William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey (1895–1983) was the US heavyweight boxing champion from 1919 to 1926 and a major American sporting icon of the twentieth century. Nicknamed “The Manassa Mauler” after his Colorado hometown, Dempsey was so popular that he helped remake sports into mass spectator events with huge crowds and live radio broadcasts. His bouts drew in more fans than most of today’s Super Bowls, and his appeal stretched worldwide. After retiring from boxing in 1940, Dempsey became a successful restaurant owner in New York City, and in 1950 the Associated Press named him the greatest fighter of the past fifty years.
William Harrison Dempsey, called Harry, was born in Manassa, Colorado, on June 24, 1895, to Hiram and Mary Celia Smoot Dempsey. Hiram and Celia had met and married in West Virginia. After hearing a Mormon missionary, they converted to the faith. They moved west to Colorado’s San Luis Valley and settled in Manassa, which had been founded by Mormons in 1870. The family was very poor and often lacked enough food to eat, surviving only through the generosity of other church members. The ninth of eleven children, Harry was small and was bullied in school for his high, squeaky voice.
Unable to hold down a job, Hiram moved the family frequently from one mining boomtown to another. In 1908, during construction of the Gunnison Tunnel, the Dempsey family lived in Montrose, where Celia opened the Rio Grande Eating House. When the tunnel was completed, the family moved west to Provo, Utah, where Harry completed his schooling after eighth grade.
Harry’s brother Bernie, older by fifteen years, made a living by mining and fighting. Bernie fought under the name “Jack Dempsey,” taking the name from a boxing champion of the 1880s. When the family was living in Montrose, Bernie’s visits home included fighting lessons for Harry. Bernie insisted that Harry chew pine gum straight from the tree to harden his jaw and bathe his face in beef brine to toughen his skin. Mining jobs built up Harry’s hands and shoulders.
After completing school in Utah, Harry returned to Montrose. In 1912 he promoted himself for his first professional fight. He and his opponent built the boxing ring themselves in the Moose Hall and cleaned up afterward. Harry won. Over the next few years, he would often walk into a bar and announce, “I can’t dance, I can’t sing, but I can lick anybody in the house. I’ll fight anybody in here for a dollar.” He fought under the name “Kid Blackie.” His winnings were whatever spectators would donate. He was so poor that he was literally fighting to eat.
Becoming Jack Dempsey
In 1914 Bernie was working the Cripple Creek Mine and was scheduled for a fight he thought he would lose. He contacted Harry to come take the “Jack Dempsey” name and fight in his place. Harry won and the name stuck: William Harrison Dempsey had become Jack Dempsey.
Still, Jack Dempsey was not an overnight success. To find fights, he rode the rails, hanging onto the brake beam in between train cars. In 1916 he traveled to New York City, where the real fighting action was, but the trip was largely a failure. The type of bare-knuckled fighting for money that Dempsey had done in mining camps was illegal, making it nearly impossible for him to break into the professional ranks. The one bright spot from the trip was meeting sportswriter Damon Runyon. Runyon, who had grown up in Pueblo, supported Dempsey and coined his nickname, “The Manassa Mauler.”
When Dempsey left New York, he headed to Salt Lake City, where he married Maxine Cates. Cates made her living as a piano player and, as Dempsey would later learn, a prostitute. In 1917 they went to San Francisco in search of better boxing matches. Maxine took off during that trip, and they never lived together again. They divorced in 1919.
The California trip also changed Dempsey’s life in other ways. Once, witnessing a bar brawl, Dempsey jumped in to defend the smaller guy. That man turned out to be boxing manager John Leo McKernan, known as “Doc Kearns.” Kearns later offered to be Dempsey’s manager. For the next six years, the two were a team. Kearns helped Dempsey progress through the boxing ranks in a series of steadily more difficult bouts. By this time, Dempsey was earning enough to be the main provider for his family, sending money to Maxine, his parents, a widowed sister, and her children.
When Kearns felt that Dempsey was ready, he contacted promoter George Lewis “Tex” Rickard. Rickard had made fights a big business, transforming them into huge stadium events. For his next spectacle, Rickard arranged for Dempsey to challenge world heavyweight boxing champion Jess Willard on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. In the lead-up to the fight, Runyon serialized Dempsey’s life story, running twenty-seven installments of “A Tale of Two Fists” in April and May. While the public learned of Dempsey’s life, carpenters began building an immense, 97,000-seat arena.
