Nicknamed the Manassa Mauler because he was born in Manassa, Colorado in 1895, William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey was one of the most accomplished heavyweight fighters of the 1920s. He 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. 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.
On February 27, 1920, in San Francisco, Dempsey and his manager, Jack Kearns, were charged with falsifying information on Dempsey’s draft questionnaire in 1918. Kearns filled out the form on Dempsey’s behalf and with his approval, which is why Kearns was also charged. Effectively, they were being accused of draft dodging.
According to the Lafayette Leader, “In this document, which he signed in Chicago in January, 1918, he swore that 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.”
During the trial, which lasted more than a week, the defense presented evidence that Celia Dempsey, the boxer’s mother, was solely dependent on him financially. The prosecution was backed by testimony from Dempsey’s ex-wife, Maxine Dempsey, 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.
Growing up, Dempsey was one of 11 children, and his family moved around frequently to various mining and farming jobs in Colorado and Utah. They were very poor. Jack’s older brother, Bernie, taught him how to fight, and Jack became a skilled fighter, bouncing around hardscrabble mining towns and entering bouts wherever he could. He realized he could make more money boxing than picking crops.
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 around 190 lbs 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.
Dempsey defended the title for 7 years, becoming one of the most popular and most recognizable athletes in the country, if not the world. Dempsey lost the heavyweight title to Gene Tunney, who, ironically, was nicknamed The Fighting Marine because of his military service during WWI.
The “slacker” label haunted Dempsey throughout his career, despite the fact that he was acquitted of the 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 a unanimous decision.