The Business Of Boxing

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One November day in 1920 Rickard was having lunch at his usual table in Manhattan’s Hotel Claridge when he noticed Kearns across the room, sitting with two wealthy-looking Cuban eentlemen. He walked over to greet Kearns, who introduced his companions as the financiers Marcos González and Rafael Passo. who were offering a combined purse of five hundred thousand dollars for a Dempsey-Carpentier bout to be held in Havana. Stunned, Rickard told Kearns, “Don’t sign anything until you hear from me.” A few days later Rickard, Kearns, Dempsey, Carpentier, and Carpentier’s manager, François Descamps, held a press conference in the ballroom of the Claridee to announce that Rickard would promote the fieht, guaranteeing three hundred thousand dollars to Dempsey, two hundred thousand dollars to Carpentier (“Draw, lose, or get killed,” as one sarcastic Dempsey fan put it), plus 25 percent of the film rights to each fighter.

And where were the two Cuban millionaires? After their free lunch at the Claridge, plus twenty-five dollars and a few cigars each, they’d had to eive back the fancv suits and return to their regular jobs, waiting tables at a restaurant across town.

The next step was to convince the public that the frail-looking Carpentier had a chance to beat the fearsome Dempsey. This was done by adding an air of mystery to an already exotic character. He trained in secret, in a farmhouse surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by dogs. He claimed to be working on a “secret punch” that Dempsey would be unable to withstand. The hype worked. A surprising number of experts—including Jim Corbett—picked Carpentier to win.

Those closest to the action knew the real score. Even Carpentier must have known he had no chance. Rickard actually believed Dempsey might kill the Frenchman. He visited Dempsey in his dressing room before the fight and begged him to go easy. “I mean that, Jack,” he said. “If you kill him, all this will be ruined. Boxing will be dead!”

Dempsey, years later, recalled that he couldn’t believe his ears. “Imagine that,” he said, “the damn fool must have thought we were going to fight a duel with guns or something!”

The “Battle of the Century,” as the match was billed, took place at a temporary stadium near Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 2, 1921. Eighty thousand people paid a total of $1,789,238 to see it; hundreds of thousands more listened on the radio—the first time a heavyweight championship fight had been broadcast. (A preliminary bout between Gene Tunney and Soldier Jones had the distinction of being the first boxing match ever broadcast. Tunney would be heard from again.)

It was a tension-filled bout, but what made it so important was thatit was the first world heavyweight title bout to be telecast nationwide.

It was far from a great fight. From the opening bell it was clear that Dempsey was too strong for the Frenchman. In the second round Carpentier surprised Dempsey with a hard right cross, his “secret punch.” But Dempsey recovered quickly, beat Carpentier to a pulp in the third round, and knocked him out in the fourth.

The public wasn’t disappointed though. It continued to romanticize Carpentier, pointing out his courage in getting into the same ring with the “Manassa Mauler.” George Bernard Shaw wired him, “I admire you now more than ever.”

Dempsey’s popularity rose too. Previously he’d had relatively little exposure, and those who knew of him had thought him a surly bruiser, but during the buildup to the fight he showed himself to be well spoken, personable, somewhat shy, and surprisingly intelligent. He became the first of the five great athletes—along with Babe Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in football, Bill Tilden in tennis, and Bobby Jones in golf—who established themselves as celebrities in the 1920s and began the American tradition of regarding sports heroes as demigods.

This was the beginning of the star system in professional sports, especially in the nonteam sports of boxing, tennis, and golf. An overwhelming personality, like an Arnold Palmer, a John McEnroe, or a Muhammad Ali, will put money in everyone’s pocket. When there is no one dominating figure, as is the situation in all three of these sports today, the gate receipts shrink.

Coupled with Dempsey’s popularity was the removal of the last serious restrictions on legalized boxing in several states, most notably New York. So while boxing had been growing steadily in the United States since the 185Os, the real boom took place in the early 1920s. The sport came out of the back rooms for good. Fight clubs were established in every major city. In New York you could see live boxing every night of the week. For the next three decades fighters had to serve an apprenticeship of several years in these small clubs before they went on to the big time (hence the term club fighter , meaning a young boxer with more enthusiasm than skill).