The sport of Boxing boasts a rich history of great fights and great fighters. Regrettably, that history appears to be lost on many – I would argue most -- of the people who cover the sport for the news media nowadays and, consequently, many of the great champions of the past are sadly under-appreciated. Alas, “out of sight” really does seem to mean “out of mind.” The most glaring example of this phenomenon is the erosion of respect that the legendary Manassa Mauler, former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey, has suffered over the course of the past two decades.
In 1950, the Associated Press conducted a poll of sportswriters to name the greatest fighter of all-time, pound-for-pound, and Dempsey was the runaway winner, collecting 251 votes. [Joe Louis finished a distant second with 109 votes; Henry Armstrong was third with 13.] Yet, today, many fans want to rewrite history, substituting their judgment for the judgment of eyewitnesses, by deriding Dempsey’s accomplishments and diminishing his place in the heavyweight pantheon. Why this should be true is not entirely clear. Probably, there are many reasons, including (a) general ignorance of Dempsey’s record and the era in which he fought, (b) general ignorance of the sport generally (most boxing beat writers also cover other sports that are more popular in this day and age), and (c) a natural bias in favor of contemporary athletes. Regardless of the reason, however, it is fundamentally unjust – not to mention flat wrong to underrate Jack Dempsey.
A young boxing fan wrote me that, “That the older crowd tends to rank Dempsey in the top 5. He doesn't make a lot of the younger crowds entire lists. It would seem to me that the discrepancy is most likely due to older fans, and fans that really knew the scene back in the day, getting kind of swept up in the Dempsey mystique. Younger people tend to look at his record and say, "I don't know I don't see it."
The irony inherent in the suggestion that an observer coming along 80 years after the fact could somehow arrive at a clearer understanding of Dempsey’s true abilities than those who actually saw him fight and train – and saw his opponents fight and train – and on a regular basis were able to do so, is, evidently, lost on this young “scholar.” But, youth is nothing if not arrogant.
But, let’s take a look at the facts. At his peak Dempsey went on a 32-0 run, with 28 kayos, 17 of them in the 1st round! That is one of the best knockout records in boxing history, and the victim list included most of the top heavyweight contenders of the day including Carl Morris, Fred Fulton, Al Palzer, Battling Levinsky, Gunboat Smith, K.O. Bill Brennan, Billy Miske, and his title-winning massacre of big Jess Willard.
One must realize that Jack Dempsey did not have access to an amateur boxing program and he did not come up as a protected fighter like today’s amateurs do. He started boxing at the age of 15 in hobo camps for money and weighed only 140 pounds and he often fought much bigger, older, stronger, and more experienced men. From the period beginning in 1911 he had as many as 100 unrecorded professional fights so records can be deceiving. These fights can be considered as Jack Dempsey’s “amateur” background. His first official professional fight was in 1914 – a welterweight challenging heavyweights right out of the gate.
Most people today think of Dempsey as crude because of the poor film speed and over-all quality of most of his fight films. Yet, this was the Charlie Chaplin era in film -- people didn't really move that way. James Toney is not smoother than Dempsey, just as Harrison Ford does not move better than Charlie Chaplin. In addition, the fight clip most frequently shown of Dempsey – the first round of his bout with Willard– shows him going all-out to stop a badly injured opponent. Yes, he’s wild there – most fighters are in that situation. But Dempsey was not normally “wild.” To the contrary, Dempsey was a very good boxer (incidentally, his book, “Championship Boxing,” was a blue print for Bruce Lee’s, “Tao of Jeet Kune Do”). A look at his fights against Bill Brennan (II), Carpentier, Tommy Gibbons, Jack Sharkey, Gene Tunney, and even rounds 2 and 3 of his fight with Willard, make this abundantly clear to anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the sport.
The famous sportswriter John Lardner wrote, “Bobbing and weaving is a phrase that will probably be associated with Jack Dempsey until the end of time.”
