SI Vault
Jonathan Yardley
March 03, 1980
To the best of my knowledge, Jack Dempsey is the first major American sports figure to have found a biographer in the groves of academe. His name is Randy Roberts, he teaches in the European Division of the University of Maryland, and his biography is entitled Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler (Louisiana State University Press, $14.95). It is, considering the source, exactly the kind of book one would expect; scrupulously researched and competently written, but loaded down with excess thematic baggage that seems calculated to give it academic legitimacy. Let's get rid of the bad news first. Professor Roberts is inclined toward gassy psychologizing. Of the young Dempsey drifting from tanktown to tanktown, he writes, "The dilemma of the existential world is life without values. Man instinctively needs an anchor; he fears being set free in a valueless sea." Of Dempsey in the ring: "In Freudian terms he was the embodiment of the unleashed primitive id."
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March 03, 1980

An Uneven Book Depicts The Ups And Downs Of The Manassa Mauler

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Dempsey's timing, if accidental, was excellent. When he took the title away from Jess Willard in 1919, boxing was held in disrepute, in particular by religious groups whose activities Roberts describes in some detail. Dempsey, his image carefully honed "both by himself and the manipulators of the media," was just what the sport needed: a roughly handsome fellow who fought hard and spoke modestly. In the years he held the title, Roberts concludes, he "became a token of stability, a symbol of heroism."

In this instance, Roberts' interpretation of Dempsey's life is not excessive. With Babe Ruth and Red Grange, Dempsey was one of the three great sports heroes of his day, a true "people's champion." Moreover, unlike most who come suddenly to riches and celebrity, he seems to have been refined by the experience. The rough edges really did become smoother: he made great strides toward overcoming his shyness, he learned to speak easily to public gatherings, and he won a place in the nation's heart when, after losing to Gene Tunney in 1926, he told his wife, "Honey, I just forgot to duck."

After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the crown, Dempsey went on to become a successful restaurateur and a national institution. Oddly, this doesn't seem to interest Roberts much, for he gives the years since 1927 less than three pages. He doubtless is right, though, that the years from 1919 to 1927 are the ones that really count, and on balance he has done quite well by them.

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