsey drew ample attention from beautiful young women, both in the United States and abroad. His fame and fortune predictably made him an object of the envy of such figures as Babe Ruth and the young writer Ernest Hemingway.
Dempsey's fights in the ring were clouded by legal battles outside of it. The "Slacker Trial" initiated by his first wife would haunt him for years; not only was he stung by his wife's betrayal, but his patriotism was repeatedly questioned. (He later saw combat in World War II at the age of 49.) Dempsey also faced lawsuits from another former ally, his manager, Doc Kearns. Somehow, pocketing 50 percent of Dempsey's prize winnings were not sufficient for Kearns, who was dumped after a conflict with the fighter's new love, the beautiful Hollywood star Estelle Taylor. Kearns's legal attempts at extortion were ludicrous. Though a criminal, however, Kearns was also a true character, emblematic of the wild decade. At the first Tunney fight, Kearns cried as he watched his former protégé lose.
In A Flame of Pure Fire, Kahn writes that "[t]o see Dempsey box was, quite simply, to see a brave man going about his business in an extraordinary way." Dempsey reveled in the Roaring '20s, while simultaneously transcending its corruption. For that he was more than just a sports hero, but a cultural leader of a vibrant era.