The year was 1921. Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world, reigned as the most titanic figure in all of professional sports, though his public image had been recently marred by scandal. The previous year he had divorced his first wife, Maxine Cates, a barroom hustler he had met during his hobo days, and the legal proceedings provided choice fodder for the tabloids and gossip columnists. Dempsey’s reputation suffered severe damage as the court heard allegations the champion preferred consorting with low company and frequenting whore-houses over being a responsible husband and father. Worst of all, Cates suggested the deferment granted to Dempsey by the military, excusing him from serving in World War I, had not been deserved.
In bright contrast stood Georges Carpentier, a Frenchman and the light heavyweight champion of the world. Even before World War I, Carpentier enjoyed massive popularity as the finest boxer in all of Europe, winning European titles in every division from welterweight to heavyweight before joining the war effort as a pilot. He served with such distinction that he was awarded his nation’s highest honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire. As a result, Carpentier enjoyed the same renown and attention as the most famous entertainers and his reputation was beyond reproach. Men deferred; women swooned. Neysa McMein, a popular American socialite and illustrator, sketched “The Pride of Paris” for The New York Evening World and declared that Michelangelo “would have fainted for joy with the beauty of his profile.”
Dempsey received no such fawning praise for his scowling visage. Now deemed a “slacker,” the contrast between the two champions could not have been more stark. Dempsey brought to mind hobo camps, brothels and squalid bars with sawdust on the floor, while “The Orchid Man” evoked Monet’s garden, the Champs-Élysées and the Louvre. Where Dempsey was “tigerish,” Carpentier was “elegant.” While the champion was a disgraced “brute,” the challenger was a dashing “hero.”
No more wily promoter has there been than Tex Rickard, who recognized the enormous potential for a Dempsey vs Carpentier confrontation to capture the imagination of the public. He offered the fighters massive paydays — $300 000 to the champion, $200 000 to the challenger — scheduled the match for the Fourth of July weekend, and went about promoting the fight as a monumental clash between good and evil.
Journalists from around the world descended on Boyle’s Thirty Acres in New Jersey to cover the bout, the site chosen in part for its proximity to New York City. A special stadium seating ninety thousand was built on the plot of vacant land, its construction requiring two million feet of lumber and sixty tons of nails. Over two thousand police and security personnel were on hand, as well as six hundred ushers assigned to check for counterfeit tickets.
The attending audience paid over 1.7 million dollars, the first ever million dollar gate, twice as large as at any previous fight. Spectators came by automobile, ferry boat, trolley, or via special trains through the Holland Tunnel from New York City. At ringside was a glittering gallery of entertainers, politicians, and celebrities. Hundreds of thousands gathered in various pubic venues – bars, restaurants, theaters and halls — to listen to the first sporting event ever broadcast on live radio. In New York City a throng of some ten thousand assembled in Times Square just to get marquee-posted updates of the fight. All this for a boxing match.
Except for a fast-paced opening round, the contest itself proved less-than-scintillating. Enjoying a sixteen pound weight advantage, Dempsey relentlessly stalked his man, absorbing the war hero’s vaunted right hand lead with little trouble. By the third the champion had assumed full control. His advantages in strength and power allowed him to walk through Carpentier’s punches and administer a devastating body attack that robbed the challenger of his legs and stamina. Within fewer than nine minutes of action it was evident to even Carpentier’s most ardent followers that the Frenchman, despite fighting back gallantly, had no chance. In the fourth he took a vicious battering, hitting the canvas twice, the second time for the count.
The next day, the results of “The Fight of the Century” dominated the front pages of all major newspapers. Not because it was a hugely exciting bout, or because the boxers put on an amazing display of ring technique, but because it was a great story, featuring two compelling characters. Their contrasting backgrounds and public personas created an irresistible drama and, to this day, that, more than anything else, is what inspires big pay-per-view numbers and creates monster paydays. — Michael Carbert