Jack Dempsey was a legendary heavyweight boxer who, unfortunately, lived in a time where you had to either be alive to bear witness to his greatness, or thank your lucky stars for whatever full-length footage there is out there today.
Dempsey reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926, a stellar period which saw him defeat boxers the likes of then-champion Jess Willard and Bill Brennan.
Dempsey’s unique style and first-class results left him immortalized in boxing history, and an inspiration to many fighters after him. This includes one Mike Tyson, who appraised himself in rarefied air with the great, saying: “I’m Sonny Liston, I’m Jack Dempsey, there’s no one like me. I’m from their cloth. There’s no one that can match me. My style is impetuous. My defense is impregnable. I’m ferocious...” — well we don’t need to finish that quotation. If you know, you know.
Much of Tyson’s adulatory remarks were applicable to “Kid Blackie.” Ferocious is a great description. But first, let’s examine Dempsey from a physical standpoint.
Jack Dempsey stood at 6’1” — imposing for the time, but certainly not the largest fighter throughout the illustrious history of the sport. He’d weigh in from the high-180s to the mid- to high-190s. Dempsey was muscular and fit, but did not have a showcase-worthy body the likes of Anthony Joshua, Evander Holyfield, or Joe Louis.
Dempsey fought out of the orthodox stance, with a conventional posture. He didn’t throw too many jabs; instead, he headhunted, and had picture-perfect lateral quickness.
Jack Dempsey vs Jess Willard (1919)
Rewarded for nearly five years of dominating his division, “The Manassa Mauler” got his shot at the world heavyweight title against “The Pottawatomie Giant” Jess Willard.
Willard was known as a big mauler of a fighter. His match against Jack “Bull” Young led to Young’s death, as he sustained injuries he couldn’t from which he could not recover. He also defeated the legendary Jack Johnson in Havana, Cuba, in 1915, albeit well past Johnson’s prime.
The towering Willard had a five-inch height advantage, and 58 lbs of weight over Dempsey coming into the fight. This did not matter once the bell sounded.
Dempsey came out looking like the antecedent to Larry Holmes, dancing around the ring, trying to feel out to the giant whilst simultaneously getting him to stumble over his own poor footwork. Willard evinced exemplary hand speed early, but kept his chin up higher than a 747.
At the latter stages of round one, Dempsey had a flash of brilliance, one where if you placed the footage next to a clip of Mike Tyson, they’d look identical. He threw three punches to Willard’s chest before landing a flush left hook to the side of the face that sent Willard to the canvas.
Dempsey knocked down Willard an unprecedented seven times in round alone alone, and by the end of the frame, .his corner came out in a celebratory fashion as if he had won the brawl. Round two was a round of haymakers, as Dempsey went for the finish, mauling the living daylights out of a champion rendered defenseless.
Willard fought back in round three, but to little avail. If round one should’ve cost the referee his job, round three ought to have brought criminal charges against the man for negligence.
Dempsey demonstrated otherworldly speed, aggression, and fundamentals around the ring. His movement was sharp and active, and his defense — well he didn’t even need to use it that Independence Day. He brought the heat to a 110 degree day.
Jack Dempsey vs Bill Brennan II (1920)
Bill Brennan gave everything he had against Dempsey, and was actually leading in points in these books halfway through the fight. Dempsey put on front street a great ability to counter-punch however, as Brennan was a bit more of the aggressor.
Jack would often get low, and then rise up once a jab or straight hand came at him, with a straight right of his own. He tended to lean on his front foot at times, generating power from his torso when throwing blows. He loved to bob up and down, almost as if he were doing wall sits and springing back up, leaning forward slightly.
Out of clinches, he was masterful at slipping his dominant hand from grasps and throwing short punches that registered on the scorecard. It’s worth noting that Dempsey had great lower body strength, because every time Brennan tried to get tangled up with the champion, Dempsey would instead muscle him around the ring, using his legs to drive the bus wherever he wanted.
By round 12, Dempsey took control of the fight. He hid his right hand by tucking it parallel to his chest, with his jab hand up, similar to the likes of Floyd Mayweather when he searches for straight rights to the face. He wore down Brennan with the muscling, comparable to the way Tyson Fury manhandled Deontay Wilder in their second fight. He set up a beautiful right hook to the body which made Bill bend over in pain, before delivering a knockout right hook to the side of the head.
Jack Dempsey vs Luis Angel Firpo (1923)
A fight at the Polo Grounds, with about 80,000 paying to see the fight. Firpo got bombarded by an assortment of punches from Dempsey, getting knocked down seven times in the first round alone. Dempsey again showed otherworldly speed and agility. After the fourth knockdown, Firpo laid on the canvas with his arms above his head, as if he were at a kickback on the beach, tortured by the sun.
Luis did come roaring back, throwing haymakers and landing some, one of them famously sending Demspey through the ropes and out of the ring, but the champion was able to beat the 20-count.
Dempsey showed pizazz and a touch of disrespect by stepping over the downed Firpo, and lounging on the turnbuckle as he waited for him to arise for more of a beating. The second round saw Dempsey close the show in under a minute, knocking Firpo out after a ninth knockdown.
Jack Dempsey vs Jack Sharkey (1927)
The contest started aggressively, with Dempsey burying his head into Sharkey’s left shoulder and bullying him around the ring. In close, both fighters threw uppercut after uppercut, attempting to score points.
Later in the round, Dempsey was hit with about eight punches in a row, as Sharkey caught him with a left hook, followed by a left uppercut, and then came a right and left hook. It went on and on, before Jack bounced off the ropes and clinched to alleviate the successful onrush.
Sensing he had his opponent’s number, Sharkey did not play with his food. In round three, he hit Dempsey with so many uppercuts it was easy to lose count. Dempsey did show resilience by hanging in and throwing punches back, but Sharkey looked like a much superior fighter through nine minutes. Dempsey did not exhibit a good defensive approach, and seemed to have no answer.
In round six, Dempsey came into his own, almost as if he had been replaced with a clone. He was ducking and weaving, putting on display his retreat, getting low, and looking like a real defensive fighter. He was caught with another vicious uppercut, but the fact that he pressed on and attacked Sharkey’s body won him the round, and set him up for a seventh round knockout.
The remarkable (for its time) slow-motion camera footage captured Dempsey hitting Sharkey three consecutive times with blows below the belt. In response, Sharkey complained to the referee, leaving himself unprotected for a left hook that sent him falling down like London Bridge.
This fight did a great job of ushering to the forefront many of Dempsey’s strengths, which included resilience, a relentless attack, great work to the body, and a tough chin. On the other hand, it also showed several potential weak points, including but not limited to poor defensive hands, rarely coming up to his chin or temples, and average footwork for much of the bout.
Jack Dempsey was an exceptional fighter. His willpower, energy, precision, and overall offensive attack were marvelous, at times pure brilliance. Dempsey surely had a “wow factor,” with an offensive fighting style that transcends any generation, and he’d be a problem for any great heavyweight boxer in history.
It would be remiss to not accentuate his defense, however, which at times left something to be desired. Dempsey rarely if ever brought his gloves up to his facial area. All too often, when pitted against a fighter more aggressive than him, he would get tagged all throughout his body.
While he kept his chin down and had a model stance, it seems as though his defense came and went. Sometimes you watch him and go, “Wow, that guy could really read his opponent.” Other times you can watch him and say, “Is that the same fighter I’d seen a fight ago?”
All in all, Dempsey was a showstopper. You got your money’s worth when you watched him do his thing. Undoubtedly, he left a lasting impression on the sport that influenced many fighters in the generations to follow. He was a joy to witness.