THE FATHER OF THE NEUTRAL CORNER
Jack Dempsey, who died last week at the age of 87, personified an era that many Americans regard with nostalgia. A fighter of relentless aggressiveness and fierce punching power, Dempsey beat the daylights out of a much bigger Jess Willard to win the world heavyweight championship in 1919, just as the equally upstart U.S., newly triumphant in a great war in Europe, was flexing its own muscles. Dempsey then retained his title through a good part of the Roaring Twenties, providing a share of the thrills that the public in that high-spirited age seemed to crave.
Dempsey and that other big hitter, Babe Ruth, were the greatest heroes of the '20s in their respective sports because, says Benjamin G. Rader, author of a new history, American Sports, both presented images of "all-conquering power," in contrast to their more scientifically skillful but less popular rivals, Gene Tunney and Ty Cobb. Rader hypothesizes that straightforward, uncomplicated athletic feats had public appeal because American society was then becoming more complex and bureaucratized. Dempsey made an ideal brute hero. "His strength was in the fury of his attack," says Jimmy Jacobs, a fight manager and collector of boxing films who is one of the most knowledgeable ring historians. "Whoever he fought had to be interested in self-preservation. Dempsey didn't answer the bell; when the bell rang, he was released."
Comparing fighters of different eras is a risky exercise, but Jacobs says that taking each man in his prime, he'd make Dempsey the prohibitive favorite against all other heavyweight champions except Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. Of those three, Jacobs says that Marciano came closest to Dempsey in style. "They were very much alike in that neither ever took a backward step. Each came tearing from his corner like somebody who hadn't been fed for a while. There would have been a problem because the two would have met in the middle and would have had to perform within Marquis of Queensberry rules." Ali's forte was speed; consequently, Jacobs says, Dempsey "would have chased him around like a madman." As for Louis, "Joe could go forward and he could also back up. Against Dempsey, he would have been the counterpuncher." Jacobs refrains from claiming that Dempsey would have won any of the three fights, but he clearly believes that he'd have forced the action in each.
Many of the accounts of Dempsey's life make him sound like a dirty fighter. The stories dwell on his propensity to hit below the belt and to stand over fallen foes and whale away at them as they tried to get up. Indeed, it was Dempsey's readiness to go after stricken opponents that resulted in the famous "long count" in his 1927 loss to Tunney. As referee Dave Barry directed Dempsey to a neutral corner after a knockdown of Tunney, the latter had extra time to recover and went on to win what turned out to be Dempsey's last fight. But until that evening, it had been perfectly legal to hit a man struggling to his feet after a knockdown; Dempsey was unique only in the zeal with which he approached the task. It was for this reason that Tunney, who by then was the champion and could pretty much set the conditions under which he would fight, had insisted on introducing a neutral corner rule, an innovation that became permanent in prizefighting. But while Dempsey's fearsomeness in going after opponents made him the father of the neutral corner, it doesn't necessarily mean he was dirty.
"If you speak to people about Marciano or Dempsey or Joe Frazier or any of the guys who were 'fighters' instead of 'boxers,' you'll always find some saying they were dirty," Jacobs says. "Because of the ferocity of their attack, punches landed everywhere: the side, the back of the neck. When you see the films, you say, 'Hey, they never stop.' " But Jacobs sums up Dempsey's fighting style in a way that suggests he's drawing the finest of semantic distinctions. Once inside the ropes, he says admiringly, Dempsey "had very bad intentions."
The highlight, for us, of NBC-TV's coverage of the French Open (page 24) came when announcer Bud Collins was interviewing Chris Evert Lloyd, who had just won the women's singles title for the fifth time. Collins noted that during an earlier press conference somebody had asked her if she was tired of winning the event. "Whoever asked me that, that was such a stupid question," replied Evert Lloyd. Then she rolled her eyes and added, "I think you asked me that, Bud."
ALMOST IMPALED ON A SPIKE
Football fans who disapprove of spiking might get a malicious giggle out of what happened—or almost happened—to Michigan Panther Cornerback Fred Logan during a USFL game two weeks ago against the Birmingham Stallions. The Panthers, who finally lost 23-20 in overtime, came perilously close to losing in the last minute of regulation time—thanks to Logan. With the score 20-20, he made a dramatic interception near his own goal line of a pass by Stallion Quarterback Bob Lane. Logan went down, apparently without having been tackled, at the Panther two and, giddy over his big play, sprang to his feet, danced into the end zone and spiked the ball, which Stallion Darryl Mason then pounced on.
At first it was ruled that the Stallions had scored a touchdown, but then the officials huddled and ruled that the ball had been dead when Logan fell at the two. The coaches, Birmingham's Rollie Dotsch and Michigan's Jim Stanley, later agreed that the officials were probably wrong and that the TD should have counted. A mildly chastened Logan said he'd spike the ball again if he made such a big interception. But he added, "First I'm going to make sure I'm down."