The fight had everything a showman could want in a promotion. It had the smell of money and the taste of blood, as all fights did when Dempsey was involved; a sense of intrigue born of persistent rumors that the fix was in for Dempsey; and a powerful current of history and romance. (No heavyweight champion who had lost the title had ever won it back.) Could the old Manassa Mauler come back and reclaim his crown from this dancing, counter-punching pretender? Most of all, in the national psyche, the fight offered two men as contrasting in their styles outside the ring as in. It was in this contrast that Rickard found the promotional hook he had also used in his other most celebrated bouts: the pitting of a hero against a villain.
Dempsey had played the villain in his day. Unfairly accused of being a draft dodger in World War I—he was exempted on grounds that he was the sole support of a half dozen relatives—Dempsey was widely perceived as a slacker when he defended his title against the French war hero Georges Carpentier on July 2, 1921. He was cast as Lucifer to Carpentier's Archangel Gabriel. The fight, which grossed a then staggering $1,626,580, was the first of Rickard's million-dollar gates. By 1927 the perception of Dempsey as unpatriotic had dissipated, and he was the fallen warrior seeking to defy the Fates.
Of course, there was that other powerful undercurrent nourishing Dempsey's enormous popularity: Born in Manassa, Colo., and raised there and in Utah, he was seen as a rugged individualist from the Wild West—the free-roaming hero that Hollywood was celebrating in film. The ninth of 11 children of a shiftless father who did not support his family, Jack left home mud-poor at 16, a loner who did everything from mining coal to hauling beets to picking fruit. Always scrounging for work, he lived in hobo jungles and "rode the rods" between towns, lying on the two narrow cables that ran along the bellies of railroad cars, and he fought countless fights in saloons and mining towns under the name Kid Blackie. Pushing his way into a bar full of lumberjacks with noses like doorknobs, he would announce, in the manner of John L. Sullivan, "I can lick any man in the house. For a buck." That's how his West was won.
Dempsey had a fighter's body, with long, supple arms, sloping shoulders and a perfect set of pins. He was a savage in the ring, a remorseless aggressor from bell to bell. He even whaled at sparring partners as though they were opponents. Box? Who said anything about boxing?
When Dempsey was young and lithe and fit, he would pace endlessly, moving back and forth across a room in his slightly pigeon-toed walk. "He was like something wild in a cage then," recalled his former trainer Jimmy DeForest a few days before the Long Count. "I said to him one night when he was walking around, 'You must have something serious in your life that makes you this way...something on your conscience.' He only laughed: 'I was always this way since ever I can remember.' " Dempsey was often likened, as Jimmy Jones expressed it, to a pouncing cat. In newspaper accounts of the Long Count, he would be described by turns as "an infuriated animal" and "a wounded lion" and "pantherlike."
Dempsey's professional career was a long and profitable extension of his mining-camp brawls. He was a darkly tanned man of 6'1" and 187 pounds when he showed up in Toledo to meet Willard for the title in 1919. Willard was a veritable lumberjack at 6'6½" and 245, but Dempsey had chopped down men that size before, and he attacked Willard from the first bell. Before the round was over, Willard had been on the deck seven times, and Dempsey had caved in the right side of his face, shattering the cheekbone in 13 places with a single left hook. Willard did not come out for Round 4. "He had the best left hook in boxing history," ring historian Bert Sugar says of Dempsey.
Never was Dempsey more the wounded cat than in his 1923 title defense against Luis Firpo of Argentina, a melee that has been called the wildest, most thrilling heavyweight bout of all time. It began when the 220-pound Firpo, sidestepping Dempsey's charge, dropped the champion within seconds of the opening bell. By the end of the first round Firpo had been down seven times, Dempsey twice. At one point Firpo shoved and belted Dempsey through the ropes and into the press row. It took a reporter and a Western Union operator to push the enraged, screaming champion back into the ring. The two fighters somehow survived the round, but Firpo never made it through the second. A left hook dropped him for the ninth and final time.
Dempsey came under attack in the press for barroom fouls—hitting on the break and striking Firpo as he climbed to his feet—but fight fans loved him. "He was uncontrolled and uncontrollable violence," says Randy Roberts, author of the 1979 biography Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. "He was the Mike Tyson of his day, always portrayed as an animal, with the outlaw image. But there was an authenticity about him. Dempsey was exactly who he was. He was comfortable being himself. The love for Dempsey was the love for a person who always wanted to be himself. No airs."
Tunney was his antithesis, real as well as perceived. He represented an altogether different set of values and aspirations. He was born in New York City, the son of an Irish Catholic stevedore, and raised in a Bank Street row house not far from the Hudson River in Greenwich Village. Tunney first learned to fight as an amateur at local clubs, but not until he joined the Marine Corps and went to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I did he begin to box seriously. After winning the AEF's light heavyweight title, he decided to turn pro and, on returning to the States, to take aim at Dempsey's title. Unlike the onetime desperate hobo, Tunney seemed to spring straight out of a Horatio Alger novel. He suggested one of those young heroes who, in pursuit of self-improvement, studies hard, lives clean, sleeps tight and practices self-discipline. He thought of himself as a pugilist, not a fighter, and he approached boxing as Capablanca approached chess.
"I thought of pugilism as a fencing bout of gloved fists rather than an act of assault and battery," Tunney wrote in Arms for Living, his 1941 autobiography. "More intricate than fencing because you wield two weapons, more of the chess play of blow and counterblow.... I became absorbed in the rational processes of the jab, the hook, side step and counter, the feint, the lead." He would do to Dempsey what Corbett, the defensive master, had done to the brawling Sullivan in 1892, boxing him silly and taking the title from him. "Defense was my natural technique," Tunney wrote, "the science of sparring, the strategy of it, thinking expressed with boxing gloves."