- Historic Sites
The Destruction Of A Giant
How I Beat Jess Willard
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
William Harnson, better known as Jack, Dempsey, a bruising heavyweight prize fighter from Manassa, Colorado, had been fighting for eleven years when, in igiff, he managed to get a crack at the world championship title. Under the ßamboyant and often unscrupulous management of Jack “Doc” Kearns, Dempsey had piled up an impressive string of wins—often first-round knockouts—and Jess Willard, the mountainous, 36-year-old champion, had finally been cajoled and bullied into defending his title against the aggressive 24-yearold. Today, Jack Dempsey, eighty-one years old, tells the story ofthat historic and brutal fight and of a time when boxing was rougher and seamier than it is now. His new autobiography, Dempsey, from which the following excerpt is adapted, has been written with the help of his stepdaughter, Barbara Piattelli Dempsey, and will be published by Harper & Row this month.
The fight for the championship was held in Toledo, Ohio, in the heart of the Midwest, bordering the western shore of Lake Erie and the Michigan line to the north. In those days, 1919, the city was a haven for prominent gamblers and hustlers who were on the lam. Once in a while local authorities would crack down and the crap games would cease until new locations were found.
Tex Rickard, who promoted the fight, managed to construct his arena with the best new lumber he could find—which was a mistake. The hotter the temperature became, the stickier the seats got as the sap oozed out. He was so proud of his beautiful arena that he would take walks around it, praising it like a newborn baby. He even had it inspected by the building inspector.
The Overland Club, where I trained, was located on the shore of Maumee Bay in Toledo. From the moment we arrived, the air was tense with excitement. Newspapermen were all around and Doc Kearns took full advantage of their presence.
“We’ve got to move fast, talk fast and hope that the odds’ll change.”
People seemed to be coming from all over, and private homes in the area rented out rooms and offered home cooking. The favorite pastimes were speculation, prediction, and contradiction; journalists excelled at all three. Otto Floto of the Denver Post and Scoop Gleeson of the San Francisco Bulletin came out for me before any of the others.
Damon Runyon, who wrote for the Hearst papers, was very busy in the weeks before the fight and proved to be an invaluable friend. He had become one of my favorite people. I always felt that if I ever fell down, I could safely land on either Damon or Gene Fowler, who was working then for the New York American . Damon would sit and talk with me for hours, listening to my ideas, my plans, and my outrageous Kearns-like philosophies. He was the most patient man I knew. He went through ups and downs like everyone else but kept his problems to himself, not wanting to inflict himself on others.
“You know, Jack, people don’t really give a hoot about what you’re saying. Most of them are just sitting there waiting for you to pause so that they can interrupt and retread the conversation back to their favorite subjects—themselves.”
He told me that a man of few words is, as a rule, more respected than one whose words foam in his mouth. Damon used to laugh at some people because of this; seems that every time he clammed up (which was often), others would start babbling furiously, as if they felt the necessity of talking for two. Because of his friendship with me, and because he was privy to littleknown information, Runyon was frequently resented by the other newspapermen—some of them the same ones who had slammed their doors in my face several years before.
I was training in Toledo long before Willard arrived. My trainer, Jimmy De Forest, an incredible dynamo, dedicated himself to me morning, noon, and night. He and Doc, as always, disagreed on all but one thing: Neither of them wanted me to overtrain and go stale, so they had me alternate one week of training with one week of rest. The rest weeks always seemed to be too long, but the locals who came to see me kept me occupied. Kids would take turns sitting on my lap or at my feet while I told them tales of wild bears and moose. I could play baseball on the beach with friends or I could run the hundred-yard dash. In short, I could do anything I wanted to do that week except train.
In addition to training, I would lay off food one day a month to give my body a rest. It seemed strange doing such a thing out of choice, when a few years ago I didn’t eat out of necessity.
Moods in training camps can always be felt from the very beginning. In mine, monkey business and shenanigans were kept to a minimum and morale was high. Sure, we had the usual hangers-on, kibitzers, and experts—everyone did—but mine were unique. Some of them were to hang on tightly for the next fifty years.
Doc lashed out at Willard every opportunity he got. It was easy since he wasn’t around to defend himself.
“Beat Willard? Why, I’d like to take a crack at that big stiff! A cinch, nothing to it! After this is over, I’m going to try and sign Jack with Georges Carpentier, who I hear is fighting again. If he won’t come here, why, then, we’ll go to France. Or Britain!”
He knew just what to say and, what’s more, he thoroughly enjoyed reading what he said afterward.
“The challenger is ready to go into the ring and he is in condition to box all night against any man in the world!”
Box all night? For a moment he really threw me, but then I remembered he’d say anything.