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Flynn caught him with a right to the jaw in the first round and knocked him down. Dempsey got up, went down again, up, down, up, down, and Bernie, who was seconding him, threw in the towel with a minute of the first round to go. In the convinced opinion of many eyewitnesses, the fight was framed: that Dempsey could suffer a knockout in the first round was too bad to be true. Dempsey indignantly maintains that the fight was honest, and that Bernie simply used bad judgment in stopping it—he could have kept going, he says, and might have won. At any rate, the result was a disaster for him. He left town and went to the West Coast. There he had a few fights, but the story of the Flynn fiasco followed him and he had trouble getting matches. He began to rove again, picking up jobs wherever he could. Then, one night in Oakland, something happened that changed his life.
"NICE AND POLITE"
He was in a saloon near a shipyard where he was working. A fight promoter who called himself Jack Kearns (his real name was Leo McKernan) was there too, with one of his stable, a heavyweight named Vince Nelson. Kearns remembers: "I was just back from Australia. I'd taken some of my fighters over there barnstorming but I'd left this Nelson home and he was still sore about it. He was drinking and half-shot and he wanted to argue. He kept yelling how he could lick all my boys put together. We had a lot of words and he started to swing on me, but I beat him to the punch, then somebody punched me and some others got into it. It was a mess. This Dempsey was standing on the edge and I heard him say, 'I heard this conversation. I've been wantin' to take care of this guy,' meaning Nelson, and he came charging in." Barroom brawls were not ordinarily in Dempsey's line. He says, "I always tried to act nice and polite and handle myself to be a credit. I didn't want people to be thinking I was some kind of a plug-ugly just because I was a fighter." But the sight of the big heavyweight bashing the smaller, older man made him indignant. He finished Nelson off with a few punches.
Kearns admiringly introduced himself and learned that his Samaritan was the same Dempsey who had beaten a former fighter of his named Joe Bonds and had put away several other fighters he respected. They talked about the possibility of his coming under Kearns' management, but at that point Dempsey preferred the security of his shipyard job. A few months later, however, when he had gone back to Salt Lake City, Kearns wired him that he had a good match for him, something that would make money. It was against "Windmill Willie" Meehan, a popular San Francisco fighter. Dempsey came to Oakland, where Kearns lived with his mother. Thus, late in 1917, began the greatest alliance in boxing history.
MAN AROUND TOWN
Kearns, who has since had half a dozen champions, was already one of the fantastic figures of his time. Born in San Francisco, he had run away from home at 14 to the Klondike. He became a gold-weigher in a saloon, a miner, a gambler, a middleweight boxer, and finally a promoter and manager. Glib, shrewd and enormously experienced, he was exactly what the raw but willing Dempsey needed. Kearns, for his part, remembers Dempsey then as a tall, rather lightly built young man, earnest, shy, and moody and dark of manner ("sort of a skulker") who seemed "bound up." "He didn't move easy or walk easy. He had a good right hand but no left." Dempsey was dazzled by Kearns' natty wardrobe and big diamond ring and impressive conversation. "He began to talk big money right away. He was full of ideas. I didn't know what he was talking about. I was just a bum. But I listened and began to think maybe I could do all those things he was saying, and I decided it was up to me to hold up my end. I made up my mind nothing was going to stop me. I had to come through."
Accordingly, he was a completely tractable student. He referred all questions to Kearns saying, "He's the doctor"; others picked it up until Kearns became "Doc" to everyone. In Mrs. McKernan, the Doc's mother, he found a maternal sympathy to which he responded naturally: he liked to help her around the neat, little white bungalow they all shared, to clean the cellar, wash dishes, and pick fruit from the backyard orchard for her to can. He was so obedient to Doc's judgment that in due course he divorced his quondam wife, a girl named Maxine Cates.
Dempsey had met her a few years earlier in Ely, Nev., where he was living for a while "on the line" and working as a bouncer in a dance hall where she played the piano. She was older than he and was a woman of rich experience. They had a casual marriage and soon drifted apart, he to look for fights or jobs, she to her old habits. But they still saw each other now and again; and Kearns, who had begun to think he might have a champion in Dempsey, decided that she was bad advertising and urged him to break off entirely. However, it was also Kearns' idea to list her as a dependent in filing for a draft exemption. Later on when Dempsey became famous, and a local reporter did a story on him and looked up Maxine, he learned that she had not been supported by Dempsey during the time claimed. Moreover, she was feeling unfriendly toward Dempsey and particularly toward Kearns. The result of her anger and a flaming assist from some of the Eastern papers was the famous "draft dodger" charge against Dempsey. The pros and cons of this, like those of the Flynn fight, are still being debated. At any rate, Dempsey won the decision. The case came to trial in June 1920, and the jury brought in a verdict in his favor in 10 minutes.
But in Oakland these troubles lay in the unknown future. For the present there was "Windmill Willie." And the outcome was a disappointment—only a draw. But then came a knockout against a fighter named Charlie Miller and a decision over Bob McAllister. Kearns, who had been careful to match his prot�g� in his own class, decided he was ready for a definitive test. He matched Dempsey against "Gunboat" Smith. Dempsey got the decision and thereby stepped into the first level of the country's heavyweights.
Kearns could begin to smell the championship. He signed against Carl Morris, 6 feet 4 inches and 235 pounds, a challenger to Willard. It was a close decision, but Dempsey won. Kearns felt the time had come to move east. They went to Chicago where Kearns, a master of ballyhoo, whipped up attention by such stunts as offering to bet $10,000 (which he didn't have) that Dempsey could lick any two boxers in the country on the same night. He had learned that Dempsey's crouching, weaving, close-in style was especially effective against big men such as Morris, so he matched him with a 6-foot 3-inch ex-farmer from near Kalamazoo named Homer Smith. Dempsey put him away in a minute and 55 seconds.