How big a deal was the second Dempsey-Tunney Heavyweight Championship fight that was held at Chicago’s Soldier Field on September 22, 1927? Big. Huge. Gargantuan. Oh there had been fights with greater attendance—120,000 squeezed into Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium 364 days earlier on September 23, 1926 to see Jack Dempsey defend his title against top contender Gene Tunney, his first title bout in three years. Tunney had stunned the nation by handily whooping the popular champ on points. Interest in the re-match was astronomical. Only 104,000 bodies could squeeze into Soldier Field—but they shelled out $2,658,660, about $22 million in today’s dollars. It was the first $2 million gate in entertainment history and a record that would stand for 50 years.
The fight attracted celebrities of all stripes, politicians, millionaire businessmen, and many of the best known writers in America. Fight promoter Tex Rickard boasted to a reporter before the bout with only a little hyperbole:
Kid, if the earth cam’se up and the sky came down and wiped out my first 10 rows, it would be the end of everything. Because I’ve got in those 10 rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent. Just in them 10 rows, kid. And you and me never seed (sic) nothing like it.
In big cities around the country crowds gathered on streets to see round by round summaries of the action posted, just as they gathered for the results of World Series games.
Despite losing his belt decisively the year before, the draw as Dempsey, the famous Manassa Mauler, a brawling former hobo from out West who had become the People’s Champion.
Jack Dempsey was born in Manassa, Colorado on June 24, 1895, his father was a down-on-his-luck sometime miner and laborer who bounced from town to town, and job to job or job hunt around Colorado, West Virginia, and finally Utah. The whole family sometimes rode the rails and jungled up at hobo camps. When he was about 5 his mother converted to Mormonism and cajoled her husband to join her. Jack was baptized at age 8, the age of consent in the faith. The connection to the Latter Day Saints brought the family to Salt Lake.
By the time he was a teenager Dempsey was helping to support his family by entering saloons and announcing, “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, but I can lick anyone in the house.” He was already a powerful puncher and could take a pummeling, too. He made a living from the bets on the bar brawls he almost always won and was soon fighting in amateur matches, then as a low grade pro on the club and smoker circuit. His early record is hard to keep track of because he boxed under his own name and as Kid Blackie.
From 1914 to early ’17 Dempsey fought 36 times under his own name mostly in Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, but with a trip to New York in 1916 as he gained a reputation. His record was 30 wins—most by knock-outs—six draws or no decisions, and just two losses.
With the outbreak of World War I, Dempsey got a good job in a California ship yard making real money without having to rely on his fists for the first time in his life. He would later be taunted as a draft dodger for not entering the Army. In fact, as we shall see, this was an issue in his fights with Tunney ten years later. Dempsey had actually tried to enlist but was rejected because of injuries associated with boxing. Whether or not he needed to box for the money, he loved the game and fought several times in California on weekends including some bouts against nationally ranked fighters like Willie Mehan.
By 1918 he was well enough known to tour and fight about every two weeks in Racine, Wisconsin; Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee; St. Paul; Denver; Joplin, Missouri; Atlanta; Harrison, New Jersey; Dayton, Ohio; back to San Francisco for a rematch with Mehan (his only loss in this stretch); Reno; New Orleans; multiple times in Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities; New Haven. It was a brutal, grueling schedule, but after the loss to Mehan, he had ten straight victories all but one by a knock out. The boxing world was abuzz about the brawler from the west and Dempsey had earned his shot at the reigning champ.Dempsey connects with the much larger champ Jess Willard in his upset win of the Heavy Weight Championship.
Jess Willard, the Pottawatomi Giant, had been the final Great White Hope and the man who finally defeated the first Black Champ, Jack Johnson. He had held the title for four years, but had defended the title only once back in 1916 preferring to rake in purses from non-title bouts and appearance fees for exhibitions. He towered over Dempsey and outweighed him by almost 40 pounds. He was and remains the biggest fighter to hold the heavy weight belt.
