Jack Dempsey: A Gentle Man and a Gentleman

By Robert Mladinich on August 16, 2017
Jack Dempsey: A Gentle Man and a Gentleman
Jack Dempsey congratulated teenaged boxers Gerry Cooney and “Irish” Johnny Turner.

The New York Times wrote that “during his long retirement, [Dempsey] set a standard of dignity rarely equaled by a former champion…”

Former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey has always been a subject of great fascination to me. His aggressive style and tremendous punching power and humility made him a cultural icon of the 1920s.

Born William Harrison Dempsey in Manassa, Colorado, in 1895, the future champion grew up dirt poor and left the family home as a teenager. He rode the rails, hopping freights and bunking down in mining and homeless encampments throughout the American West. 

He soon began boxing in saloons and labor camps under the names Kid Blackie and Young Dempsey, often beating full grown men. In 1918 he fought 21 times, defeating such established boxers as Gunboat Smith, Battling Levinsky, Bill Brennan and Billy Miske.

On July 4, 1919, the Dempsey legend was born after he stopped the gargantuan Jess Willard in the third round. At 6’1” tall and 187 pounds, Dempsey was dwarfed by Willard, who was 5½ inches taller and 58 pounds heavier.

After knocking Willard down seven times, the former champion, who previously had never been off his feet, described Dempsey as “a remarkable hitter.”

Dempsey won five bouts, including a savage brawl against Luis Angel Firpo, before meeting Gene Tunney in September 1926. Tunney, a former Marine, would win a unanimous decision in Philadelphia in front of more than 120,000 fans.

Dempsey later told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” when explaining the inexplicable loss. That same line was repeated by U.S. President Ronald Reagan more than a half-century later when he was shot and wounded by would-be assassin John Hinckley in 1981. 

Dempsey rebounded from the Tunney loss with a stoppage win over future titlist Jack Sharkey and then faced Tunney in a rematch in September 1927 in Chicago. In that fight, which is known as “The Long Count,” Dempsey again lost a decision to the extremely clever Tunney.

The losses to Tunney did not diminish Dempsey’s widespread popularity in any way. After retiring with a final ring tally of 54-6-9 (44 KOs), he dabbled in Hollywood and opened Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in New York in 1935.

The eatery and bar was located on Eighth Avenue and West 50th Street, directly across from the old Madison Square Garden.

The restaurant’s name was later changed to Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant when it relocated to Broadway, between West 49th and 50th Streets. It was there that he held court daily, greeting visitors with his standard “Hiya, Pal,” until a rent dispute forced him to heartbreakingly close its doors in 1974.

What made Dempsey so interesting to me was the fact that during many visits to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, in the 1990s, so many older men, all of whom were 60 or more, described Dempsey as their childhood hero and spoke of him in such reverential terms. 

Many of these men, including the late Bob Shepard, a longtime boxing collector and appraiser for Sotheby’s, seemed awestruck when discussing Dempsey with his contemporaries. Shepard even owned a sports jacket that had been custom-made for Dempsey and had the name of the tailor and the champ sewn inside. 

A few months ago I visited Dempsey’s grave in Southampton, New York. I always get nostalgic at cemeteries so my imagination began to wander. I was forlorn that I never got to meet the great Dempsey, nor did I ever visit his restaurant. 

I recalled a photo that appeared in the New York Daily News in the early 1970s, when Dempsey congratulated teenaged boxers Gerry Cooney and “Irish” Johnny Turner for their outstanding performances in the city’s Golden Gloves tournament.

He presented them with giant trophies and praised them for their fistic acumen.

“Meeting him was like meeting Babe Ruth,” said Turner. “I had read a lot about him, and I was in awe of him.”

Between 1975 and 1984, Turner, now 62, compiled a professional record of 42-6-2 (32 KOs). He also appeared in the Academy Award winning film “Raging Bull.”

Cooney, who will turn 61 later this month, challenged Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title in 1982 and retired eight years later with a record of 28-3 (24 KOs).

He recalls the experience of meeting Dempsey as “pretty exciting.”

“He was an awesome man and champion, but I was too young to recognize his greatness,” said Cooney. “He told me I was big and tall and would have a nice career if I worked hard. He was kind of quiet, not very outspoken, but there was something about him that stood out.”

When Dempsey passed away from a heart ailment at the age of 87 in 1983, the New York Times wrote that “during his long retirement, [he] set a standard of dignity rarely equaled by a former champion.”

Cooney and Turner, both long retired, now in their sixties, in good health and living fulfilling and enriching lives, could not agree more.

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  1. David 10:09am, 08/22/2017

    Another great article about the late great Jack Dempsey, who in my opinion, was the “Greatest” heavyweight in the history of boxing. Even the late great trainer Ray Arcel said that “In Jack Dempsey’s prime he beats Muhammad Ali.”

  2. Alfonso Bedoya 02:38pm, 08/17/2017

    My Patron Saint, St. Joseph of Cupertino let me down again….probably too busy practicing take offs and landings.

  3. Alfonso Bedoya 01:53pm, 08/17/2017

    Lucas McCain-From here in the back row at City College, ” Where Columbia’s might waters” works just fine in that stanza.

  4. Lucas McCain 07:38am, 08/17/2017

    Alfonso—sorry for the typo.  It should have been “mighty waters.”  Too long a walk down to my molding basement library to get the rest of the poem exactly, but here the modern technological world comes to my rescue.  Dempsey’s Grave:

    http://www.poetryexplorer.net/poem.php?id=10146915

  5. peter 04:20pm, 08/16/2017

    Thanks, Mr. Mladinich, for writing this excellent Jack Dempsey article. It’s a breath of fresh air for a crumbling sport that is gasping for fresh air. Thanks to boxing.com articles like this, Jack Dempsey’s name pops up—and will continue to do so…I suspect that there is a little bit of Jack Dempsey in us all—the strong, courageous part of us that is willing to venture out into the wilderness to tackle giant challenges. And after our victories, we remain humble. Jack Dempsey, as Mr. Mladinich points out, is one of our great American icons…a role model, to be sure.

  6. Ted Sares 11:55am, 08/16/2017

    Nicely done per usual, Bob

  7. Alfonso Bedoya 07:59am, 08/16/2017

    You just don’t find this on the other boxing sites and in response….“Where Columbia’s might waters”...

  8. Lucas McCain 07:40am, 08/16/2017

    P.S.  The Mauler said he always felt the poem was about him whenever he read it!

  9. Lucas McCain 07:38am, 08/16/2017

    Nice column. I still regret never having dropped into Dempsey’s to meet the great man, and I’m always reminded of that when I see the joint “Demsey’s” in Manhattan.  Fake Mauler! 
      Bob Dylan has an amusing anecdote about meeting him in the restaurant, but even the fight-fan didn’t have much to say about him.  I suspect your visit was partly motivated by “Dempsey’s Grave,” a poem published, I think, every year in Nat Fleischer’s Record book, though it was about the other Dempsey, the earlier middleweight “Nonpareil.”  It was the first poem I ever memorized, however imperfectly:  “Far out in the wilds of Oregon / On a lonely mountain side / Where Columbia’s might waters/ Rolled down to the ocean side / Where the giant fir and cedars / Are mirrored on the waves, / O’ergrown with firs and lichens / I found Jack Dempsey’s grave.” I could go on, but I’ll spare you!

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