Did Jack Dempsey Take a Dive?

Based on the research of Bob Soderman

By Monte Cox

Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion of the world 1919-1926, was knocked out only once in his entire career according to the official record. That loss occurred on Feb. 13, 1917 in Murray, Utah to Fireman Jim Flynn a veteran heavyweight who had twice fought for the title. Rumors have persisted for over 80 years that this fight was not on the level.

At the time it was a bout between a fading former heavyweight contender (Flynn) and a young, still unknown local heavyweight (Dempsey). There were virtually no results of the bout published in any newspapers east of the Mississippi River; not a word in the Chicago Tribune or New York Times. After all no one outside of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado had ever heard of Jack Dempsey at the time of his bout with Jim Flynn.

There have been numerous books written on the subject of Jack Dempsey over the years and they have offered a variety of versions of what happened in that historic encounter. Many of the early works written about Jack Dempsey had contradicting information. One must consider that newspapers were not available on microfilm until the 1930’s, so no serious research was undertaken.

What facts are known concerning this bout? The date and place of the event is without dispute. Frank Armstrong was the referee. The promoter was Fred Winsor who would later that same year become Dempsey’s manager. Dempsey’s manager of record at the time was A.J. Auerbach. Billy Roche was the manager of Jim Flynn.

Boxrec gives the following, which is the only information the average fan has of the contest: "Flynn pushed down Dempsey's guard with his right and swung his left to the jaw for a knockout." (Sandusky Star Journal) “Dempsey was down 10 seconds in to the bout, and he remained on his back for twenty seconds.”

This was also reported in the Pueblo Colorado Chieftain Feb 14, 1917, “Jack Dempsey of Salt Lake was knocked out in 10 seconds after the men shook hands. Flynn pushed Dempsey’s guard with his right arm and swung with his left to the jaw. The Salt Lake man sank to his knees and over for the count and it was 20 seconds after Flynn was declared the winner before Dempsey regained his feet.”

When questioned about the fight at the time Jack Dempsey seemed to be in agreement with that report. The March 16, Oakland Tribune wrote, “The one blotch on Dempsey’s list of performances is the fact that he was knocked out by Jim Flynn at Salt Lake. Dempsey explains this,” (Note article says ‘Dempsey explains’) “by saying that when they first came into the center of the ring for the first round, he put out both gloves to touch his opponent’s mitts as is customary, and Flynn took advantage of the move to whip a right haymaker to the jaw.”

This is contrary to what Dempsey published in his three autobiographies where he said he was down several times and his brother stopped the fight too quickly. An example of this is from his 1960 autobiography Dempsey By The Man Himself with Bob Considine and Bill Slocum, where Dempsey explains, “Flynn knocked me out in two minutes of the first round.” This is at odds with the newspaper and wire service accounts out of Salt Lake which all say Dempsey went down 10 seconds into the bout.

There has always been a great amount of suspicion over this bout. The first book ever written about Jack Dempsey was a 1929 book by Nat Fleischer titled: Jack Dempsey, The Idol of Fistiana. Nat only wrote one sentence about the Flynn fight, “In the following year (1917)…he suffered a questionable one round knockout to Jim Flynn.” Fleischer had no access to newspaper accounts because of the lack of microfilm issue, but he knew of insider’s talk of it being a fixed fight.

In the Sept 1933 Ring magazine author Harvey Bright wrote of the Dempsey-Flynn encounter saying, “The end came in the very first round.” But Bright didn’t offer any details of the encounter merely saying, “many of the ringsiders were of the opinion it was another one of “those things.” Dempsey’s friends have always insisted that Jack “took a dive.”

Bright inferred that ringsiders were of the opinion that it was not on the level. It is noteworthy that Dempsey was blackballed in the area thereafter. Take a look at his record. Murray, Utah, where the fight occurred, is a suburb of Salt Lake City. Though Salt Lake was a BIG fight town from 1910-1940, and though Dempsey was essentially a Utah native, Dempsey never again fought there.

The most telling piece of research is in a series of articles published by the Chicago Tribune in 1920 when Dempsey was in the first year of his reign as heavyweight champion. The Tribune ran a series of 23 articles running from February 15, 1920 to March 8, 1920. The articles were titled, “The Life and Adventures of Jack Dempsey.” The series opened with the following statement of purpose, “The Tribune assigned Eye Witness (sic), one of the ablest and most experienced reporters in the country to cover the career of Jack Dempsey in a series of unbiased articles, first of which is printed herewith. “Get the truth” was the only instruction given to the reporter. He is not a sporting writer and he has approached the subject as an outsider, without preconceived opinions. He has written here a human picture of one of the most interesting and spectacular individuals in modern sporting life. The series will appear daily on the sporting pages.”

Chapter X of the series was titled “The Fight at Murray” which headlined at the top of the article: “Dempsey’s Lone KO Of Career Raw Frame Up.” The sub-headline said “Needed Coin, So Flopped To Flynn.”

The Chicago Tribune’s “Eye Witness” was obviously of the old school of reporters who felt he should get his facts first hand. The reporter interviewed three men who were there that day on February 13, 1917 in Murray, Utah. Those three men were John Derks, sporting editor of Salt Lake Tribune; Hardy Downing, a Salt Lake City promoter of boxing matches who also ran a local gym, and Al Auerbach, who was Jack Dempsey’s third manager.

