Dempsey: An Explosive Spirit

By Ted Spoon on May 14, 2014
Dempsey: An Explosive Spirit
The brawler from Manassa, Colorado was continually refined, physically and culturally.

That lovesick puppy was no more. The hobo that had shivered himself to sleep was full of strength. Compassion, the defect, had gone…

Almost nobody alive will remember Feb 16, 1918. Only a small portion will know what happened during that cycle of the sun; on that cold, emotional day in Mount Calvary Cemetery.

Friends and possible kin huddled together, to help divide the bitter pill. Figures blended in with tombstones. The only signs of life were icy breathe and the odd shiver. Reddened eyes watched Jim Corbett and William Muldoon aid in the transportation of a coffin that must have weighed a ton; inside, the plump corpse of John L. Sullivan. Shovels were readied, but as they began to make enquiries it was apparent that the ground was frozen, solid. The radical solution came in the form of dynamite. Carefully it was arranged while everyone shuffled further from the place of rest.


Wildlife flinched, Jake Kilrain smiled, and if you don’t totally discount the supernatural you could say the great man’s spirit began looking for a new host.

Four hundred fifty miles east in Buffalo, 22-year-old Jack Dempsey tucked himself in after the daily hustle, no longer to the bassline of a grumbling stomach. What old Jim Flynn had achieved in Murray was (temporarily) erased as Jack had returned the compliment — KO round 1. Dempsey’s thoughts were much like his fighting. Acquire Target. Destroy. His fists were more than adequate for the latter, but outside of the ring Jack was like a Salt Water Croc in the Atlantic.

The man to get him back to his natural habitat was called Jack Kearns.

Quite tall, slender, and with a boxer’s nose, Kearns gave no quarter. If he didn’t secure a deal first time around you would eventually tire of saying “No.” Everything was haggled on a cigar-stained voice. Dempsey knew it would be taken more seriously than his — soprano. It was also needed to reassure promoters as Dempsey, especially in these early days, wasn’t much wider than his manager.

You needed to catch him in good light, like Jimmy Wilde. Only then would you see those wiry arms and cobbled back; taut for action, not inflated for show. Homer Smith and Carl Morris sampled their power. Morris ended up fouling out but Robert Edgren noted that, when the bigger man tried his leaning tactic, “The miner nearly lifted big Carl off the floor with uppercuts.” Quietly proud of his work, Dempsey sent mother a little keep, wrapped in newspaper clippings of himself. 

Bill “KO” Brennan was swiftly penned in. This Kearns chap wasn’t lying about getting top fights. Not a great boxer, but tough and with plenty of mustard on his right, the Chicagoan was built for upsets; for punishment in this case. When Dempsey was through with him there was bruising, a sore head, and a break. Round two produced four knockdowns. Round six produced another two, at which point it was stopped. Brennan had never touched down, until today. Before it was over there was a strange incident. Kearn’s would later say that “The force of Dempsey’s punch had twisted Bill’s body around so that the ankle simply had to snap.”

The loser took to crutches while the two Jack’s caught a train. 

Better money = more tailored suits, and good victories = greater exposure. Kearns was doing exactly as planned while being recognized was a revelation for his pet tiger. Life was on standby for disappointment and it came in the form of John “The Barber” Reisler, that awful manager who fed Dempsey to the wolves back in 1916. As Reisler saw it, the fighter was still under his contractual thumb. Kearns snapped at the $5,000 ask but knew John would make life very difficult if not dealt with. A few strings were pulled, the sum was paid off, and true to the stipulation John never showed “his ugly face again.”

Two more home runs brought the dynamic duo to Saint Paul, Minnesota. Billy Miske didn’t look like much, to Dempsey. When the bell went he not only resisted the onslaught but slowed it down, took it for a waltz, and did some pelting of his own. An interesting ten-rounder for the crowd led to a nervous moment for the slugger from Salt Lake City. A draw was something of a relief. Later he mused on the dangers of underestimating. 

As night drew in and Miske was still shufflin’ in Dempsey’s mind, the fighter considered the bigger picture and caught sight of Maxine. His first real squeeze had gone from an adventure with cleavage to a selfish drunk. Leaving without a kiss, but still expecting a cut of the pie, Dempsey came to his wits and filed for divorce. The grass was definitely greener. Kearns had secured a big one.

Towering Fred Fulton was sick of trying to corner Jess Willard and agreed to an eliminator. At the old Federal League Ball Park in Harrison, New Jersey that quip about not blinking had a practical purpose. Fred was both muscular and trim like his opponent. He was also a decent pick for a new champion. It wasn’t very well attended but enough reporters were there to send out headlines like flares. Cautiously, in that stiff manner of his, Fred tried to get his range. Dempsey, in that blitzkrieg manner of his, swooped in on light feet. Some say it was a three-punch fight; a right to the body, a hook to the head, and a right to the jaw. There wasn’t even enough time to yell “timberrrrrrr!” Slightly tangled in the ropes, Fulton tried to stand but re-collapsed. It lasted barely 20 seconds. The winner then saw an audience member zip outside. This sly dog managed to sell his ticket for double the price.