Dempsey called “the bob”, “a kind of artistic duck.” And he described “the weave” as “a series of slight imaginary slips. As you shuffle toward your opponent, you roll your left shoulder slightly; then your right’ then your left and so on…the genuine bob and weaver-and I was one of those-uses it fully. A deep bob and a side sway. I used to slip in under an opponents attack. Once in close I threw my left hook. I had a good one. I’d continue with a barrage of rights, hooks and uppercuts.” (Khan 78-79)
Like a prime Mike Tyson, Dempsey a master of the bob and weave, even more so because of his greater experience. It is a system designed to slip through an opponent’s offense and make him pay for every single mistake he makes. Make him miss and make him pay! Imagine a perpetual motion of the bob and weave, slipping, side-stepping and taking advantage of an opponent’s misses with punishing and countering power punches. At this Dempsey excelled. In his title winning effort against Willard Dempsey circled, circled, and Willard impatiently shot out a long left jab. Dempsey slipped underneath and weaved right, slamming a hard right to the body. It is the same punch that Dempsey used throughout his career (photo L) and Mike Tyson would later make his trademark punch. Dempsey then immediately exploded a left hook that broke the giant Willard's jaw and the onslaught was on.
Once inside Dempsey was virtually a whirlwind of motion. Whirling left, whirling right, getting punching angles and delivering his devastating left hooks, right hands and uppercuts. Dempsey had excellent hand speed, not in the league of Ali, or Louis but just a notch below. With his speed, power, and explosiveness Dempsey was a force to be reckoned with. "Dempsey threw so many punches in rapid succession that it often was difficult to identify the knockout blows." --(2003 p. 128)
Dempsey had very under-rated boxing skills. He once described his snapping left lead, discussing the energy transfer that occurred when he sprang into his opponent and how the weight would transfer to the lead foot. He then described “a power line,” running from his shoulder down the length of his arm to his gloved fist. To quote from his instruction book , “As you take your falling step forward, you shoot a half-opened left hand straight along the power line, chin high. As the relaxed left hand speeds towards the target, suddenly close the hand with a convulsive, grabbing snap. Close the left fist with such a terrific grab that when the knuckles smash into the target the fist and arm and the shoulder are frozen steel –hard by the terrific grabbing tension.” This was Dempsey’s very strong shotgun left jab.
Dempsey also had pretty good footwork for his style. He circled and looked for openings, shuffled, then exploded forward, side-stepped left and right and was never off balance. Most people have only seen the opening barrage against Willard, but he was boxing the first half of the round, circling and searching for his opportunity to strike. He had excellent foot speed and was one of the fastest attackers in history.
Dempsey’s best punch was his exploding hook. It had two explosions, one from the shoulder that generated body force from the hip and one from the bicep that gave it whirling power. It was a punch that was so powerful that Grantland Rice described it as “tornadic.” Many years later Joe Frazier would be described as having, “the best left hook since Dempsey.”
Dempsey had more than just a powering hook, he also had a strong right. He was a definitely a two handed hitter. Dempsey’s right was short, straight and explosive. In many ways Dempsey resembled a slightly smaller version of a young Mike Tyson, aggressive, trying to destroy his opponent from the opening bell, a bobbing and weaving perpetual motion machine, with a better jab and better boxing skills and with more rounds of ring experience.
In the Dec 1988 Ring, "Tyson and Dempsey: Is History Repeating Itself?" Writer John Reeves wrote about an incident in a bar while viewing the Tyson-Pinklon Thomas fight. Reeves had said to an old pug watching the fight, "A lot like Marciano huh?"
"Not really" the old man replied, "I wouldn't say so. He fights more like Dempsey." He stared at the young fan for a moment then turned his attention back to the screen. "But a guy your age wouldn't know too much about Dempsey", he said. There was almost a hint of sympathy in his retort.
There are a lot of similarities between Tyson and Dempsey. Reeves noted, "Like Tyson, Dempsey fought out of a crouch, constantly moving in a bobbing and weaving fashion so taller men would be forced to punch down at a mobile target. Both learned to pressure their way inside and unleash furious volleys of head and body punches. Both ended a lot of fights early with devastating power."
