Classic Fights: Dempsey and Firpo
Sitting on his stool between rounds, Dempsey asked Doc, “What round was I knocked out in?” Kearns poured a bucket of ice water over his head…
The date was September 14, 1923. The place was the Polo Grounds in New York City. The fight was for the NYSAC heavyweight title. The fighters were National Boxing Association heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey (54-6-9, 44 KOs), the “Manassa Mauler” from Manassa, Colorado, and Luis Ángel Firpo (31-4, 26 KOs), the “heavyweight champion of South America” from Buenos Aires, Argentina, known as “El Toro Salvaje de las Pampas” (“The Wild Bull of the Pampas”).
Jack Dempsey had not lost a fight in five years, since dropping a decision to Willie Meehan in San Francisco in 1918. He had memorable meetings with Battling Levinsky, Billy Smith, and Gunboat Smith in 1918, and won the Heavyweight World Title by demolishing Jess Willard on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, in one of the worst beatings in boxing history. Dempsey defended the title four times, including wins over Georges Carpentier in 1921 and Tommy Gibbons in 1923.
Firpo was also riding high. He boasted a four-year win streak and was basking in his recent victory over 43-year-old former heavyweight champion Jess Willard, who Dempsey had whooped four years earlier, and who had grown even softer with the years. Tex Rickard billed Firpo-Willard as “The Battle of the Giants,” even though one of the giants was over the hill and would never fight again, and the other giant was a crude brawler devoid of technical skill. It was a promotional stunt, an early template for promotional stunts to come, but a stunt that turned a profit. The Argentinean’s mauling style may have eschewed efficiency for grace, but the fans ate it up. Firpo’s big right hand made the difference. He had won 22 fights in a row, with 18 of those wins coming by knockout.
Few, however, were impressed with Firpo’s knockout of Jess Willard, who was fighting a defensive masterpiece before being caught
Even fewer thought he could stop Dempsey.
The New York Times wrote, “In his victory Firpo showed little which would justify matching him against Dempsey, not at least, until he has further seasoning and plenty of it.”
The New York Tribune didn’t mince words. The newspaper called Firpo a “caveman.”
Dempsey’s former trainer, Jimmy DeForest, said of “The Wild Bull of the Pampas,” “an uncultivated right hand is a meager weapon with which to attack Jack Dempsey.”
His wide looping punches were tailor-made for Dempsey’s brand of ferocity. Firpo could fight, but he could not box. And he had never fought anyone like Jack Dempsey.
Dempsey-Firpo lasted less than four minutes, but there were 11 knockdowns in all, nine in the first round.
Dempsey was 6-foot-1 and came into the fight a lean and mean 192½ pounds.
Firpo was 6-3 and tipped the scales at 216½.
At the opening bell Dempsey, wearing white trunks, rushed across the ring and threw a wild right hand. Firpo, in purple trunks, side-stepped the punch and countered with a short left uppercut that dropped Dempsey to a knee. It was the first time Jack had touched the canvas since his fight with Fireman Jim Flynn six and half years earlier.
Only 10 seconds of the fight had elapsed.
“The entire crowd got to its feet,” wrote Paul Gallico, “and remained standing for the balance of the fight, yelling, screaming, climbing up on the benches, falling down, clawing at each other, roaring forth a wild, tumultuous cataract of sound in the greatest sustained mass audience hysteria ever witnessed in any modern arena.”
Dempsey got to his feet without taking a count and went after Firpo’s body. The champ caught Firpo’s chin a half minute in and he went down.
Firpo got to his feet. An uppercut dropped him 20 seconds later.
“This isn’t a boxing match,” said a man sitting ringside. “This is a fight!”
A hook to Firpo’s jaw dropped him again. In the words of Grantland Rice, the fight was “a melodramatic thriller beyond words.”
Dempsey dropped Firpo another time, with an uppercut on the break. He went down again.
It looked like Firpo was finished, but he was up at nine. Then he got knocked down again.
Firpo got to his feet and started swinging. He landed a big right to Dempsey’s head that dropped the champion to all fours. Jack was up at three. He dropped Firpo.
They were holding and hitting. They were grappling and throwing down as if in defiance of or homage to Greco-Roman tastes and prohibitions. But Dempsey was a punching machine, firing off fusillades at close range at Luis Ángel Firpo.
“The lust to kill still kept burning in Firpo’s eyes,” recalled Dempsey. “That was what I was trying to put out.”
Everyone thought it was over. Dempsey thought it was over. “I didn’t think the man would get up again.” But Firpo got to his feet again.
Heywood Broun described the punch that caught Dempsey: “It was Firpo’s right, the great swinging right, which moved in a circle like the scythe of death.
“In the Book of Fate, where entries are made concerning even prize fights, it was written that this blow should land. It not only swept the champion off his feet, but tumbled him heels over head across the middle rope. There hung Dempsey, horizontal for a split second and then he fell on the heads of the front row of sporting writers.”
The fight game is full of fine moments. Dempsey flying through the ropes is among the finest.
When Dempsey was lifted back into the ring, “His head lolled and his mouth was open. We saw his eyes wandering about hopelessly in search of something to remind him of what this fearful thing was about.”
Article Four of the Marquis of Queensberry rules states that “If either man fall through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted,” but Dempsey’s “Push me back. I got to get back,” could not be ignored.
Dempsey made it to the end of the round. Sitting on his stool in the corner, he asked Doc, “What round was I knocked out in?” Kearns poured a bucket of ice water over his head. “You slipped,” he told Dempsey. “You’re coming out for the second.”
“I have no memory, none at all, of the most spectacular moment of my career,” said Dempsey. “To find out about it, I had to look at pictures.”
Studying films of the fight jogged his memory.
“I knocked him down seven or eight times,” he wrote in DEMPSEY by the Man Himself. “I hit him a couple of times before he got off the floor. I stepped over him a few times. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was dazed and out on my feet.
“There was just this fog in front of my eyes, and through it I could see this guy getting up every time I knocked him down, and the crowd was screaming so loud it made it ever harder for my brain to try to think. It was still the first round.”
Dempsey’s head cleared and the bell rang to start the second.
“I went after him again, but this time with respect. I wasn’t going to get nailed again. I stuck a right under his left hand and finally crossed him on the chin. He was swaying like a ship at sea. Two good lefts to the jaw, and that was all there was to it.”
With Firpo writhing on the canvas, referee Johnny Gallagher counted him out.
Dempsey helped Firpo to his feet.
Grantland Rice said the bout was “the most sensational fighting ever seen in any ring back through the ages of the ancient game.”
The fight was not without controversy. Film shows the referee reaching the count of four by the time Dempsey was hoisted back into the ring. But ringside observers said the time was closer to14 seconds, which would have made Firpo the winner.
But win, lose or draw, Dempsey-Firpo was a success. Paid admission was 88,000, totaling $1.25 million at the gate, Tex Rickard’s second Million Dollar Gate, with another 20,000 outside the arena fighting to get inside.
The cops had their hands full. The crowd was rowdy.
“The police, mounted and on foot, charged the swirling masses, and kept order using their clubs and their choicest vocabularies,” reported the World. “Men and women fainted by the score. Many offered five or ten dollars for a chance to mount a truck or a wagon and escape the swirling mass.”
Dempsey earned $468,750. Firpo pocketed $156,250.
It was a good night all around.