But with a devastating attack and flurries of punches to the head, Dempsey knocked down the champ 5 times in the first round, battering his face into a swollen mess. Although there were no more knock downs, Dempsey dominated the next two rounds. Willard could not answer the bell at the beginning of round four. Dempsey was World Champ. The power of Dempsey’s punches was so terrific, charges of doctored gloves, bandage wraps covered in plaster of Paris, or even that he was clutching an iron spike in one glove were bandied about. All charges were disproved by witnesses who saw Dempsey’ hands unwrapped and by fight film showing him pushing Willard away in clenches with his glove open. Willard himself said:
Dempsey is a remarkable hitter. It was the first time that I had ever been knocked off my feet. I have sent many birds home in the same bruised condition that I am in, and now I know how they felt. I sincerely wish Dempsey all the luck possible and hope that he garnishes all the riches that comes with the championship. I have had my fling with the title. I was champion for four years and I assure you that they’ll never have to give a benefit for me. I have invested the money I have made.
The brawler defended his title five times over the next few years beginning against Billy Miski 14months later. Ray Brennan at Madison Square Garden gave the champ his toughest fight going 15 rounds before being KOed on body punches. His fight with French Champion and World War I hero Georges Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City resulted in the first million dollar gate and the Frenchman hitting the canvas in the fourth round. The fast-on-his-feet Tommy Gibbons went 15 rounds in a fight at remote Shelby, Montana. Dempsey won on a decision. The Champ said, “Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind.”The most famous boxing painting, maybe the most famous sports painting of all time--Fripo knocks Dempsey through the ropes. Copies hung in hundreds of bars.
The defense against another giant, Argentine Luis Fripo had to be held at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants to accommodate the crowd. The 1923 bout was not a close fight. Dempsey had Fripo down multiple times. But Fripo could take a punch and came back to land a lucky one against Dempsey which sent him sailing through the ropes onto the ring side press table. The Champ got back in the ring and nailed Fripo in the second round. Probably the most famous sports painting of all time was by George Bellows showing Dempsey landing on that table.
After the Fripo fight Dempsey took an extended break from defending his title. He took time off to marry actress Estelle Taylor and appeared with her in a short run Broadway production called The Big Fight. He also had a nasty break up with his longtime manager Jack “Doc” Kearns that resulted in a bitter, expensive, and time consuming law suit. Mostly Dempsey was just enjoying the fruits of being Champ and one of the most famous and popular men in America.Clowning around with Harry Houdini in a publicity shot with with Army recruits.
But as time dragged on criticism mounted for his failure to defend the Title. The main reason seemed to be that the top contender, Harry Willis was Black. After first winning the Belt at a time when the wounds to the White American psyche from the dominance of Jack Johnson was still fresh, Dempsey had told a reporter that he would not allow a Negro to fight him for the championship. But then he publicly claimed to be willing to face Willis. And it may be true. Promoters and venues fearing race riots were not eager to take the risk.
Enter a new rising contender, Gene Tunney.
Tunney was born on May 27, 1897 to Irish immigrant parents in New York City. He was big and exceptionally fast for his size and established himself as an amateur and club fighter as a highly skilled ring man. He is known to have lost only two fights. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in France where he also became American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Champion.
After the War he became a lumberjack in Ontario for a while, seeking solitude and recovery from what was likely combat caused post-traumatic stress syndrome before turning pro. Then he quickly moved up through the ranks beating top boxers including Carpentier and Gibbons. By 1926 he was a popular fighter tagged the Fighting Marine and a reasonable White alternative top contender. A bout with Dempsey was inevitable.Gene Tunney became Dempsey's nemesis and then life long friend.
Promoter Tex Rickard wanted to stage the bout in Chicago. But Dempsey got word the Al Capone was a big fan and was ready to bet big money on the fight. Dempsey was still stung by those early charges that his Title win against Willard might have been rigged in some way and knew that gambling and fight fixing were eating away at public support. He insisted the fight not be held in the Windy City. Instead the two fighters met in Philadelphia.
This time public sentiment had swung to Tunney both because of Dempsey’s long lay-off and because charges that he was a draft dodger were resurrected and compared to the challenger’s status as a war hero and veteran. Many boxing experts thought Dempsey would be rusty and that Tunney was a technically more proficient fighter.
It turned out that those experts were right. Tunney out fought Dempsey for 10 rounds and won a unanimous decision. It was Dempsey’s graciousness in defeat and a widely reported quip to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” that help him win back the admiration of the fans.
