Earlier this month, Jack Dempsey’s stunning upset of Jess Willard for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world pass its 100th Anniversary.
For me, it’s hard to comprehend because I still remember as a boy reading about Dempsey, who then was still a contemporary legend in ring circles.
Some have ranked him as perhaps the most rugged fighter, pound for pound, in boxing history.
That’s a difficult conclusion to contend against.
Dempsey — still ranked in the Top 10 among the greatest punchers in heavyweight history — hovered between 180 to 190 pounds, filling out his 6-foot-1 frame, for a good portion of his career.
His war against Willard — listed at nearly 6-foot-7 and weighting 245 pounds — is still legendary a century later.
The pair mean on July 4th, in Toledo, Ohio, for the battle. Willard had been world champion for four years.
Dempsey was just 24 years old. Despite his upbringing as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he already wore a reputation as one of the most savage forces inside the four-corner, canvas-matted universe.
He appeared to combine all the warrior tradition of his ancestry — part Irish, Cherokee and Jew.
Forced to self-sufficiency at an early age—due to the numerous relocations by his family as his father struggled to find work to support the family of 13 children — Dempsey left home as a teenager and eventually drifted into prize fighting in the Colorado-Utah region of the country.
Hardened by barroom brawls — with the winner earning meal money — Dempsey graduated, literally, from the school of hard knocks.
He eventually found a manager and begin his climb in organized boxing until he earned his date with destiny against Willard.
The titanic clash lasted just four rounds.
Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times — and broke his jaw — just in the first round alone.
But, Willard continued to get up each time and endure the pummeling, which resulted on other serious injuries as well.
Reports many years after that Dempsey had “loaded” gloves was disputed by several witnesses, including two legendary and respected boxing journalists, both of whom were present when Dempsey’s hands were wrapped prior to the fight and said there was no foreign substance on his hands or in his gloves.
Dempsey reigned for several years a champion. During a 1923 title defense against Luis Firpo, Dempsey was knocked out of the ring and into a reporter’s typewriter. He scrambled back into the ring 14 seconds after he had left it and knocked Firpo out in the second round.
In September 1926, Gene Tunney — a former U.S. Marine — ended Dempsey’s rule as boxing king.
Following the loss, Dempsey commented to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” which became one of sports’ most famous quotes.
In their rematch, Tunney won on what became known as the “long count.” Dempsey floored Tunney but failed to go to a neutral corner, which was a new rule in boxing. The referee delayed starting the 10-count until Dempsey went to the corner. That allowed Tunney an extra four to five seconds to recover and to get up at the count of nine.
Tunney went on to win by decision and effectively end Dempsey’s status as a championship contender.
In his mid-to-late-40’s he served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and was on board a participating ship in the invasion of Okinawa.
Born in 1895 — the same year as fellow sports icons Babe Ruth and George Halas — Dempsey passed away in 1983.
Even though not heralded for a religious lifestyle, the rugged, vicious battler sported a private spiritual side.
In his first autobiography, written in the late 1940’s, he said: “I’m proud to be a Mormon. And ashamed to be the Jack Mormon that I am.”
He said another time: “I never went to bed in my life and I never ate a meal in my life without saying a prayer. I know my prayers have been answered thousands of times, and I know that I never said a prayer in my life without something good coming of it.”
Perhaps his most enduring quote — and one that expands to all winners in any area of life — was: “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”