Americans, who tend to be a patriotic bunch in general, once took pride in a lineage of heavyweight champions. An only twice-broken (and then relinked) chain of American heavyweight champions looped on for 45 years before Max Schmeling and Primo Carnera brought their European flair.
Patriotism and jingoism stare at one another from across a thin line, needing only one punch to transform the former into the latter. Though if there were only one day where patriotism is okay to run rampant in the U.S., it would be the Fourth of July.
As years swing by and Independence Day in the U.S. becomes more about barbecuing than boxing, the likelihood of significant fights happening on such a national holiday goes way down. Once upon a time, people still needed things to do on early July days, and catching up with a tussle or two was as good an option as any.
Three of the most significant sports figures of the 20th century, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, all put their stamp on July 4. It just so happens that it was Dempsey, the "Manassa Mauler," who made the day his own.
On Independence Day in 1910, a special ring was constructed by mythical promoter "Tex" Rickard so that Johnson could make the fifth defense of the heavyweight title he took from Tommy Burns. Former champion James Jeffries, who had been retired for six years, was coaxed back to the ring for what amounted to a desperate attempt to have a white man wrest the crown from the hands of the first black champion. Perhaps it was also because Johnson had defeated Jeffries' younger brother Jack in 1902. Jeffries paid a bloody price either way, with Johnson stylishly trouncing him from one side of the ring to the next, easily tying Jeffries up inside before sending him down thrice in round 15 to end the fight.
A ringside report from Reno, Nev. relayed the scene in Jeffries' corner immediately following the stoppage, saying, "[James] Corbett and Joe Choynski and Brother Jack [Jeffries] and the others were ready to cry, but they united in trying to cheer the defeated man. 'It's all off with you,' Corbett said, 'but you did the best you could.' 'Cheer up; we'll go fishing tomorrow,' Frank Gotch, the world's champion wrestler, said."
After initially giving Johnson full credit for the win, Jeffries went on to say in a post-fight interview, "I would have remained the retired and undefeated heavyweight champion of the world but for the fact that the American public demanded of me that I try to take away the championship from a black man. I don't regret the fact of my defeat so much as I do that it was a negro who beat me, thereby establishing himself as the best man in the world."
It was not America's finest moment.
Riots, skirmishes and confrontations related to the fight results were reported in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Little Rock, Augusta, New York City and more. In New York, a tenement building was torched by a gang of white protestors and a black man was dragged from a street car and beaten. In Roanoke, Va., a white man named Joe Chockley was shot in the head and killed during a confrontation with a black Jack Johnson supporter. And that was only a fraction of the fallout.
The savage clashes overshadowed the fact that, in just as many cities, crowds swelled, often integrating, to hear megaphoned announcements of the fight happenings, or updates via large chalk boards. Still, most news reports describing the action and outcome read like obituaries.
Two decades later on July 4, 1934, Joe Louis' career was born in Chicago against a club fighter who went by the name Jack Kracken.
The International News Service reported from ringside, "Joe Louis, former national A.A.U. light heavyweight champion, today had earned his first professional victory. Louis, fighting as a heavyweight, scored a technical knockout over Jack Kracken, of Champaign, Ill., in the first round. Shortly after the start of the fight the Detroit negro sent Kracken down for a count of nine with a left hook to the jaw. When Kracken gained his feet, Louis knocked him through the ropes and into the lap of Joe Triner, chairman of the Illinois Athletic commission. Kracken crawled back into the ring at the count of 14, but Referee Dave Miller stopped the bout."
Louis' trainer Jack Blackburn, himself a skilled fighter years earlier, had told his man to work Kracken's body straight away before going upstairs. "The Brown Bomber" followed instructions gave his career an explosive start, and it wasn't without a nod to the past.
