A Grave Interpretation

By Pete Ehrmann on September 19, 2014
A Grave Interpretation
Dempsey said he would fight or die, because people expected no less from The Nonpareil.

The word “nonpareil” — “something of unequalled excellence” — was a nickname applied to and adopted by boxers of that more literate time…

On January 18, 1895, former middleweight champion Jack Dempsey was wasted by the tuberculosis and alcoholism that would end his life 10 months later. He was also scheduled to fight welterweight champion Tommy Ryan that night. Unable to talk him out of it, friends summoned a physician to lay down the law. The doc pronounced him in no condition to get into the ring then or ever again.

He told them all to piss off. He would fight or die, because people expected no less from The Nonpareil.

A decade earlier the boxer born John Kelly had in reputation and popularity rivaled John L. Sullivan. They were the greatest figures in boxing in the 1880s.

That was the furthest thing from Jack Dempsey’s mind when he had his first fight on April 6, 1883. Until then he had been a professional wrestler, like his brother Martin. Wrestling was legal in New York City, where Dempsey moved with his family from Ireland when Jack was four. Boxing wasn’t. Prizefights were held in secret, witnessed by a privileged few. Jack Dempsey was among the latter when Ed McDonald and Lawton Troy were supposed to fight on Long Island. Troy didn’t show up, so McDonald offered $25 to anyone willing to take his place. The purse looked “as big as a house to me in those days,” Dempsey recalled later. When they met in the center of the ring, McDonald told Dempsey not to be afraid because he was going to have a peaceful nap.

The fight went 27 rounds — under the London Prize Ring rules in effect then, a round lasted until one man went down — and it was McDonald who snoozed. Goodbye, wrestling.

When he met Canadian George Fulljames in Long Island at 4:30 a.m. on July 30, 1884, in a ring whose posts kept leaning over in the shifting sand, Dempsey weighed 137 pounds to Fulljames’ 126. Some record books call it the fight in which Dempsey, who knocked out Fulljames in 22 rounds, won the middleweight title. But contemporary newspaper accounts reported it as a contest for the “lightweight championship of America.”

The word “nonpareil” — “something of unequalled excellence” — was a nickname applied to and adopted by boxers of that more literate time as commonly as “Rocky” and “KO” were by future, less erudite pugs. But Jack Dempsey was the only one to whom it stuck. He was a stylish boxer with a punch. After he beat Fulljames, Dempsey hit Mike Dempsey (no relation) so hard that according to a newspaper account he “lay unconscious from 10 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon.”

In his blue tights and white shoes, with a “parti-colored brown handkerchief around his waist,” Dempsey was a striking figure even before he struck anyone.

When Dempsey fought George (The Marine) LaBlanche on March 14, 1886, before 40 spectators at Larchmont, New York, even though it was surrounded by the usual secrecy and the site was moved several times to evade police, newspapers around the country reported it on their front pages the day after as “the greatest middleweight fight on record.”

Marquis of Queensberry rules calling for three minute rounds were in effect this time, but the fighters wore gloves “no thicker than those worn by most of the spectators.” Jabbing masterfully, the 144½-pound Nonpareil wore the former lumberjack down in 13 rounds.

His victory was so acclaimed that the Lester and Allen Minstrel Show offered Dempsey $150 a week to do “classic posing” on the stage. Powdering up and posing as Greek statues was a lucrative way for the best boxers and wrestlers of the time to augment their ring earnings, and often a necessary one. In early ’86, Dempsey announced that henceforth he would fight for no less than $5,000 per bout. Expenses, including the cost of lawyers and fines for violating anti-prizefight statutes, were considerable, and Jack never again wanted to be in the embarrassing position in which he had once found himself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Onetime opponent John (Old Soap) McAlpine ran a gym there, and Dempsey came to town and accompanied McAlpine to the site of a secret bout. For all his fame, Dempsey was broke, and he allowed McAlpine to try to make a fast buck for him by hustling a bout.

“Gentlemen, I’ve got a pupil here that I’d like to match against any feller in the crowd,” announced McAlpine. “He ain’t much of a scrapper and he’s young, but I’ll go a hundred on him.”

Somebody recognized the Nonpareil, and when the hooting subsided Dempsey had to borrow money to get out of town.

In 1887, Jack was willing to be $1,000 on himself against John L. Sullivan himself — under certain conditions.

“I am not getting the swelled head so that I think I would stand any show to whip” the heavyweight champion, Dempsey said, “but I know he can’t stop me in six rounds.”

