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Charles Samuels
May 06, 1957
It was a fabulous era, and the great promoter, through success and scandal, played it like the gambler he was
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May 06, 1957

Million Dollar Decade

It was a fabulous era, and the great promoter, through success and scandal, played it like the gambler he was

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In the history of America the Golden Twenties, even though they ended less than three decades ago, have already assumed the stature of an era. Bright with the freewheeling pleasures of a nation relaxing after a victorious war, lavish in the money that seemed to spring from the inexhaustible well-springs of a burgeoning economy, grandiose in visions and achievements, the Twenties were America's last great spree. George Lewis Rickard—brash, imaginative, always on the lookout for a new fast deal, possessed of an almost benign faith in the future, but beyond all a supreme individualist—was every bit a part of his age. In a sense he characterized it.

Inseparable from Tex Rickard and the improbable chain of fortuitous circumstances that pushed him to ever-greater triumphs, there was Jack Dempsey. Dempsey is an institution today, but as heavyweight champion of the world—perhaps the greatest of all time—he was not popular. Some called him a draft-dodger (unjustly), others a "killer" (because of the almost mesmerized intensity that sometimes caused him to disregard the rules when he stalked his faltering foe).

Yet Dempsey's very unpopularity was a compelling factor in the almost wild interest aroused whenever he fought. Rickard, who had returned with his wife Edith Mae to the United States after five successful—if not always exhilarating—years as a Paraguay ranch owner, caught on to this from the start. It is Paul Gallico's theory that Rickard developed into a high art the morality play of villain pitted against shining knight, which today's professional wrestlers find so useful.

The knight in shining armor materialized soon after the unbelievably brutal fight in which Dempsey took the heavyweight championship from Jess Willard at Toledo on Independence Day in 1919. He was a Frenchman, Georges Carpentier. Millions of fans in the United States, in his own country and throughout the British Empire considered Carpentier the man best qualified to take Dempsey's championship from him. This extraordinary optimism was based on Carpentier's war achievements rather than on his spotty ring record, or his size (he weighed scarcely 170 pounds). A slim, charming and graceful young man, he had just spent four years in his country's service, and had been twice decorated.

Factions of the newly formed American Legion and other patriotic groups hailed this French war hero and branded Dempsey a slacker. Years later, contemplating the paradox that made him the ring's greatest crowd-pleaser and one of its least-liked champions, Dempsey said ruefully. "They called me a bum before I was champion, and afterwards too."

The intense emotions of the public pleased Rickard, but they also complicated his plans for staging the match. Promoters in London, Montreal and Tijuana, Mexico entered high bids, and although Rickard had an exclusive contract for Dempsey's services, it soon became obvious that he would have to top them if he was to remain in control.

When he learned that Charles B. Cochran, an English theatrical producer, similarly had an exclusive contract with Carpentier, Rickard moved quickly and formed a partnership with him and William A. Brady, a Broadway play producer, who was Cochran's American representative.

The trio's preliminary dickerings with Jack (Doc) Kearns, Dempsey's manager, and Francois Descamps, manager of Carpentier, were not reassuring. Kearns, a crafty operator who apparently disliked Rickard even before he met him, asked $300,000 plus 25% of the movie rights. Descamps spoke through his interpreter, Jack Curley, and said he would accept less because his Georges was merely the challenger—he would settle for $200,000 plus 25% of the movie rights.

Brady pointed out that they were demanding more money than any fight had ever grossed. That made Kearns yawn. After many hours of wrangling, Kearns and Descamps walked out of the meeting.

Several days later Rickard made Kearns and Descamps a counteroffer of 60% of the gross receipts. He suggested that three-fifths of this, or 36% of the gross, go to Dempsey, the rest to the challenger. Kearns turned a deaf ear on the offer while M. Descamps replied that he and Carpentier had booked return passage to France.

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