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Heroes of Boxing: Happy Birthday Jack Dempsey

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June 24, 2017
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On Independence Day in 1776 we as a nation declared Independence but it was on Independence Day 1919 Jack Dempsey became the Heavyweight Champion of the World defeating Jess Willard nicknamed the “The Great White Hope.”No one thought Dempsey stood a chance. He was just 6’1” and 187 pounds going up against Willard who stood at 6' 6" and 245 pounds. In a true-to-life “David verses Goliath” story, Dempsey’s superior quickness and ruthless fighting abilities knocked the much bigger man out in the third round. Dempsey knocked him down a total of seven times in the first round alone.Dempsey did such a remarkable job defeating Willard that it became the subject of controversy and Dempsey was accused of cheating. Jack Kearns, who fell out of favor by this time, was Dempsey’s former manager and claimed in a 1964 article of Sports Illustrated he had loaded champion’s gloves with plaster of paris. This would become known at the “loaded glove” theory and at first was thought to hold some credence because of the damage Dempsey did to Willard’s face. Firsthand accounts noted people watching Dempsey having his hands wrapped said they were not loaded.Film evidence showed Willard walking over and inspecting his gloves as well as Boxing magazine designed a re-enactment experiment which also proved Kearns’ story was not true.After his victory, he defended his title five times over the next six years. He reigned as the Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1919 to 1926.His exceptional abilities and punching power made him one of the best and most popular boxers in history. He was also an American cultural icon of the 1920s. However, Jack Dempsey was never popular with the public.

When the United States became involved in World War I in 1917 he had not served and many viewed him as a draft dodger or a slacker. There was also this infamous photo showing Dempsey supposedly hard at work in a Philadelphia shipyard but wearing shiny patent-leather shoes. William Harrison Dempsey was born June 24, 1895 in Manassa, Colorado. He grew up poor in Colorado, West Virginia and Utah. His father traveled often for mining jobs. Dempsey had to drop out of school after the 8th grade and started work picking crops and worked over the next few years as a farm hand, miner, and a cowboy.He learned how to fight from his older brother Bernie who made extra money as a prizefighter in the local saloons and rough towns in the surrounding area. He also taught him to chew pine tar gum to strengthen his jaw and to soak his face in brine to make it tougher. By the time he was 17 he was a skilled fighter and figured out he could make more money by boxing. From 1911 to 1916 he traveled around small mining towns picking up fights where he could by the name “Kid Blackie.” His brother Bernie was also still boxing at the time and calling himself Jack Dempsey after the great 19th century boxer Jack “Nonpareli” Dempsey. His brother fell ill one evening and young William filled in for him assuming the name Jack Dempsey for the first time. He won his brother’s fight that night and was known as Jack Dempsey ever since.Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Jack Dempsey was at the height of his fame. He was defeated on September 23, 1926 by challenger Gene Tunney in Philadelphia before a record crowd of 120,000 people.

What he said to his wife that night after returning to his hotel made him something of folk legend the rest of his life. She saw his appearance and asked what had happened he famously answered, “Honey…I forgot to duck.”In 1981, Fellow U.S. Military Veteran and current President Ronald Reagan used Dempsey’s famous quote shortly before he was wheeled into the operating room after he was shot in a failed assassination attempt.Also of note, two military veterans were the first fighters that generated the first million dollar gate in the history of boxing. Dempsey defended his title against the French World War I hero George Carpentier who was popular in Europe and considered at the time the best fighter in the world according to George Bernard Shaw the famous Irish playwright and Tex Rickard the founder of the NY Rangers as well as the NHL. The pair were the promoters of the bout. A crowd of 91,000 watched Jack Dempsey win the match in the 4th round.

In 1927 Dempsey lost in a rematch to Gene Tunney because of a long count. It is considered one of the most controversial fights in history. Dempsey knocked Tunney down in the 7th round but because of the new rule the referee did not start the count until Dempsey returned to the neutral corner. Because Dempsey had forgot about this new rule it allowed Tunney and additional 5 seconds to recover and return to his feet and went on to win in a decision.Many of Dempsey’s fans said he would have won if it hadn’t been for the long count but Tunney always maintained that he was in control throughout the whole fight. Jack Dempsey retired form boxing after the fight but remained a prominent figure. He opened his own restaurant in NYC fittingly named Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant. He was famous for his hospitality and talking with his customers. He also did a little bit of acting and appeared in a handful of films.During World War II, Dempsey joined New York State Guard which gave him the opportunity to not only serve his country but to put to bed any lingering criticism of his war record in World War II.He was given a commission as a 1st lieutenant but later resigned that commission when he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve. He reported for active duty in June of 1942 at Coast Guard Training Station, Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, NY, where he was assigned as “Director of Physical Education.” He made many personal appearances on behalf of the war effort at fights, camps, war bond drives and hospitals. He was eventually promoted to the rank of commander in March of 1944. He was on board the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton (APA-25) for the invasion of Okinawa. In July of 1945, he assigned to the Commander, 11th Naval District for assignment to Military Morale Duty. He was released from active duty in September 1945 and was honorably discharged from the Coast Guard Reserve in 1952.Jack Dempsey died on May 31, 1983 due to heart failure. He was ranked only second to Yankee’s great Babe Ruth as great American Sport Icons of the '20s. He is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was inducted in 1951 to The Ring’s Boxing Hall of Fame. Many still rank him as one of the top 10 boxers of all time. He was known for his ruthlessness as a fighter but he was equally known for his kindness and generosity outside the ring.Today is his birthday so let’s raise a glass to Heavyweight Champion of the World and United States Coast Guard Veteran Jack Dempsey! Cheers to a life well lived!

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