An unnamed sports reporter for the Plaindealer, a Kansas and Missouri border-area publication for black Americans, was also ringside, saying, "John 'Lil Arthur Jack Johnson, former heavyweight champion of the world, came to Chicago last Wednesday to be looked over with the rest of the now living ex-world's prizefighting champions as a part of Dave Barry's exhibit of fallen beef-trust idols at the World's Fair. Jack's arrival was the signal for a rear fight (without incentive of a prize) between Al Monroe, local sports scribe, and the Hon. Joseph Triner, Chairman of the Illinois Boxing Commission at Bacon's Arena where Joe Louis, the sensational Golden Gloves light heavyweight champ was making his debut into the pro ranks. Now Jack wasn't at Bacon's emporium, but he was brought there in this wise. Louis had just finished knocking Jack Kracken, white, out of the ring for a 14 second count, previously having floored the white boy twice with damaging lefts to the chin. Davy Miller, world's most famous referee, and a good fellow in the eyes of a lot of colored fans, had waved Louis to his corner after Kracken's seconds had tossed a towel into the ring. A Fourth of July crowd, augmented by a trainload of Detroiters who had come over to see the pride of the Motor City do his number in the ranks of the Paid, jammed every portion of the arena. George Traiton, the promoter, was supposed to have asked Triner, who was seated at the ringside as was Wilfred Smith, boxing editor of the Chicago Tribune and a number of lesser lights, for permission to refer to Joe Louis as being the greatest heavyweight prospect since Jack Johnson. Triner flatly refused and Al Munroe, who acts as timekeeper, intervened and asked why. Joe (Triner) warmed up under the collar and threatened to erupt."
A sort of patriotic pride would find Louis once more in 1938, when he had won the heavyweight title and faced the only fighter to have beaten him previously in Max Schmeling. With the Nazi Party firmly in power by then, as a German, Schmeling embodied a force that must be stopped, whether the view was correct or not. And Louis stopped him in less than a round, extremely violently. It scored more than just one for the U.S.
Jack Dempsey, one of the biggest superstars in the history of the term, began his veritable Independence Day takeover by slicing through Jess Willard in 1919.
Through a blanket of heat that broke 100 degrees and chasing a giant around a 20 foot by 20 foot ring, Dempsey helped usher forth a golden era of sports still revered after nearly a century. It was seven knockdowns in three rounds and, depending on who you believe, a broken jaw, loosened teeth and a fractured eye socket for Willard, who also had a 58-pound advantage.
Aforementioned former heavyweight champion James Corbett penned a wire report that was sent out the morning following Dempsey's victory. In it, he all but ignored Johnson's in-ring accomplishments and instead compared Dempsey to his friend Jeffries. "Jack Dempsey, the greatest heavyweight fighter since Jim Jeffries was in his prime, is the world's champion today--and, for the good of the game, I am glad. From the time Willard stepped in the ring shortly after 4 o'clock this afternoon there was never any doubt in my mind as to the outcome."
His claim was a thinly-veiled racial jab, but it also accurately reflected the jolt Dempsey had given the sport with such a coup.
Reporting for the Boston Herald, W. A. Hamilton said of the bout, "In all the history of the ancient sport of fistiana there never was such a furious struggle as the meeting between the veteran champion and his youthful antagonist. The battle while a short one thrilled the fans as no other heavyweight contest has in years. There were more blows struck and more speedy exchanges transpired in the short period of fighting than is known to have happened in many other heavyweight championship battles. It was a struggle from the start and the best man asserted his superiority in a manner that left nothing to be desired."
There exists no way to accurately measure which fight -- Johnson-Jeffries or Dempsey-Willard -- had more social impact. Each was massive, but for different reasons. Perhaps Dempsey-Willard had a bit more in common with Louis-Kracken, like that both fights essentially introduced their victors to the light, and spectators never looked back.
The upheaval created by Johnson-Jeffries was widespread and chaotic, and likely unique in its ability to fan racial flames around the country for some time to come. Dempsey-Willard had its own strange reactions, however. In New York, the United Press reported, "The blow by which Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight fight championship at Toledo resulted in the death of a man in Brooklyn Friday night. Anthony Wesielewski, according to police, sought to show his friend, Thomas Black, how Dempsey beat Willard. He playfully swung a left to Black's jaw. When Black failed to rise, Wesielewski called a policeman. At Greenpoint hospital Black was pronounced dead. Wesielewski was arrested on technical charge of homicide."
Local tragedies aside, Dempsey's ability crashed through other barriers, and even broke a town or two.
Somewhere in the realm of 500 women attended Dempsey's title-winning bout in Toledo, Ohio, and for the first time in history women were encouraged to attend a large scale title fight in the U.S. The fight might even have missed out on a larger portion of female audience, as coaches and trains from Philadelphia that promoter "Tex" Rickard paid for were inexplicably shut down.