Hardy Downing said he had a tip that the fight was going to be “on the queer” and he went to the Sheriff’s office in Salt Lake saying, “If this fight turns out to be crooked it will make a (sic) scandal and hurt the whole game around here and I want it stopped.” Downing being a promoter in the area did not want a fixed fight to take place because it would hurt his business. The sheriff stalled and said they didn’t know what they could really do about it.

Hardy described what he saw that night. “Flynn came out fanning with both hands and Jack went into his shell”-that means dropping his head and sort of hunching oneself- “dropped his left at the blow and as he fell put his right glove against his cheek and did a little flopping.”

Eyewitness said that throughout his narrative Hardy was very detailed. He even mentioned the figure involved. He said it was $500. Dempsey told Hardy after the fight, “I’ll fight for you for nothing, I want to square myself here. I always had to figure on money for the folks, and probably I done things I ought to not done but when she needed the money I figured I had to get it some way.”

Al Auerbach who was Dempsey’s manager from early 1916 and after Jack’s return from New York in July 1916 recalls, “Jack had dependants aplenty. He’d be training hard between those early fights and then maybe get $25 or $40, and the next day he’d be broke from paying his Mother’s grocery bill.”

Auerbach would not be mentioned in any of the books about Dempsey over the next 80 years. “Now you take the Flynn fight and all the grief it caused,” said Auerbach. “That was the result of a driving need, I tell you. Of course, the boy had never seen $500 of which the family owed most.”

Auerbach was also the bill payer for the Flynn-Dempsey fight at Murray. He recalled his conversation time after that fight when Dempsey told him, “I’ll tell you Al, if I had my life to live over I’d never do that thing again.”

John Derks was also at the fight. “In the first round, indeed, at the second blow, Flynn landed a terrific punch on Dempsey’s jaw” but added that, “the fight was a frame and to distinguish it from other frames it was agreed to end it quickly.”

So, in early 1920, three reputable Salt Lake City men all of whom were present at the Feb. 13, 1917 fight in Murray, Utah, when Jim Flynn beat Jack Dempsey said that the fight was “fixed”, “a fake” and “a frame.” The three men also declared individually to the Chicago Tribune that Jack Dempsey took a “dive” for $500.

The Tribune also reported that after the last prelminary bout to the Jim Flynn-Jack Dempsey heavyweight bout, “the spectators settled themselves back for the main event. Then they unsettled thesmelves, because the main event didn't show up. For 45 minutes the fans who had paid from $2 to $5 for seats waited with noisy impatience.” And now came a very important statement in the Tribunes result report; one that, in later perspective sheds a great deal of light on the circunstances of the bout.

“The delay,” said the Tribune, “it developed later, was due to financial arguments in the box office.” The 2 fight managers and the promoter arguing behind closed doors is compelling. Why a delay (when fans were upset!) caused by a secret conversation when everyone involved was present unless it was to hammer out some detail of a fix? That's great circumstantial evidence. In light of the testimony of the three Salt Lake men who were at the fight it is easy to conclude that the fix was in.

The promoter for the Dempsey-Flynn bout was, as noted previously, Fred Winsor. Winsor was still managing heavyweights in 1924. On November 17, 1924 Windsor matched his latest heavyweight sensation Tony Fuente with the famous Minnesota Plasterer, Fred Fulton whose first round knockout loss to Dempsey in 1918 had propelled Dempsey into his 1919 title match versus Jess Willard. Fuente and Fulton were matched in Culver City, California.

Fulton was on the last legs of his career and was eager for a payday. In less than a minute Fuente floored Fulton 3 times, and scored a very dubious one round knockout. On hand were 4,000 fans, including former world heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. The fans rose to their feet screaming and yelling, “FAKE! FAKE!”

Boxrec carries the following report: “Fulton "took a dive" 35 seconds after the opening bell, it was later determined. The crowd rioted and threw "storms of cushions into the ring." (AP) It was later alleged Fulton had taken an extra $7,500 to "lie down." His manager admitted to investigating boxing officials that Fulton had warned his friends to refrain from betting on him.”

The next day, November 18, 1924 Fred Fulton and his manager Jack Reddy were arrested. Fred Winsor and his fighter Tony Fuente went “on the lam”, and were nowhere to be found. Shortly after Winsor, Fuente, Fulton and Reddy were barred from California.

Dempsey’s first wife Maxine Cates told anyone who would listen, as mentioned in Roger Khan’s book, A Flame of Pure Fire, the truth, she said, was that Dempsey threw the fight. “They offered him more money to lose than to win and he took it.”

Jack Dempsey always denied that the fight was fixed. Most of the books written about Dempsey based their conclusions of what happened on Dempsey’s own words. Certainly Dempsey’s account differed from those of newspaper accounts of the time as well as those of the eyewitnesses. All those who were associated with Dempsey and were there that night believe the Flynn fight to have been a fake. Dempsey, an unknown struggling, hungry fighter at the time, had the necessary motives to accept a payment to lay down.

The likely reason Dempsey never admitted to the fake was that he figured admitting to participating in a fix would be more damaging to his reputation than accepting a loss. One must realize that throughout most of Dempsey’s lifetime he was considered the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. In the 1950 AP Poll he was voted the greatest fighter ever. In a 1962 Ring magazine poll of 40 boxing experts Dempsey was named the greatest heavyweight of all time. His fighting reputation was not hurt by the loss to Flynn and there was simply no need to admit to the dive.

It is unfortunate that in the many books that have been written about Jack Dempsey the truth about what happened that night on February 13, 1917 in Murray, Utah has rarely been told.