After contemplating retirement, Dempsey came back to win a bout with another top contender, Jack Sharkey at Yankee Stadium in 1927 for the right to face Tunney again.
As the challenger, Dempsey could not keep the fight out of Chicago. And as he feared, Capone bragged about putting down $50,000 of his own money on him. The public followed, betting heavily on the challenger.
As champ Tunney got sports first million dollar pay day, while Dempsey was guaranteed about half of that. During negotiations on the terms of the bout, someone from Dempsey’s camp insisted on using the new but optional rule that required fighters to retreat to a neutral corner after a knock down before a count could begin. It is a mystery why Dempsey’s people would make such a request since their fighter’s aggressive style including standing over prone opponents ready to slam them as they struggled to their feet. This was highly effective, and a deterrent to a groggy fighter even considering getting back up. They also agreed to a larger than standard ring, an advantage to the mobile Tunney and a disadvantage to Dempsey who liked to pin his opponents in a corner and pummel them with a flurry of blows.
Once again Tunney dominated the fight. He was well ahead on points in the seventh round when Dempsey recovered and unleashed a torrent of hits sending Tunney to the canvas. For what seemed like several seconds, Dempsey loomed over Tunney as the referee tried to push him away and told him to retreat to a neutral corner. It was as if he forgot or never knew the rule. The count did not begin until Dempsey finally did. On the count of nine, Tunney got up and closed on Dempsey. The round ended but in the next round he dropped Dempsey for a count of one—but the referee began that count before Tunney reached the corner. The Champ outscored Dempsey through the final two rounds and won a unanimous decision.Tunney is down but the ref won't start the count until Dempsey goes to his corner. At the end of the famous Long Count, Tunney got to his feet and pummeled Dempsey.
The fight became celebrated in boxing lore for the Long Count. Just how much extra time Tunney had to recover was controversial. The official time keeper had the total time Tunney was down as 14 seconds. In a film of the fight a clock was superimposed that recorded Tunney’s time on the floor as 13 seconds, from the moment he fell until he got up. But most of the public never saw that film until years later when the ban on interstate transportation of boxing films was lifted. But at the time the public imagined a much longer break for Tunney and sympathy swung to Dempsey who some thought was robbed.
Neither of the fighters saw it that way. After the fight, Dempsey lifted Tunney’s arm and said, “You were best. You fought a smart fight, kid.” Tunney later said that he had picked up the referee’s count at two, and could have gotten up at any point after that, but waited until nine for obvious tactical reasons. Dempsey said, “I have no reason not to believe him. Gene’s a great guy.”
Dempsey may have lost the fight, but he emerged as a beloved hero.
Tunney defended his title just once and then retired undefeated in 1928 at the request of his wife, wealthy socialite, Mary “Polly” Lauder. He and Dempsey became great friends and were close through the rest of their lives. The couple had several children including former Democratic Senator John V. Tunney of California. He died at age 81 on November 7, 1978 in Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut.
Jack Dempsey and his famous New York restaurant were featured in MGM's Big City in 1937 with Spencer Tracy and Louise Rainer. Dempsey and other sports legends including Jim Thorpe, former White Hope Jim Jeffords, and popular wrestler of the day Man Mountain Dean joined Tracy in a climatic street brawl between independent and union cab drivers. Don't ask....
Dempsey enjoyed a long retirement and became the proprietor of a popular New York night club. He made several films, usually playing himself including Big City with Spencer Tracy and Louise Rainer and appeared on several top radio programs. He fronted several charities, including one to raise money for his friend Joe Lewis when he was down on his luck.Lt. Commander Jack Dempsey of the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.
During World War II he finally put the old draft resister canard behind him by enlisting in the Coast Guard and rising to the rank of Lt. Commander. Although he spent much of his time selling War Bonds and making moral boosting visits to the troops, Dempsey also instructed sailors in self-defense and saw sea duty and action aboard the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton for the invasion of Okinawa.
In 1977 he wrote an autobiography Dempsey in collaboration with his daughter Barbara Lynn.
On May 31, 1983, Dempsey died of heart failure in New York City at age 87 with his second wife Deanna at his side. His last words were “Don’t worry honey; I’m too mean to die.”
Almost Jack, almost.