Many modern analysts fail to appreciate these qualities in Dempsey because they don’t really know much about him. In a debate I had with a writer for a major sports web site he tried to downplay Dempsey’s ability with this statement, simply quoting from a record book without giving historical evidence to back his point,
This is extremely deceiving. Downey’s boxing record is very incomplete. His first two fights with Dempsey are eight months apart. It is difficult to imagine fighters in this period not fighting for 8 months. The four round decision loss to Downey was also only Dempsey’s ninth recorded professional fight. Dempsey only weighed 160 pounds and he was fighting a heavyweight and he was only 19 years old at the time of this fight. Why is a young middleweight with 8 official pro fights losing to a heavyweight with 5 official pro fights so damaging to his reputation? That is just nonsense. The fights also took place at Downey’s father’s gym in Salt Lake and were refereed by old man Hardy Kay Downey himself and were nothing more than hometown decisions. The writer also fails to mention the third fight where a 20-year-old Dempsey kayoed Downey in two rounds.
The writer showed a complete lack of knowledge of boxing history with the following “facts,”
This is complete baloney. He won the title when he was 24. He tried to explain further,
Here is where a lack of knowledge of the circumstances and the period comes in. First of all this should be treated as nothing more than an exhibition. Dempsey was scheduled to fight three 4 round exhibitions on that date. But N.Y. had a boxing commission and they wouldn’t allow it, saying he could only fight one opponent in a 4 round fight (Not Dempsey’s Fault!). They also said their state laws, at the time, did not recognize a difference between an exhibition and a regular bout so the fight ended up being with the World Title at stake, and Dempsey won a clear decision. However, the recording of this as a legitimate title fight is debatable. Searching the NY Times and the SF Chronicle on this date reveals only newspaper articles that Dempsey’s next opponent would probably be Bill Brennan! There is no mention of this fight as a title fight at all either in the days leading up to, on the date of July 24, 1922, or the days immediately following the Darcy exhibition.
The writer continued to criticize Dempsey with this statement,
They actually fought five times. His record against Meehan was 1-2-2 (one win, two loss and two draws). His quotation is inaccurate and he gives no support with real history, demonstrating that he knows little about Jack Dempsey, but yet he insists on criticizing him. In 1917, Meehan won the first fight, Dempsey the next when he pounded Meehan with strong uppercuts, then 2 draws followed. In 1918, Meehan got a phony decision in the fight for the Navy Relief Fund, which accounts for the second loss. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Dempsey scored a knockdown in the 2nd round and the decision was a controversial one. The Chronicle also reported that, "It was told by friends of Dempsey before the fight started that he (Dempsey) had a damaged left hand." Referee Graney also said, "without doubt that bad hand handicapped Dempsey from landing hard punches." Dempsey and many in the crowd thought he had won despite fighting mostly with one hand.
These were 4 round fights, which were very common at the time. Dempsey simply did not have enough rounds to break down his game opponent in most of them. Meehan was a spoiler, a Jimmy Young type of his day- and simply had an awkward style. Let’s not forget Meehan also holds a win over the great Sam Langford. Dempsey simply needed more rounds to get to him. One must realize when your hungry you take whatever fights you can get including these four-rounders.
Here is another criticism he threw at Jack,
This fight was a complete dive by Dempsey. This was a very poor period for Jack where he sometimes went without eating for 2-3 days at a time. His first wife Maxine Cates was reputed to be turning tricks as a prostitute to help make ends meet. She admitted that Dempsey was “offered more money to lose than to win” (Khan 121) to which she testified under oath at Dempsey’s slacker trial that Dempsey accepted $500 to lie down for Flynn. Many historians believe this to be true. Certainly times were tough, they were hungry and such a move for a young fighter would not be unusual in that day as that was a lot of money in 1917. Dempsey was not a protected fighter moved along at a cautious pace. It was a rough time and you did what you had to make a few dollars to live. When they met for real a year later, it was Dempsey who scored a crushing first round knockout victory.
