A Sporting Life

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Many recent writers have criticized Dempsey for not having fought a leading black fighter of his era, Harry Wills. The two did sign a contract for a match, but Dempsey claimed, “The only man I ever ducked was Ernest Hemingway.” What does this all mean?

There was something crazy about Hemingway. Dempsey went to Paris in the early twenties and wandered the town, danced at its nightclubs, and found that its beautiful women were surprisingly receptive—“if,” he said, “you were young and heavyweight champion of the world. And I was young and heavyweight champion of the world.” He sparred many exhibitions over there, and at one point he met Hemingway, who wanted to spar him. Dempsey said he had a wild look and that “to stop him I would have to hurt him badly,” so he refused.

On the Wills question, Dempsey had at least fought other blacks. He fought John Lester Johnson, the Boston Bearcat, and sparred regularly with Bill T‰te. I defer to John Lardner, who said that Wills was big, slow, and strong, that it would have been just another Willard fight. Dempsey mainly was looking for purses. He signed in South Bend for Wills, and somebody gave him a check, but there was nothing in the account. His favorite promoter, Tex Rickard, refused to make the fight in New York, having learned a cynical lesson promoting the 1910 Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries bout, which had caused lynchings and nationwide race riots when Johnson won. He was quoted as saying of a Wills-Dempsey match, “If a nigger’s the champion, the heavyweight championship’s not worth a bucket of warm piss.” (John Nance Garner would later say something similar about the Vice Presidency.)

“People are always getting indicted now. There’s no organized public relations effort. So boxing as it was recedes in the public memory.”
 

Dempsey grew up primarily in Colorado, Utah, and West Virginia; he was a Scotch-Irish American who also claimed Cherokee ancestry and sometimes cited a Jewish great-grand-mother. You were surprised by Dempsey’s forthright answers to questions about his rumored Jewish roots during the twenties, given the broad anti-Semitism of the era.

Actually, it turns out there was some Jewish strain in there, maybe a great-grandmother named Rachel Solomon, maybe a pots-and-pans peddler in West Virginia named Abraham Levy. Dempsey’s second wife, the Hollywood actress Estelle Taylor, liked to call him Ginsberg. After he lost the championship, Estelle said, “What happened, Ginsberg?” To which Dempsey famously replied, “Honey, I forgot to duck”—a line Reagan used years later. Dempsey had known real poverty, but he was pretty well traveled too. He detested bigotry.

Was the 1923 Firpo fight, when the Argentine challenger knocked Dempsey out of the ring and into the press row (inspiring George Bellows’s most famous painting), the high point of the golden age? Is there any better symbol of how much the champion and the writers needed each other than the sight of Lardner, Runyon, and Pegler all shoving their meal ticket back into the ring? Who actually pushed him back?

Dempsey, who was so groggy he didn’t remember leaving the ring and asked his corner, “What round did I get knocked out in?,” said much later that he hoped a young correspondent named Eddie Neil had pushed him back in, since Neil was killed covering the Spanish Civil War. You can’t see from the film because the camera’s focused on the ring. At one point, Firpo, who wasn’t the funniest guy in the world, said, “There were so many hands on his back, I thought he was getting a massage.”

In 1945 Esquire polled its readers and found that they thought the most significant sports event of the century was the 1927 Dempsey-Tunney rematch, with the infamous Long Count in which Tunney went down but the referee wouldn’t start counting until Dempsey went to a neutral corner—a recent rule. Tunney won by a decision, and the fight itself wasn’t all that exciting apart from the controversy. What made it so important?

If you think of everything involved in the Long Count, it remains one of the huge events of the century. As far as I’ve been able to piece it together, people were trying to fix the fight. You couldn’t fix Dempsey, you couldn’t fix Tunney. Everybody was going to get too much money anyway. Al Capone was an enormous Dempsey fan, to the embarrassment of Dempsey—he even sent him flowers—and an unappetizing group of Philadelphia gamblers were Tunney rooters, including Boo Boo Hoff and Abe Attell, who had been instrumental in fixing the 1919 World Series. Tunney had borrowed money from the Hoff group. As they got closer to the fight, there were questions about the referee, a fellow named Dave Miller. My source on this is the great lightweight fighter Benny Leonard; he said that Miller was the best referee in the country. But word spreads that Al Capone has gotten to Dave Miller, and instead someone named Dave Barry becomes the referee. Barry runs a speak-easy, so you’ve got somebody who makes a living illegally, and he’s refereeing a fight where there’s a lot of betting action.