Mum got another packet — this one was book width. A house in Salt Lake City was bought outright.

In San Francisco Willie Meehan made his final, troublesome appearance. A four-rounder for Navy relief went to the round sailor. It was a good bout in which neither heard the final bell. More of a lively exhibition than a meaningful fight, the loser remained firmly on the fast track. In his own words he was “too far along to be concerned.”

Philadelphia then got an eyeful of the number one contender. Battling Levinsky, worn but unbroken, hoped that experience would prevail. Once swarmed it became a question of endurance. In the third Dempsey did what one else had and decked him, for the count. It was scheduled for six, and so was the rematch with Miske. The St. Paul fighter, strong and talented, again showed his talent but, come rounds five and six, was said to be grimacing under a two-handed attack. The popular newspaper vote was Dempsey.

A 30-second victory against Carl Morris, that “bum” who made Dempsey snarl more than usual, led to one more name, Gunboat Smith. A second round knockout of this veteran put the full stop on a blistering 1918. 19-1-1 (17 KOs) — 12 of them inside the first. It remains one of the most underrated twelve months, particularly in the heavyweight division.

This jigsaw however was still missing that shiny piece in the middle. 

It could have all fallen apart. Money still wasn’t great. Kearns and his fighter performed at Vaudeville to make a buck and continue with this ongoing advertisement. Dempsey would spar, look mean, and even spoke with a little showmanship. The brawler from Manassa, Colorado was continually refined, physically and culturally, until every promoter smiled back. They had done everything right, but they weren’t in control. Stuck between the throne and Jess Willard’s 240-pound butt was the heavyweight championship. 

The 6’6” giant walked, not as his title would imply. Those huge feet didn’t clear the pavement by much. A good foot taller than the average geezer, Jess scanned pokey avenues, solemnly, like a man who didn’t belong. This huge tumbleweed was happy with no agenda. “When ya gonna fight next?” was a question that hit him like the wind.

A two-pronged attack was needed. Dempsey, trying not to fall over his words, got in contact with Tex Rickard and informed him of both Willard’s poor condition and the big pot of money everyone would make. Meanwhile Kearns showered the big man with a verbal assault. Jess grew tired of saying “No.”

Another delicate situation lay ahead between promoter and manager. Kearns wanted a split purse. Tex refused. Silent while tinkering with his posture, Dempsey watched Kearns push hard, almost too hard. “For once I was afraid Doc would blow it.” Slowly Rickard made him see reason and team Dempsey were promised $27,500. At last, a break — the break.

Beneath negotiations there was plenty of doubt. Rickard thought he was crazy, father bet against son. Kearns was always positive but his fighter didn’t fully trust him. A sure-fire way to walk onto something was to be gullible; Dempsey had learned the hard way. Not anymore. 

With ambition, with fear, he headed for the Toledo battle ground. As trees and farmland whizzed by it was easier to focus on the past. Leaving home at eleven, training with dear Bernie, scrapping in the mines; life had forged a toughie. Inevitably bad times leaked into the picture, Reisler, Maxine. That brow tightened. Rather than lead to private mumbles it reminded him of his golden appointment with big Jess. A snarl resurfaced. That lovesick puppy was no more. The hobo that had shivered himself to sleep was full of strength. Compassion, the defect, had gone. Just one more training camp…and…this mauler would be punching for keeps, some would say from beyond the grave.

On July 4, 1919, after an official check, dynamite was buried into 5 oz. gloves.

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Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard- The Worst Beating in Boxing History - W/ Commentary

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  1. bikermike 04:30am, 05/18/2014

    There will always be an odour to that drubbing Willard took.  The whispers of loaded gloves ...Jack Kearns was no choir boy.
    When he worked the gold fields…as a gold dust/nugget buyer….(according to his interview)...he’d keep running his hands though his oily hair…later , only to wash out the gold dust he had stuck to his hands

    Dempsey left the ring so fast..and had to be called back when Willard was willing to continue despite the brutal beating he’d already received

    All in all….Dempsey was good for boxing….despite his very few ring appearances after he won the Title from Willlard

  2. Eric 07:01am, 05/15/2014

    Irish… teehee. Never thought about that, but great comparison. I loved the episode where “Chubby” boxed another fat kid that would get pissed when someone would mess with his hair. “Remarkable.”

  3. robyn bunting 09:31pm, 05/14/2014

    I don’t think Dempsey ever fought at more than 200lbs, and in his best shape was about 190. Cruiserweight. [Am I right?] Yet I would confidently match him with many of the great heavyweight champions coming later.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:36pm, 05/14/2014

    Dempsey throwing punches like the kids in Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedy shorts….when they would rope off a ring and Butch would frazzle Alfalfa’s cowlick as Darla swooned!

  5. Eric 07:56am, 05/14/2014

    Dempsey only wore 5 oz. gloves in the Willard fight?  Damn. No wonder he did so much damage to poor Willard. There are certain fighter’s physiques that just look like they are capable of delivering a powerful punch. Not the body beautiful physique like Mike Weaver, although Weaver was a helluva puncher, but when you look at guys like Dempsey or Fitzsimmons, you suspect they could knock your head off.

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