For more information on the first Jim Flynn bout see the article: Did Jack Dempsey Take A Dive?
There is another reason some of these early marks on Dempsey’s record cannot be completely trusted. There were no athletic commissions or sanctioning bodies in those days. If one understood the times in which Dempsey fought, one can better understand his accomplishments. Consider the following incident in Durango, Colorado on Oct 7, 1915 against 20 pounds heavier Andy Malloy.
The sheriff Arthur Fassbinder told both fighters, “If there is a knockout you will both be arrested.” The sheriff would permit a boxing exhibition but not a contest. Such was the politics of the day in some communities. Dempsey out worked Malloy with caution over 10 rounds; understandably there were no knockdowns. This is an official fight on Dempsey’s record that is registered as a 10 round no decision. They fought again two weeks later at a different location and Dempsey kayoed Mallory in three. Sometimes when fighting in hostile environments, or when in dire need of money just to be able to eat, one did what one had to in order to survive. Dempsey was forced to carry Malloy, but when they fought for real two weeks later Dempsey made short work of him.
Today it is difficult for people to imagine the harsh times in which the great fighters of the past lived. Jack Dempsey said this in “The Ring Magazine”, May 1956,
“Nobody has to go hungry today. There is plenty of work for a man who wants to work. A kid can make plenty of dough for himself doing almost anything. I was hungry. I had to fight my way along. Freights and the like, fight, fight all the time. The life was tough, but it hardened you.”
Grantland Rice quoted Dempsey as saying, “When I was a young fellow (he started fighting at 15 against bigger and older opponents) I was knocked down plenty. I wanted to stay down, but I couldn’t. I had to collect the two dollars for winning or go hungry. I had to get up. I was one of those hungry fighters. You could have hit me on the chin with a sledgehammer for five dollars. When you havn’t eaten for two days you’ll understand.” (Book of Boxing, 299)
Hunger is what turns a man into a good fighter. It makes him fight when a rich man would quit. It makes him have to win just so he can have something to eat to live. That is why in the 20's and 30's there were a lot of Irish, Jewish, and Italian fighters from the ghettoes, they were poor and hungry and had a tougher character. Today most "whites" are from middle or lower middle class environment and not use to tough times. Dempsey lived in tough times and was a very tough character. Fighters like Tunney, Louis, Marciano were almost always main events and they all fought exclusively in scheduled fights in organized programs. Dempsey, like Jack Johnson before him, had to take what came—sometimes he rode the rails all day to get to a fight and fought without having slept or eaten. A different world.
Many modern fans make the assumption that because Dempsey fought a lot of "white" guys that his opponents were not any good. One must realize that it is the socio-economic conditions of the times that produce good fighters not the color of their skin. As one goes back in time the "white" fighters get much better, they were poor, hungry, and in much greater abundance. Boxing was a very popular sport then, far more so than today surpassing football, and even baseball. There were far, far more boxers in teens and the twenties than there are today. That is a fact. There were boxing gyms in every major urban neighborhood in the United States. Boxing in popularity and financial gross was the biggest sport in America, which further encouraged more participants. During the times Dempsey was coming up the search was on for the "great white hope" and nearly every big white guy with athletic ability wanted to be a fighter, just as today the top athletes (in the U.S.) want to be NFL football players or NBA stars.
