100 Years Ago Today: Jack Dempsey Accused of Draft Dodging WWI

Herald Democrat, February 28, 1920

Nicknamed the Manassa Mauler because he was born in Manassa, Colorado in 1895 and hit with an unrivaled power, William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey was one of the most accomplished heavyweight fighters of the 1920s, which is often called the Golden Age of Sports because of the larger than life sports figures that dominated headlines like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb………..

Dempsey held the heavyweight title from 1919-1926 with a record of 60-7-8. An incredible 50 of those wins were KOs, with many of them coming in the first round. Today, the town of Manassa honors his legacy with the Jack Dempsey Museum.

But 100 years ago, Dempsey’s legacy was nearly cut down just as it was getting started.

Lafayette Leader, August 6, 1920

On February 27, 1920, while in San Francisco, Dempsey and his manager, Jack “Doc” Kearns, were charged with falsifying information on Dempsey’s draft questionnaire almost two years ago, in 1918. During the war, Dempsey was deemed ineligible for draft enlistment because of his financial obligations to numerous family members.

In 1918, Kearns filled out the questionnaire form on Dempsey’s behalf and with his approval, so Kearns was also charged. Effectively, they were both being accused of draft dodging.

According to the Lafayette Leader, Dempsey signed a document in Chicago in 1918 that said “his wife, mother, father, widowed sister and the two minor children of the last named were mainly dependent upon him for support, and had been living.”

–Lafayette Leader

During the trial, which lasted more than a week, the defense presented exhaustive evidence that Celia Dempsey, the boxer’s mother, was solely dependent on him financially.

On the prosecution side, they were backed by testimony from Dempsey’s recently divorced ex-wife, Maxine, who brought the initial charges against him. The jury took a mere 10 minutes to deliberate before delivering a not guilty verdict. Dempsey was free to fight once again.

In order to understand why Dempsey claimed that so many of his family members depended on him financially, we need to look at the conditions in which he was raised.

Growing up, Dempsey was one of 11 children, and his family moved around frequently to various mining and farming jobs in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. They were very poor. In order to make some extra money, Jack’s older brother, Bernie, taught him how to fight. He also taught him small boxing secrets like chewing pine gum to strengthen your jaw. The gum tasted worse than death, apparently. He also had his brother soak his hands in beef brine and then rub the brine on his face so opponents couldn’t draw blood.

Jack became a skilled fighter while bouncing around hardscrabble mining towns and entering bouts wherever he could. Sometimes he’d go into a bar and say he’d lick anyone who would take him on. The only money he’d make was donations from bar patrons.

He realized he could make more money boxing than picking crops.

His family did not have a lot of prospects for work, so they leaned on their talented son for income.

Dempsey’s signature move was the bob and weave, also known as the Dempsey Roll, which Mike Tyson studied and became famous for using decades later. Dempsey’s foot and hand speed, combined with a lethal left hook, made him exceptionally hard to match up against. He was 6’1″ tall and weighed in between 180-190 pounds during his heavyweight years.

In 1919, he defeated the much larger heavyweight champion, Jess Willard, who was 6’6″ tall and 245 lbs, in front of a Toledo, OH crowd of 70,000 to win the heavyweight title. The outdoor stadium was built specifically for this fight, with green unseasoned lumber benches that oozed sap under the blazing sun, ruining thousands of wool trousers.

Inside the ring, temperatures reached 112 degrees, which may have sped up Jess Willard’s early exit after the third round, but it certainly built up the legend of the Manassa Mauler, the undersized miner turned boxer who could burn like coal and still come out on top.

04 Jul 1919, Toledo, Ohio, USA — 7/4/1919-Toledo, OH- Jack Dempsey ducks a punch thrown by Jess Willard, during a 1919 fight in Toledo. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Dempsey instantly became one of the most popular athletes in the country, because his matches were broadcast live over radio and his face was on every newspaper. But his popularity wilted in 1920 when news of the alleged draft dodging darkened his image.

In his title defense against French war hero Georges Carpentier, which was the first $1 million dollar gate in boxing history, Dempsey was booed roundly, which was reported in newspapers across the country. He successfully defeated Carpentier in a brutal match, but Dempsey had become a heel figure to many boxing fans. He appeared only in exhibition matches for the next two years.

During World War I, the term ‘slacker’ meant someone that refused to participate in the war effort. The slacker label haunted Dempsey throughout his career, despite the fact that he was acquitted of the draft dodging charges.

In 1923, at the height of Dempsey’s fame, the American Legion refused to promote or support the Dempsey-Gibbons heavyweight title fight, despite part of the proceeds of the fight going toward a hospital built for disabled veterans. Dempsey won the fight in 15 rounds with an unanimous decision.

He defended the heavyweight title over a period of seven years, eventually losing the title to Gene Tunney, who, ironically, was nicknamed The Fighting Marine because of his outstanding military service during WWI.

The Manassa Mauler’s last career fight was a re-match with Tunney for the heavyweight title, which took place on September 22, 1927 at Soldier Field, in Chicago, with nearly 105,000 fans in the stadium. This match is now known as the Long Count Fight because of the controversy that took place in the seventh round.

A new rule had been instated for this fight. The rule said that after a boxer had been knocked down, he had 10 seconds to regain his feet, but these 10 seconds would only start when the opponent had gone to a neutral corner, meaning one without any trainers in it.

In Round Seven, Dempsey knocked Tunney down for the first time in Tunney’s career, it should be added, but then he stood over The Fighting Marine, rather than going to the neutral corner right away. This gave Tunney precious seconds to recover before the count started. You can find video of the fight on YouTube with a clock superimposed over the ring and Tunney is down for around 13 seconds.

Gene Tunney would go on to win with a unanimous decision in 10 Rounds. Dempsey never held the controversy against his opponent. Instead, at the end of the fight, it’s reported that he held up the victor’s arm and said, “You were best. You fought a smart fight, kid.” The two champions became friends after retirement, and visited one another frequently.

Dempsey would later open one of the most famous restaurants in the country in New York City in 1935, called Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant. You can catch sight of the restaurant in several movies, including The Godfather and A Bronx Tale. The pugilist was known to shake hands and sign autographs with his patrons during the restaurant’s heyday. It closed in 1974 after an almost 40 year run. Jack Dempsey died of natural causes 9 years later, on June 1, 1983, at the age of 87.

Heavyweight champion, Celebrity Restauranteur, nowhere in his obituary will you find the word ‘slacker’.

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