On December 13 of that year, Dempsey defended his title against Johnny Reagan. For the finish fight under London Prize Ring rules the ring was pitched on a Long Island beach, and after the fourth round the tide came in. The bout had to be adjourned and resumed on higher ground. Dempsey ended most of the rounds by throwing Reagan down and falling on top of him, and Reagan cut Dempsey’s leg to the bone with a spiked shoe. The champion won in 45 rounds.

Dempsey opened a tavern on Long Island, and, as the hoary joke goes, became his own best customer. When he departed for San Francisco to defend his title against George LaBlanche on August 28, 1889, sportswriter John McCormick noted, “he looked wan and weary, and 10 years older than his age warranted.”

The fighters agreed to weigh no more than 160, but LaBlanche came in one pound over that (Dempsey weighed 151) and before the opening bell it was declared it a non-title fight.

Aiming most of his punches at LaBlanche’s neck, Dempsey was in control for 31 rounds. The neck punch, it was reported, was “a comparatively new discovery. Its effect is partial paralysis.” LaBlanche was in such bad shape that at one point he volunteered to lay down if Dempsey gave him $500. Jack poured it on, and in round 32, while being battered in the middle of the ring, LaBlanche debuted his own unique contribution to ring science. He whirled around and backhanded Dempsey on the jaw with his left. The “pivot punch” would be outlawed, but not before Dempsey was counted out.

Jack was more sheepish than outraged. “I shall keep away from all my friends in the city,” he said a week after the fight on a traveling layover in Chicago. “I hate to have to be making excuses for that little surprise on the coast, because it was as much a surprise to me as it was to all the boys.”

Dempsey kept the title in an 1890 fight with Australian Billy McCarthy in which he refused to punish McCarthy further after 28 one-sided rounds. Mercy was not a luxury Dempsey granted Bob Fitzsimmons when the latter beat Dempsey in their middleweight title fight on January 14, 1891.

Freckled Bob was in control from the start, and in the eleventh round he urged the champion to give up and spare himself a knockout defeat. Dempsey sneered. Two painful rounds later Jack spurned another Fitzsimmons entreaty to surrender, wheezing, “I’m good enough to beat you yet.” Fitz knocked him out in that round.

It was a terrible thing to lose his title, Dempsey said afterwards, but losing it to “a goddamn Englishman has killed me.”

Jack dove into the bottle. In his almost constant blotto condition he failed at several business enterprises lined up for him by supporters.

The night of the Tommy Ryan fight, after Dempsey told his friends and the doctor to go to hell, reason almost prevailed when someone said that a substitute was ready to go on for him if he would step aside. Dempsey considered it until he learned that the nominee was Joe Walcott, “The Barbados Demon,” who would win the welterweight title himself six years later. Dempsey thought even less of black people than he did of Englishmen, and into the ring he went.

The terminal lunger could hardly hold up his hands. When the fight was stopped in the third round the crowd jeered the ex-champion.

A few days later Dempsey reportedly tried to kill himself with a knife in a Long Island roadhouse. The papers called him “violently insane.” Eventually he was taken to his family’s home in Portland, Oregon, where he died at 32 on November 1, 1895.

They buried him there in Mount Calvary Cemetery, and supporters started a subscription campaign to replant Dempsey in his beloved Long Island under a bronze statue of himself with his ring record emblazoned on the pedestal. The widow Dempsey endorsed the plan, and even goddam Fitzsimmons pledged $200.

But the righteous caretakers of Calvary Cemetery in Newtown, Long Island, wouldn’t allow a prizefighter to be so lavishly memorialized on their hallowed ground, and so Dempsey’s bones remained in Portland, mostly forgotten until M.J. McMahon wrote a poem in 1899 called “The Nonpareil’s Grave.” Widely published, it made Dempsey’s grave a pilgrimage site for famous boxers visiting Portland. Over the years Stanley Ketchel came, and so did Terry McGovern, Jim Jeffries and Jess Willard.

But in early 1921, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, in Portland for an exhibition bout, declined to follow suit when it was pointed out that after they had paid their respects at The Nonpareil’s grave Ketchel was shot to death, McGovern lost his lightweight title to Young Corbett, Jeffries was beaten by Jack Johnson, and Willard lost his heavyweight title to him.

“Are you superstitious?” a reporter asked the champion who gave Jack Dempsey’s grave a wide berth.

“Maybe I am,” admitted Jack Dempsey.

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  1. NYIrish 01:12pm, 09/19/2014

    Nice work. Thanks for the story.

  2. oldschool 07:27am, 09/19/2014

    Pete,  The Nonpareil is another in a long list of all-time great middleweights that died (age 32) way too young. Love the article.

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