Imagine if we had no TV or films today, how would we impress upon the following generations how great men like Muhammad Ali, Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Oscar Delahoya, and Roy Jones, were? We would have to describe their abilities and perhaps take a poll of boxing writers to say whom we thought was the best of our time. We would want them to know, for the sake of posterity, who we considered to be the best fighters of our generation. The fans of the future would have to rely on our eyewitness accounts to explain how great Muhammad Ali, Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, and Roy Jones were in our time.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at what some expert eyewitnesses said of Jack Dempsey:
Our first eyewitness is Ray Arcel, who was one of the greatest trainers in boxing history working corners from the 20’s to the 80’s. He worked with 18 world champions including Barney Ross, Tony Zale, Ezzard Charles, Roberto Duran, and Larry Holmes. He was in the opposite corner from Joe Louis in 14 of his fights, he knew Benny Leonard, and if anyone knows the strengths and weaknesses of fighters it is Ray Arcel. He has stated that he considered Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey to be the three greatest heavyweights in history and hedged on picking between them, but here is what he said about Dempsey,
Our next eyewitness is longtime Ring Magazine correspondent and boxing book author, Gilbert Odd who saw them all from Dempsey to Tyson, he first became a boxing correspondent at age 18 and wrote numerous books about his beloved sport. Odd wrote in 1974,
Our third eyewitness is Jersey Jones, another longtime Ring Magazine correspondent,
Our next witness is one of Dempsey’s opponents and his final conqueror, Gene Tunney, Who said of Dempsey in 1952,
Gene also said, "Jack could recover faster than any man I ever fought. He was dangerous with a five-second interval."
Dempsey’s ability to recover quickly should come as no surprise. Dempsey, as we have learned, from the time of his youth was fighting to literally be able to eat, he had to get up and fight while hurt. He had to. Dempsey won a number of fights in a “proverbial fog” not even remembering what happened but battering his opponent’s until they fell. Dempsey’s will to win is unsurpassed by modern fighters and should be classified, at the very least, with that of Muhammad Ali.
Backing up Gene’s testimony is newspapermen Frank G. Menke’s retelling of the Dempsey-Firpo slugfest (1999, 241) that Dempsey, fighting hurt, won in exciting fashion by knockout,
“Every ounce of the South American’s (Firpo's) gigantic body was concentrated in that one blow-one of the hardest ever landed, in the annals of the ring. The knees of the world’s champion buckled and he pitched forward…but as Dempsey pitched forward, Firpo was so close that the champion fell against the body of the giant. Instinct made him grab and hold. Firpo tried to shake off Dempsey. But before he could achieve his purpose the brief rest saved Dempsey. Strength and power came back to Dempsey’s legs and the floodgates of reserve energy refreshed and revived him…Dempsey afterward said he remembered nothing after that first pile driver blow. He had been hit and hurt by the rushing, tearing form before him. And that form must be destroyed!”
Clearly those who actually saw Jack Dempsey fight considered him one of, if not the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. He was every bit the terror of the ring that a young Mike Tyson was. They described him as they saw him. He was fast of hand and foot, could take it, was very quick to recover when hurt and could dish it out with the best. He was also an under-rated boxer as Arcel and Jersey Jones both pointed out. Dempsey, according to eyewitnesses, was highly regarded for his fighting prowess.
Today, we see a lot of people trying to re-write history for their own personal agenda’s. It is important to consider the established views of those that came before us, who actually saw the fighters they were judging, before forming our own opinion.
One must consider established opinion when trying to rate the heavyweight greats. As late as 1962, in the Dec 1962 Ring Magazine, a panel of 40 boxing writers tabbed Dempsey as the greatest heavyweight of all time. When considering what has taken place since 1962, just before the Ali era began, one must still consider established opinion when viewing everything that has happened since that time. In other words one must consider the opinions of those who lived in the time and saw those fighters when trying to form a new opinion. Don’t radically alter established opinion, because you are too far removed from that time to change it honestly. That is the essence of “revisionist history.” It is better to consider the opinions of those who saw the fighters prior to the Ali era, and then form new judgments using established opinion as a backdrop.
It's like the Supreme Court when they decide a case they weigh heavily upon established opinion. Now they do form new opinions, but not without precedent. So to magnify a rating of someone in a time period that you did not live in and to lower someone's stature, which is contrary to established opinion, is just wrong because you were not there, you did not see Dempsey and do not know enough about him to change established opinion. One should consider the actual eyewitness account of what happened and not just stare blindly at a record book. Consider established opinion and then add to it based on what has taken place in the generation one lives in.
