SI Vault
Robert Coughlan
January 10, 1955
Everybody has heard the legend of Dempsey's youth. Only part of it is true. The real story—assembled for the first time by a distinguished biographer—is surprisingly different and many times more interesting
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January 10, 1955

The Unknown Story Of Young Jack Dempsey

Everybody has heard the legend of Dempsey's youth. Only part of it is true. The real story—assembled for the first time by a distinguished biographer—is surprisingly different and many times more interesting

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Kearns began to advertise him as "Jack the Giant Killer" and boasted about what he could do if he ever fought the huge Willard. The newspapers and fans ate it up. Dempsey, as Kearns says, was a "thrill fighter"—there was something about him that aroused excitement. In a return bout with Carl Morris, he won on a foul. Then came revenge against Fireman Jim Flynn—a first-round knockout. And another knockout against the tough Bill Brennan. Bull Sadee and Tom Riley went in one-round knockouts. Then, overconfident, he fought a no-decision with Billy Miske. Soon afterward came Fred Fulton, generally rated the best in the country and second only to the champion himself.

This crucial fight was nearly cancelled. The promoter had offered a $12,500 guarantee but then, unable to raise that amount, had scaled it down to only $9,000. Kearns indignantly called the match off. When Dempsey was told, he pled with Kearns to change his mind. With his share of the purse he planned to fulfill one of his greatest ambitions, to buy his parents a house. They never had owned one; and a good part of what already was being called his "killer instinct" was a simple, fierce, obsessive desire to earn some money to make life easier for his mother. At his urging she had already made a $100 down-payment on a house and five acres of land near Salt Lake City; about $5,000 more was due. Kearns grumbled but gave in. The fight took place in July 1918. Dempsey won by a knockout in 18[3/5] seconds.


And so the way was open to Willard and a chance at the title. For months Willard avoided the match. He had defended his title only once, against Frank Moran in 1916, and had turned down all later challengers. Not, Dempsey believes, because of any lack of courage, but simply because he did not really like fighting—he was a "made" fighter, not a "natural" one. But at last the sportswriters, noisily encouraged by Kearns, built such public demand for a Willard-Dempsey fight that he was forced to accept. The final signing was in February 1919, only about sixteen months since Dempsey had come down from Salt Lake City to join Kearns and begin his incredible rise from vagrant to challenger.

The fight took place on July 4, 1919. Dempsey had always been taut before an important fight. Often he trembled violently, and sometimes he was so nervous before the first bell that he wet his pants. For this, the fight of his life, he was keyed almost beyond endurance. Willard was said to be out of condition. But, Dempsey remembers, when the champion stepped into the ring, all 6� feet and 245 pounds of him (Dempsey weighed in at 187), he looked as lean and strong as a lion. "I decided I wasn't just fighting for $100,000," Dempsey recalls, "I was fighting for my life."

What happened there at Toledo under the ferocious July sun is a part of familiar history: the seven knockdowns in the first round and Willard saved by the bell; the terrible beating that went on in the second and on into the third; Willard's cheek bone shattered as if it had been hit with a sledge, the blood flowing from his eyes and mouth, the great jaw sagging on his chest and the eyes glazed with pain and incomprehension. And then the towel from his corner.

That night, when the celebration was over and Dempsey had gone to bed, he had a nightmare. He dreamed that he had lost the fight. In his anguish he twisted out of bed and woke up on the floor with a bump. Collecting his senses, he realized that it was a dream; but then he felt his face and thought he found blood. Was it only a dream? He rushed to the bathroom—no blood. He grabbed his clothes and hurried downstairs to the street. There was a newsboy with a pile of papers with big black screamer headlines. Dempsey said: "Hey, who won the fight?" The boy said, "Why, Dempsey did"—and then, "Say, ain't you Dempsey?" "Yeah," Dempsey said. "Thanks." And he handed the boy a dollar and went happily back upstairs to bed, the champion of the world.

Not long afterward someone asked him what his remaining ambition was. He answered soberly, "I want to be a gentleman."

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