It was early morning of the day that Jack Dempsey was to fight Jess Willard for the heavyweight championship of the world. I had not slept. There had been the usual pre-fight party in our ramshackle training quarters on the shores of Toledo's Maumee Bay—an isolated frame house that sagged like a drunk in a doorway. Minutes before, it had been as crowded and noisy as any tenderloin saloon. Empty bottles and dirty glasses were strewn about. They had all been thirsty—the newspaper men, the hangers-on, the hustlers, the bogus well-wishers, all the freeloaders who frequent any training camp. For the first and only time in my life I had broken up a party, and that was all the more remarkable since I had been the host. It never was like Jack Kearns to stop pouring, for himself or for his guests. But at my plea that I had a championship fight to prepare for, the last of them had finally wandered into the predawn darkness under a full load of whisky. There had been hours of alcoholic conversations about what could or would happen, bickering, argument, off-key singing, one or two fist-fights in which none of the principals could have hit the floor with a handful of buckshot, a crap game and a guy with a crying jag. Since it was my party, all of them had assured me, with a hand on the shoulder and a pat on the back, that Dempsey could not lose.
I knew he couldn't lose.
I was then 36 years old, and had spent 22 of them wandering from New York to Nome, San Francisco to Sydney, and now to this town of Toledo in the state of Ohio. In those years I had learned all the swindles and practiced some of them.
Dempsey was only 24. Willard, a fading 37, was taller at 6 feet 6� than that bum they called the Man Mountain, Primo Carnera. (Carnera is in the record books at 6 feet 5�.) My tiger was as hard as a keg of nails. Willard looked more than a shade soft, especially in the midsection. Dempsey was a difficult man to hit, bobbing and weaving as he did, and a tough, relentless puncher who didn't know quit from Flit. Except for Willard's size, I had nothing to worry about, and even so a big man is bound to be slower than one who is normally proportioned. There have been few better-proportioned fighters than Jack Dempsey.
I had nothing to worry about, but I had seen many strange things in my wanderings, and I desperately needed insurance. Not just to win the fight, which I was sure we could win in the 12 rounds scheduled, but to win it in the first round. I had bet $10,000, which we could not afford to lose, at 10 to 1, that Dempsey would win in the first round. If he did, we would make a tidy $100,000—equivalent to Willard's guarantee and substantially more than our own $27,500 guarantee.
I had schemed and connived over too many years to let anything go wrong with a bet like that, let alone with the championship of the world. The hell with being a gallant loser. I intended to win.
My plan had to do with a small white can sitting innocently among the fight gear on the kitchen table. I poured myself a nightcap and picked up the can, grinning at the neat blue letters on its side. All it said was "Talcum Powder." Then I latched the kitchen door and went to a corner cupboard that extended from tabletop height to the ceiling. I pulled over a chair and stood on it to reach into a niche far back on the topmost shelf. Not even a drunk would have thought of hiding a bottle in that spot. Several days earlier, on an unaccompanied trip into Toledo, I had bought another can of powder. This one was labeled "Plaster of Paris," and I was looking for it now. It was there.
I put the two cans side by side on the kitchen table. Then I found a knife and pried off their lids. I spread out a handkerchief and dumped the talcum powder into it, then knotted the corners together. Next I poured the plaster of paris into the talcum-powder can and replaced the lid. Set back among the fight gear—the bandages, the Vaseline, the razor blades, the cotton—it looked as innocent as any of them. There was just one more thing to be done. I picked up the plaster of paris can and the handkerchief full of talcum powder, unlatched the kitchen door and walked the 50 yards to the shore of Maumee Bay, where I pitched the whole business out into the dark waters. That was why the party had to end before dawn. That was something I wanted no man to see. Standing there in the dark, I knew we were as ready as Dempsey's condition and my plotting ability could make us.
It may seem strange but, returning to the house, my conscience was easy. I was a product of the days—have they ever ended?—when it was every man for himself. In those times you got away with everything possible. Turn your head, or let the other guy turn his, and knuckles were wrapped in heavy black bicycle tape or the thick lead foil in which bulk tea was packaged. The net result was much like hitting a man with a leather-padded mallet. The rules were lax then, officials were not at all fussy and there were few boxing commissions.
The effect of this strategy, now all but half completed, was to lift my nightlong tension. I went to bed and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. There were no bad dreams.