The legal status of the doctrine of joint and several liability isn't going to change over time (or at least it shouldn't). A straight-up opinion as to "who is better than who" must change, by definition, every time something better comes along, but it shouldn't shake up established opinion of fighters whose time has past. If the new guy is proven to be better over time, Ali for example, than he should move ahead, but that shouldn’t change established opinion of previous generations.
Add in the new but don’t change the order of the old, at least not drastically. Obviously everyone has a different opinion but for instance in the Dec 1962 Ring magazine Jack Dempsey was rated #1, and Joe Louis #2, Jack Johnson #3 and Marciano was a distant #6.
Today on most lists, includind both Eric and I, Ali/Louis are in the top 3, which is not a drastic change, but to leave off Jack Dempsey in the top 10 is just wrong and completely revisionist. Today it is common to see Rocky Marciano high on an all time list and Dempsey not on at all. This is a gross change in established opinion of those who saw them both fight.
Marciano is rated highly today almost completely because of his undefeated record. Marciano’s record of 49-0 appears impressive at a glance, but his competition is not inspiring. The argument that Rocky beat four Hall of Famer’s is laughable when one considers their ages when he met them, Walcott was 38-39 years old in their fights, Charles was past his peak at 33, and Moore was 42. Moore was older than Holyfield when he lost to Toney but yet he put Marciano down.
Also consider the fact the "Rocky was floored by the 2 strongest punchers he ever faced, Moore and Walcott, as Joe Louis doesn't count since he had long since lost his once devastating punch" -Nat Fleischer Dec 1955 Ring.
Virtually no one who saw both Dempsey and Marciano would tab Rocky over Dempsey in a match. Recall, that Marciano finished a distant 6th in the Dec 1962 Ring magazine rating of the all time great heavyweights, far behind #1 Dempsey. Anything Marciano could do, Dempsey could do better. Jack hit just as hard with his right, was a much stronger puncher with his vaunted left, had superior hand speed, was more maneuverable, was a better boxer, had a better jab, and had an equally good chin, and better cut resistance.
In another comparison of a similar fighter, Jack Dempsey would most likely have little trouble with Joe Frazier. Joe was a much slower starter than Dempsey. Dempsey would beat Frazier because Joe would have taken too long to hurt the Mauler. Frazier warms up to his task before he starts “smokin” and he usually didn’t get to that point before 3-4 rounds. Dempsey was a fast starter. The bell rang and he went to work. He had better hand speed than Frazier and is very similar to Mike Tyson in many respects. Frazier was vulnerable early, he was down in the second round against Mike Bruce (Frazier 40), down 2 times in the second round against Oscar Bonavena, destroyed early by George Foreman, and almost dropped by the relatively lighter hitting Muhammad Ali in the second round of their second fight when he was saved by an early bell. Dempsey would explode early against Frazier and end things quickly and he had the speed, power and killer instinct to do it. If Bonavena could down him twice in the second round then Dempsey, one of the greatest finishers in ring history, would certainly do the job.
Let’s take a quick look at a few of Dempsey’s opponents. Since many people have a hard time appreciating fighters except those from their own generation I have tried to draw some parallels to modern fighters. These are not intended to be exact comparisons but simply to give fans an impression of what Dempsey’s competition was really like. Of course it’s just as bad to overstate your case, as it is to under-estimate these men, so I have tried to be as fair as possible. Keep in mind, however these are only relative comparisons.
Fred Fulton 6’ 4” 210-220, possessed a strong, "rapier-like" jab, good footwork for a big man, and a devastating one-two. He was as big and strong as modern heavyweights, and a hard puncher with 65 career knockouts. He twice beat the great Sam Langford. If we imagine a more mentally stable Andrew Golata who fought more often and had a longer string of knockout victories, we would have Fred Fulton.