As for Toledo, almost every aspect of how Dempsey-Willard's promotion and preparation was botched. Ice cream was ordered by the truckload, but melted in the 110 degree heat. Cigarettes were stockpiled for spectators, but the local fire commissioner banned smoking in the Bay View Park Arena, fearing the combination of heat and white pine stands would lead to fiery catastrophe. Sandwiches and hotdogs brought in went bad, and taverns, restaurants and food stands in the immediate vicinity in town were literally picked dry by the extra 15,000 or more people. It was basically a humanitarian crisis with a topping of heavyweight championship bout-flavored gravy.
And it wasn't the last time a Jack Dempsey world title fight would swarm upon a town like a brigade of fistic locusts.
What would come to be known as the "Shelby Fiasco" was Dempsey's fourth defense of the belt he took from Willard, July 4, 1923 in Shelby, Mont. An oil boom the previous year brought Shelby's population from nearly nothing to about 500 residents in one year, with prospectors striking it rich but failing to bring notoriety to the town. Two real estate speculators, James Johnson and Mel McCutcheon, decided to make Dempsey's manager Jack "Doc" Kearns an offer to stage the fight in the blossoming town locals had dubbed the "Tulsa of the Northwest" in an effort to kick up interest.
Several problems quickly arose when the fight process was put into motion. First, Kearns demanded a fee of about $300,000 to host Dempsey vs. Tommy Gibbons, which Shelby didn't have, but James Johnson somehow came up with. Second, Shelby had no arena, and one needed to be built with money coming out of Johnson and McCutcheon's pockets, so promoter Loy Molumby was brought also brought in. Lastly, Kearns publicly doubted that the fight would happen at all, even threatening to cancel the bout the day before because the last installment of the guarantee had not been paid. To top it all off, Dempsey was taken the distance for the first time in almost five years, and the first time since becoming champion. And the event was boring.
The arena, built to hold more than 40,000 spectators, was half-empty on fight day. Author Mel Heimer wrote in his book "The Long Count" that the scene in the Shelby Arena had "possibly the strangest prizefight audience of all time... There were cowboys; millionaires; Blackfeet (Indians); drifters; movie stars; sheep-herders; One-Eyed Connolly, the gate crasher; Mrs. Raymond T. Baker (formerly Mrs. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt), and Mae Murray, the actress."
Old Connelly was likely one of the thousands of people who crashed the venue after the fights had started and even the ticket vendors rushed inside to watch.
In going 15 rounds with the feared heavyweight champion, Gibbons earned a measure of respect he'd never known, but he survived thanks to a heap of clinching and defensive trickery. The points were scored mostly by Dempsey, who was given the decision before being spirited out of the ring and, supposedly, out of town post haste. According to most versions of the story, both Dempsey and Kearns skipped town that night with a huge sum of money, most of it funneled through James Johnson and his father, also James, the mayor of Shelby.
The federal tax alone, about $22,000, was more than Gibbons took home for staying the distance with a beast. Gibbons' son Tom Jr. would later say that his dad took home the 1923 equivalent of $50,000, but traveled the vaudeville circuit based on his relative success against Dempsey, banking more than the fight paid him.
In an A.P. article titled "Death Knell to Big Purses," Shelby's losses were totaled at around $200,000. The local bank in Shelby declared bankruptcy shortly afterward, then a bank in Great Falls about 50 miles away. In a small effort to mitigate the costs, the arena's lumber was auctioned off for building. The younger Johnson would say, over 60 years later in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, "My dad and I lost $169,000 on the fight, but no one else lost anything. Kearns was a crook. He did us in. Every time he opened his mouth, he lied to us."
Whether Kearns lied or simply took advantage of inexperienced promoters isn't clear, though it could be a blend of both. What is clear is that Dempsey had by the mid-1920s become a giant among other celebrities and sports figures. When the 1920s roared, Dempsey roared back, stealing the decade's thunder.
Over decades and centuries, some characters grow to have "larger than life" qualities. If anything, Dempsey's popularity and influence has likely been forgotten over time. He lives on, though, because Dempsey wasn't just larger than life, but larger than towns -- and the patriotic day that birthed them.