September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
In the Roaring Twenties, a Dempsey punch was synonymous with brutal, unleashed power. From July 1919 to September 1926 Jack Dempsey was the heavyweight champion of the universe, after emerging from the hobo jungles of Colorado. But his reputation was based on just two fights, for during his reign he fought infrequently. To win the heavyweight title, he butchered the badly out-of-shape 37-year-old six-foot-six giant Jess Willard in three rounds in Toledo, Ohio, in 1919. In 1911, in the first million-dollar gate in sports history, Dempsey knocked out the dimpled, skinny Georges Carpentier, a French hero of World War I, who weighed somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds less than he did.
But it was the fierce fight that Dempsey had with Luis Angel Firpo, a savage-looking Argentinean, in 1923 that made him into a myth. There were n knockdowns in two rounds, and Dempsey KO’d his man. The result was somewhat tainted, however, by the fact that two journalists had pushed Jack back into the ring after Firpo punched him through the ropes in the opening round.
For most of the last two years of his reign, Dempsey’s handlers refused to stage fights with the threatening black contender, Harry Wills, and when he finally fought the ex-Marine Gene Tunney in 1926 and again in 1927 (the famous Long-Count Fight), he lost both bouts, even as he succeeded in winning the publicrelations contest. Trying to explain his 1926 loss to Tunney, Dempsey told his wife, the actress Estelle Taylor, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” The remark was borrowed years later by President Ronald Reagan, after he was hit by a would-be assassin’s bullet.
For most of the rest of his life, Dempsey fronted for the landmark Broadway restaurant bearing his name. The food was overrated. So was Jack.
Before and after his three memorable fights in the 19705 with Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali called his opponent every demeaning name he could think of, except one: underrated. That’s what he should have called the soft-spoken former South Carolina sharecropper. Instead, he yelled “Uncle Tom” and said he was too ugly to be the champ. Two years after Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, citing his Nation of Islam religious faith, Frazier was given the heavyweight title that the World Boxing Association had stripped from Ali. Ali’s admirers questioned Frazier’s legitimacy, while Frazier campaigned for Ali to be able to fight again and even do- nated money to his dethroned rival to help him meet his rising debts.
When the men finally fought, in March 1971, Frazier won a unanimous decision, with both fighters winding up in the hospital. Still, Ali, in his own way, came out ahead. “Savor it, Joe,” he taunted. “There will be another time.” The second fight, in 1974, came after Frazier had lost his crown to George Foreman. This decision was awarded to Ali in a 12-rounder, which led to Ali Frazier III, the so-called thrilla in Manila, possibly the fiercest heavyweight joust of all time. Frazier appeared to own the fight until the eleventh round, when Ali summoned his remaining resources and pummeled Frazier almost at will.
By the fifteenth round, the battered Frazier couldn’t see. He still wanted to keep fighting, but his loyal cornerman, Eddie Futch, refused to let him get off his stool. Frazier’s tough ethic, in a long and honorable career, was to absorb punishment in order to give it back.
It is one of the oddities of boxing history that Frazier, much like Gene Tunney, always was reduced to second billing. He deserved far more.