Carl Morris 6' 4" 230 lbs. Morris was another heavyweight as big, and powerful of those of today. He had a good punch but was rather slow. He is similar to Lou Saverese in size and ability, but more prone to cuts. Recall Saverese knocked out Mount Whittaker, and destroyed Buster Douglas in one round in his comeback, and stopped a faded Tim Witherspoon, but lost in a good fight to Michael Grant when Grant was unbeaten, and was kayo’d by Mike Tyson and an in shape Kirk Johnson. Morris is similar in size and experience to a guy like Savarese.
Battling Levinsky Ht 5'11" wt 170-186 lbs. Had almost 300 professional fights many unrecorded. Rated the #6 All-Time Light Heavyweight by Nat Fleischer in 1958. It is impossible to find a light-heavy or cruiser with the amount of ring experience of Levinsky and worthy of the accolades laid upon by those who saw him. Levinsky was a very, very good fighter. [Dempsey was the first guy to knock Levinsky out after around 200 fights—and only 3 guys ever did it.] Here will we simply have to imagine a pretty good light-heavyweight, so my selection is Antonio Tarver.
Bill Brennan 6'1" 197 Brennan was a very good fighter, a boxer-puncher with a strong punch; He gave as good as he got in two fights with Jack Dempsey until finally worn down by the Mauler. Brennan would be a top heavyweight in any period of history according to many who saw him. The best comparison one can make is to Jerry Quarry in both size and ability, except Brennan was not as prone to cuts, so he was perhaps a bit better.
Billy Miske 6'0" 190 lbs. Miske was a clever, superb boxer who was fast and quick; He was not a crunching power hitter but threw blistering barrages of punches. Another fighter of this ilk was Tommy Gibbons, a small heavyweight who as a master boxer. Gibbons knocked out Kid Norfolk, who some revisionists claim Dempsey ducked, in 6 rounds. One reporter called Gibbons fight with Dempsey, “the fastest paced heavyweight bout” he had ever seen. For the record Dempsey won 12 of 15 rounds against Gibbons and his record against Miske was two no decision bouts, one a 10 rounder, and a kayo victory in the 3rd.
Both Miske and Gibbons were pretty elusive. No fighter I can name really compares to them, but the most elusive heavyweight in recent years who started out at 165 lbs. and is similar in some instances is Chris Byrd. Byrd is taller and heavier but his short reach of 74" is similar. Since Byrd is not a big puncher and relies primairly on skill and defense he is the best comparison we can make. Byrd beat the likes of Jimmy Thunder and Ross Purity, scored an official win over Vitaly Klitschko (who was leading when he quit due to injury), decisioned David Tua, beat an aged Evander Holyfield and lost to Wladimir Klitschko and was knocked out by Ike Ibeabuchi. Miske was a top contender with similar achievements. Picking Byrd to represent this class of fighter is the best we can do, but we do admit to Byrd being a superior heavyweight due to his greater size and awkward style, though I think Dempsey would have little trouble with him because of his own handpseed and pressuring tactics. If Dempsey could win 12 of 15 rounds in a very fast paced bout against the slippery Gibbons he could also beat Byrd with Frazier-like pressure.
Luis Firpo 6' 2 1/2" 217 lbs. Firpo was a very strong fighter with a dynamite punch. He compares favorably to Ron Lyle. They were about the same size and build and had similar hitting power, and both lacked in boxing skills. Lyle was in the great knockdown fest with Foreman just like Firpo was with Dempsey. This is an excellent comparison.
Jess Willard 6'6 1/4" 225-250 lbs. Willard was a very hard hitter with endless endurance and a granite tough chin which enabled him to take considerable punishment; Willard was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1977. A very good comparison can be made to Vitaly Klitschko and this is not a reach, they had similar size, strength, power and toughness. Not quick on their feet but mobile (Wladimir is the more mobile of the Klitshko brothers). Willard was a strong hitter -he killed a man with a single uppercut-so don’t kid yourself this is a very close comparison. The biggest difference is Dempsey faced a Willard past his peak. So if one imagines a bit past his peak Vitaly he would be a little slower but still a dangerous fighter.
