After more than nine decades it may be difficult to appreciate how huge the legendary Dempsey vs Firpo fight was or how it transformed the public image of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, aka The Manassa Mauler. This is because many forget how Dempsey was in fact a rather unpopular figure for most of his championship reign. The all-American celebrity version of Dempsey, likable and extremely popular, did not emerge until the later years of the great champion’s career.
Before his legendary battle with Firpo, Dempsey’s fame, not to mention the huge gates at his fights, had as much to do with scandal and the dark side of human nature as it did with the popularity of boxing. After winning the world title in 1919, Dempsey was sued for divorce by Maxine Cates, a woman of less than high moral standing, to put it mildly, whom Jack had married during the time when he was riding the rails, fighting in bars and living in hobo camps and whorehouses. The trial and its revelations became a full-blown scandal as it not only brought to light Dempsey’s squalid background, but suggested too that the heavyweight champion had perhaps not fully deserved his deferment to avoid the military draft during World War I.
Thus Dempsey became the ‘bad guy’ and wily promoter Tex Rickard took full advantage, most notably in Jack’s bout with French war hero Georges Carpentier. That clash between good and evil created the first million dollar gate but did nothing to rehabilitate the heavyweight champion’s image. For three solid years Jack Dempsey, while without question the biggest name in American sports, had to endure the disapproval of the general public, not to mention taunts of “Slacker!” everywhere he went. That began to change after his life-and-death brawl with Luis Firpo.
No one questioned Firpo as a legitimate challenger to Dempsey, though few gave him a chance to win. Big and tough, the Argentinian strongman had defeated Jess Willard and Gunboat Smith, among others, to establish himself as a top contender. Eighty thousand packed the Polo Grounds to witness Dempsey’s fifth title defense and after the referee had delivered his instructions and the fighters had removed their towels and robes, the crowd immediately saw the difference in size between the two men. Firpo outweighed the champion by 25 pounds and had a far bigger upper body. Some began to wonder if Dempsey might finally have a serious challenge on his hands.
At the bell, the champion attacked. He missed a wild left and Firpo, retreating in the face of Dempsey’s assault, countered with a right that landed flush and dropped Dempsey to one knee. The crowd roared, rising as one to its feet; no one would sit down again until the ferocious battle had ended.
Dempsey rose and the fighters collided again in ring center, muscling each other in close before finding punching room and letting loose with wild haymakers, both men connecting. Twenty seconds in, Dempsey landed his potent left hook, knocking Firpo down. The challenger climbed to his feet and the men immediately took up where they left off, grappling and pounding, every blow thrown with intent to render the other man unconscious, the massive crowd going berserk as the fighters mauled and wrestled and punched away.
Firpo, while bigger and stronger, lacked Dempsey’s footwork and balance and this proved key in the knockdowns the champion scored. While attacking, Dempsey continually whirled and spun, turning Firpo in the clinches and then striking while the challenger was off-balance. Dempsey’s vicious body attack also factored in, with two of the knockdowns courtesy of hard shots to Firpo’s belly. Seven times the challenger hit the canvas and more than once it appeared certain he was finished, but the stubborn “Wild Bull of the Pampas” kept getting up and battling back, despite the fact Dempsey was allowed to hover after each knockdown and strike Firpo the second his gloves left the canvas.
Amazingly, after the seventh knockdown, and with less than a minute left in the round, Firpo somehow launched a devastating counterattack that almost ended the fight. To everyone’s astonishment he put Dempsey on the run with a volley of powerful rights, driving the champion to the ropes where a final right hand clout detonated on Jack’s jaw and propelled him out of the ring. Few could believe what they were seeing as Dempsey, his feet high in the air, landed on his back in the press section. For a shocking moment, it appeared that Firpo, who seconds ago was picking himself up off the floor, would triumph.
At this time there existed no aprons on boxing rings and Dempsey fell directly onto the table of the ringside press. Several reporters tried to push him back through the ropes, frantically working to get him off their typewriters so they could continue recording what was taking place. Back in the ring and on his feet, Dempsey, stunned, backpedaled as Firpo resumed his attack. The challenger desperately hammered away with his right but the champion not only survived but returned fire with two hard rights of his own just before the bell finally rang.
In their corners, both battlers were suffering the effects of perhaps the wildest round in ring history. Legend has it that Dempsey, sitting on his stool, was virtually catatonic until Jack Kearns found the smelling salts and put them under the champion’s nose. The champion blinked and looked at his handlers who were slapping him and dousing him with water and asked, “What round was I knocked out in?”
But as the second round began it was immediately clear it was Firpo, not Dempsey, who was about to be knocked out. The Wild Bull’s legs were like noodles and his punches were powerless. The champion quickly had Firpo on the defensive and a volley of left hooks put the challenger down for the eighth time. He climbed to his feet yet again and tried one last right hand swing before Dempsey struck with a sharp one-two, the final punch a right to the jaw as Firpo was already going down. The gallant challenger rolled over onto his back; this time he could not rise.
While barely four minutes long, the brief but electrifying brawl had provided more thrills than all of Dempsey’s previous title defenses put together. The shock of seeing the heavyweight champion of the world pounded through the ropes left a huge impression and won The Manassa Mauler new respect. For years he had been the invincible champion no one could relate to or care about, especially after the scandal of his divorce and the accusations of his being a draft dodger. But seeing him come so close to defeat changed his public image and made him human again.
For the next three years Dempsey burnished that more appealing image as he stayed out of the prize ring and instead became a full-time celebrity, appearing in various exhibitions, stage plays and movies, and then marrying gorgeous film star Estelle Taylor. Thus, Dempsey was more popular than ever by the time he finally fought again in 1926, and in fact his defeats to Gene Tunney only served to endear him all the more to an American public which could not relate to the aloof new champion. And by the time Jack retired in 1928 he had become not just a star of boxing and the Roaring Twenties, but an icon of Americana. – Michael Carbert