The Two Jack Dempseys

By Norman Marcus on December 21, 2016
The Two Jack Dempseys
The great John L. Sullivan offered to pay for a tombstone but it was refused by the family.

Both Dempsey brothers idolized the original Jack Dempsey, who was middleweight champion of the world in the late1800s…

The Jack Dempsey that comes to our minds was born William Harrison Dempsey. He was simply called Harry by his family. He was born on June 24, 1895 in the small Mormon village of Manassa, Colorado. His family had recently converted to Mormonism. The young Dempsey was a mix of Jewish, Irish and Cherokee Indian. The former made him very popular in New York City, where his manager Doc Kearns would always spin the story about Dempsey’s Jewish grandmother, Rachel Solomon, to reporters. It was a very good story for the gate. The people of the book liked the idea of a real tough guy with a Jewish grandmother.

Young Dempsey was taught the basics of boxing from one of his older brothers, Bernie, who briefly fought under the ring name Jack Dempsey. Bernie taught Harry all the tricks of the trade. From soaking his face in salt brine or bull urine daily, to toughen it up and chewing on pine tar, to strengthen his jaw.

Both Dempsey brothers idolized the original Jack Dempsey, who was middleweight champion of the world in the late1800s. His nickname was the Nonpareil, which meant simply the best. Now his real name was John Edward Kelly and he was born in County Kildare, Ireland. Thirty-two years later he died in Portland Oregon of consumption and alcoholism. In that short life however, he was the middleweight champion of the world.

The Nonpareil wound up with a record of 51-4-11 with 1 NC and 23 KOs. He stood 5’8’’ tall and his fighting weight was around 153 pounds. He was a fast, good puncher and was able to adapt in the ring.

This first Jack Dempsey had a big heart. Nat Fleischer’s description of Dempsey and a pivot blow gives an example. “On August 27, 1889 he fought a match with George La Blanche. In the 32nd round, La Blanche started his punch as a left hook, which missed its mark. He quickly pivoted on his heel and brought the elbow back with terrific force on Dempsey’s jaw. Had the elbow missed, the fist would have been just as effective. Dempsey fell on his face unconscious. Up to the time La Blanche used the blow, Dempsey had him bleeding and staggering and set for a knockout. The referee awarded the fight to La Blanche, but the sporting world protested the blow as illegal, since it was not executed with the fist, and Dempsey was still recognized as the champion.”

He later lost his middleweight title to a young freckled Bob Fitzsimmons at the Olympia Club in New Orleans, Louisiana, on January 14, 1891. Dempsey refused to quit that night, even though Fitzsimmons had him all cut up. Finally the champ was stopped on a RTD-13. Fitzsimmons had the legs of a middleweight but the shoulders and arms of a heavyweight. The Nonpareil was never the same after that fight. He only entered the ring three more times and lost two of those bouts. He was drinking heavily at the time and his lungs were weakened by consumption (TB). He died soon after.

The great John L. Sullivan offered to pay for a tombstone but it was refused by the family. Dempsey was buried in an unmarked grave but was remembered in a popular poem of the time. A poem that Harry and Bernie Dempsey could spout for the rest of their lives. 

The fans finally raised the cash for a proper stone. The poem short and sweet and was carved below his name. It starts out like a paragraph from a Sean O’Casey novel.

Far out in the wilds of Oregon, on a lonely mountain side, Where Columbia’s mighty waters,
Roll down to the ocean side;
Where the giant fir and cedar
Are imaged in the wave,
O’ ergrown with firs and lichens, I found Jack Dempsey’s grave…

Harry Dempsey stepped in for his sick brother one night, in a 1914 bout. He got the win and also won his brother’s ring name, Jack Dempsey. Harry’s nick name, Kid Blackie, was gone. The new Jack Dempsey was only nineteen years old at the time. He stood 6’ 1” tall and weighed in at around 185 pounds. He liked to bob and weave and bore in on his opponent. He was the ninth of ten brothers and sisters. For the rest of his life Harry would simply be known as Jack Dempsey. In retirement he became a referee, actor and owned Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant from 1935 to 1974, across from Madison Square Garden. He died at eighty-eight years of age in New York City. This Dempsey isn’t hard to find. He is buried in South Hampton, New York. Engraved on his headstone—
Heavyweight Champion of the World 1919-1926
A gentle man and a gentleman

In his prime he knocked out big Jess Willard in 1919 in Cleveland to win the heavyweight title. He held the title until September 23, 1926, when he lost it in a 10-round decision to Gene Tunney in Philadelphia. He lost the rematch with Tunney on September 22, 1927. at Soldier Field in Chicago. Tunney won again in this famous long count fight. Knocking Gene down in the 7th round, Jack failed to go to a neutral corner and the count was delayed for five precious seconds. Tunney got up on the revised count of nine (fourteen) and again won the decision. Win or lose, the fight made both men American icons.

The quiet fame of the first Jack Dempsey, the Nonpareil, shall always be a part of the story of the Manassa Mauler, the second Jack Dempsey. Simply known as Jack.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. John aka L.L. Cool John 11:23am, 01/01/2017

    “Whenever I hear the name, Jack Dempsey, I think of an America that was one big roaring camp of miners, drifters, bunkhouse hands, con men, hard cases, men who lived by their fists and their shooting irons and by the cards they drew. America at high noon.”

    —Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times

  2. Neil McIntyre 11:38am, 12/24/2016

    Hi Folks,
    In the past 50 years I hAV never SEEN ANY BOXER with the beautiful defence taught by the Australian Ambrose Palmer , a shame, but no Trainer does it. But if your a heavyweight & would like to learn ,give me a call… me .....on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  3. Duke Stones 09:42am, 12/24/2016

    Great read.
    Little known fact… Dwight Muhammad Qawi was also really Jewish. Just kidding..OY!!!

  4. The Thresher 07:36am, 12/23/2016

    Great info here. Thanks Peter

  5. Norm Marcus 06:38am, 12/23/2016

    Thanks for your support Peter. I researched Jack Dempsey years ago when I wrote my book on Max Baer. Another champ who people still argue was not “really Jewish.” Jack and Max were very close friends. Dempsey was a pall bearer at Baer’s funeral as well in 1959.
    I myself met and shook hands with Dempsey at his restaurant in 1960. I was a kid but he treated me with respect.
    This misinformation on Dempsey, Baer, and even Jake La Motta, who had a Jewish mother by the way, never stops.
    It seems these boxers don’t fit the stereotype of a Jew. Anti-semitism is alive and well in the world. I try to keep the truth alive.
    Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels one said, “The bigger the lie the easier it is to make people believe.”
    Peter you made my day!

  6. peter 02:35pm, 12/22/2016

    Thank you for another interesting read! Dempsey was, indeed, part Jewish. He and my father would sit now at a table at Dempsey’s restaurant, and I recall my father telling me that.

  7. Moon-man 05:31am, 12/22/2016

    So now, Jack Dempsey was Jewish as well. Oh, brother. This is getting hilarious.

Leave a comment