Nicknamed “The Pottawatomie Giant,” Willard was known for his size and strength. He weighed in at 245 pounds and stood 6 feet, 6.5 inches, dwarfing Dempsey’s 6-foot, 187-pound frame. Their match marked several firsts: it had a special section of seats for women, ending the custom of male-only fight crowds, and it was the first time that radio was used for a live, nationwide broadcast. Dempsey had Willard on the floor seven times in the first round. He broke Willard’s jaw and nose, caved in his cheekbones, and broke two ribs. When Willard did not answer the bell for the start of round 4, Dempsey became the US heavyweight boxing champion, a title he would retain for the next seven years.
After the fight, however, media attention focused on Dempsey’s lack of participation in World War I. Maxine even wrote a public letter insisting that Dempsey had lied on his draft papers. In February 1920, Dempsey was charged with draft evasion. At the trial, Maxine claimed that she had supported Dempsey through prostitution. It was only when receipts showed that Dempsey had sent her more than $2,000 in 1917 alone that she admitted her letter had been an attempt to get more money. The jury found Dempsey not guilty.
Nevertheless, much of the country still considered him a draft dodger. Rickard capitalized on this, arranging Dempsey’s next major fight with Georges Carpentier, who not only held the title of world light-heavyweight champion but had also served in the French Air Force during the war, winning two of the highest French military honors. Rickard knew that pitting the war hero against “slacker” Dempsey would draw crowds. He set the match for July 2, 1921, in Jersey City, New Jersey. It was the first million-dollar gate in boxing history, with 93,000 spectators—including 700 reporters from around the world—and receipts totaling $1,789,238 (more than $26 million today). The fight lasted three and a half rounds before Dempsey knocked Carpentier out cold. An estimated 300,000 people were listening to the live radio broadcast as Dempsey was declared the winner.
Dempsey defended his title in 1923, with a second-round knockout of the Argentine boxer Luis Ángel Firpo at New York City’s Polo Grounds. For the next three years, Dempsey stayed out of the ring, becoming a full-time celebrity. He married for a second time, to actress Estelle Taylor, and the two settled in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, two heavyweight contenders rose through the ranks to challenge Dempsey: Harry Wills and Gene Tunney. Wills, who was Black, never got the chance to challenge Dempsey. Rickard had promoted the 1910 fight in which the Black boxer Jack Johnson claimed the heavyweight title from white boxer James Jeffries, a win that led to dozens of race riots across the country. Fearing a reprise, Rickard refused to let Dempsey fight Wills. Instead, he set up a match with Tunney to take place on September 23, 1926, at Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia. Despite driving rain, a crowd of more than 120,000 people showed up to watch Dempsey lose the title to Tunney, “The Fighting Marine,” in a unanimous decision after ten rounds.
The Long Count Fight
A year later, on September 22, 1927, the two met again for a rematch at Soldier Field in Chicago. This fight would use a new set of rules: if a fighter fell, he would have ten seconds to rise to his feet, during which his opponent must retire to a neutral corner. Tunney dominated the fight’s first six rounds, but in the seventh, Dempsey knocked Tunney to the mat. The referee ordered Dempsey to the corner, but Dempsey initially ignored the order and stayed near Tunney. As a result, film of the fight reveals that Tunney had fourteen seconds, not ten, to recover, and the fight become known as “The Long Count Fight.” In the next round, Tunney knocked Dempsey down, but this time the referee began the count before Tunney moved to the corner. Dempsey got up in time and the match went a full ten rounds, with Tunney again winning by unanimous decision.
Dempsey continued to fight in exhibition matches until his retirement in 1940. His final record was sixty wins (including fifty knockouts), seven losses, and eight draws. Despite his ferocious style in the ring, he became close friends with most of his opponents.
In 1930 Dempsey and Estelle divorced. He married twice more, to Hannah Williams in 1933 and to Deanna Piattelli in 1958. In 1935, as his career wound down, he opened Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant in New York City, which remained open for nearly forty years serving classic American fare.
During World War II, Dempsey served in the Coast Guard Reserve as director of physical education at the Manhattan Beach Training Station in New York. In 1942 he and sportswriter Frank G. Menke coauthored the book How to Fight Tough: 100 Action Photos Teaching U.S. Commando Fighting. Dempsey also supported the war effort through personal appearances at hospitals, camps, and war bond drives. Promoted to captain, he was on the transport ship the USS Arthur Middleton for the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.
When Dempsey died on May 31, 1983, fifty-seven years after the loss of his title, his death made front-page headlines. Pulitzer Prize–winning sportswriter Jim Murray noted that Dempsey was on par with other revered figures in American history such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln.
Dempsey was an inaugural inductee into both the Boxing Hall of Fame (1954) and the International Boxing Hall of Fame (1990). His birthplace in Manassa became a museum in 1966. Dempsey is buried in Southampton Cemetery in Tuckahoe, New York, where his tombstone reads, “A Gentle Man and a Gentleman.”