Jack Dempsey's devastation of the giant Jess Willard on that broiling Fourth of July in Toledo 45 years ago was so complete—and so unexpected—that a rumor of foul play has persisted to this day: a rumor that Dempsey's gloves were loaded. Willard has long insisted, bitterly, that the rumor is true. Dempsey has always denied it.
Just before he died last year, Doc Kearns put the finishing touches to his long-delayed memoirs, The Million Dollar Gate, prepared with the assistance of Oscar Fraley and scheduled for publication by Macmillan next September ($4.95). Now Kearns's account of that Dempsey-Willard fight of 1919, taken from the book, is presented on these pages. Kearns says the gloves were indeed loaded and that he loaded them himself.
It is noteworthy that Kearns absolves Dempsey of any complicity. The absolution should be accepted, for it was typical of Kearns that he trusted no one, and Dempsey was naive enough, for years after Toledo, to trust Kearns. Few did for long. The face Kearns presented to the prizefight world was one of roguish rascality, and he all but got away with it, for his smile was jovial and his hand was ever ready to pick up the check. At the same time, everyone in the sport knew him as a wily trickster and a ruthless opponent when big money was involved.
He learned the confidence man's art in his teens, when he ran away from his Seattle home to the Klondike. In the saloons of Nome, Alaska such teachers as the master swindler, Wilson Mizner, honed the youth's sharp wits. When Kearns turned boxer, Mizner fixed his very first fight by bribing the referee.
After Kearns left the Klondike he tried many occupations—among them smuggling Chinese into the U.S. In time he encountered Dempsey, a hungry hobo who could punch and, through Dempsey, Kearns became the greatest fight manager of all time. The greatness depended upon establishment of the first million-dollar gate; the gate, in turn, depended upon the dethronement of the hapless Willard.
Before he lost the title to Dempsey, Willard defended it just once, against Frank Moran. Not an impressive reign, certainly, and Willard fought only twice after meeting Dempsey. Maybe Willard never was so much, and maybe Dempsey never needed plaster of paris on his bandages. Maybe—but it was like Kearns to want insurance, especially with a $100,000 bet at stake.
A master of the dialectical feint, Kearns did not offer these memoirs as a confession of wrongdoing. To him they were a boast. Kearns rationalized his cheating—a word he never used—as self-protection in a dog-eat-dog world. Kearns presents his story in the way of a man regaling his friends with a good yarn. It is a good yarn; it is also a declaration that a heavyweight champion of the world was robbed of his title and with it the fortune that title came to be worth in the Golden Twenties.
In Mickey Walker, brother roisterer, Kearns had one other really great champion. Next week he will tell about those days of wine and bloody noses.