Imagine a young fast, hard punching heavyweight coming up today with the following record; his amateur background would be over 100 fights (remember Dempsey has almost 100 unrecorded fights). The following lists of opponents must be imagined as if they were all active and fighting today in or close to their primes:
He would turn pro and rack up a string of knockouts with only one legitimate decision loss on his record before achieving a title shot, a decision loss against the spoiler Jimmy Young. Dempsey had Over 70 official pro fights when he met Willard. If he fought today we can imagine him a little more protected coming up but also very active. Dempsey's peak run was 32 straight wins with 28 knockouts, a knockout percentage of over 87%. With the way opponents are hand picked today we could guess he would be about 45-1 with 39 kayo’s when he challenged for the title, a knockout percentage of 84% (in a comparison George Foreman was 37-0, 34 kayo's (91%) when he challened Frazier, the highest in history, and Lennox Lewis going into the first Holyfield fight was 32-1, with 27 kayo's for a 84% knockout percentage).
Our modern Dempsey's career highlights would be as follows, kayo 3 Antonio Tarver , W10 Chris Byrd, kayo 1 Andrew Golata, kayo 1 Lou Saverese, kayo 2 Ron Lyle, and kayo 3 Jerry Quarry. He wins the Heavyweight Championship with a kayo 1 of Vitaly Klitschko scoring numerous knockdowns in the process. Since no modern referee would allow a fight to continue with the beating that Willard sustained it would end in the first round. Now a modern fan has a picture of what Dempsey accomplished and what he was really like that we can relate to.
We can conclude that his competition was not as good overall as Muhammad Ali's, but it was better than Rocky Marciano's since his top opposition was aging when the Rock met them. Dempsey's opposition was better the Joe Louis top opponents for the most part, and it was better than Mike Tyson's opposition (men comparable to Lyle, Quarry, V. Klitschko are beter than anyone Tyson defeated in his career except an aged Larry Holmes), and his opposition is similar to if not better than what Lennox Lewis faced. If we throw out the Flynn farce we can honestly say that Dempsey, unlike Holyfield, Tyson, or Lewis was never knocked out in his career. Certainly durability is one of the best assests a fighter can have. Dempsey's ability to recover quickly and to fight effectively when seriously hurt sets him apart from most of today's top champions.
Jack Dempsey’s destruction of Jess Willard on July 4, 1919 remains one of the most violent outbursts of sheer aggression and power ever witnessed in a boxing ring. It ranks along with Joe Louis one-round annihilation of Max Schmeling and Mike Tyson’s 91-second demolition of Michael Spinks as the greatest massacre in the history of heavyweight boxing.
When one has knowledge of Dempsey’s true abilities, the quality of his opposition, and the era in which he fought, then one can better assess how good a fighter Jack Dempsey was and understand why he was so highly regarded in the Mid-Century poll.
In the final analysis, Jack Dempsey deserves to be rated among the all time greats in the heavyweight division. In comparison to other heavyweight champions of similar size, such as Marciano and Frazier, he was just as tough, showed more durability to fight when hurt, was a faster and more explosive puncher, had better overall boxing skills and had greater ring experience. Dempsey should be considered the number one or two heavyweight prior to Ali by established opinion. Fans today tend to not understand the times in which Jack Dempsey fought and therefore greatly under-estimate his abilities. As time goes by, the memory of the great fighters of the past fade into obscurity. But those who saw them know different.
Bert Sugar rates Jack Dempsey as the # 1 all time pound for pound heavyweight. Nat Fleischer rated him #4 on his all time heavyweight list. He also considered Dempsey the best infighter and best two handed hitter among all heavyweight champions. Charley Rose rated him # 3. Eric Jorgensen rates him #2. Cox's Corner rates him # 6.
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Tunney, G. 1952, September 23. Dempsey Could Flatten Today’s Heavies All in One Night. In Look, pp 36-38
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