On July 4th Jack Dempsey Became Heavyweight Champ
A century ago, one of the great Heavyweights of the first 50 years of the 1900s became the champ on July 4th. That’s, when Jack Dempsey destroyed gigantic champion Jess Willard in just three rounds to begin a title reign that would land him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Known as “The Manassa Mauler,” as he hailed from small and mostly poverty-stricken town of Manassa, Colorado, Dempsey stepped through the ropes at an outdoor stadium, on a 95 degree afternoon in Toledo, Ohio, face off against the 6′ 6″, 245 lb. champion Willard on July 4th, 1919.
Willard had done the seemingly unthinkable, by beating long time champ, Jack Johnson by KO in 1915.
But, despite Dempsey giving up some eight inches in height and almost 60 lb. in weight, it was apparent from the beginning that he was the much harder punching, more dynamic fighter.
Dempsey spent the first minute of the fight trying to size up the distance against Willard’s massive reach and then, he eventually caught him with a thunderous left hook. That rocked Willard along the ropes and eventually a couple of more punches put him down for the first time in the fight.
In that era of boxing there was no mandatory standing 8-count, nor did the fighter have to go to a neutral corner. So, Dempsey stood hovering over Willard and as soon as he got up, continued to pound him with punches, time and again.
Knockdown after knockdown occurred.
Each time Willard would rise, wobbly, disoriented, at times with his back to the challenger and Dempsey would pummel him with a punch or maybe a series of punches that would put him back down again.
The seventh and final knockdown of the amazing first round had Willard slumped in a corner on his buttocks with the referee counting over him. But, apparently with the roar of the crowd, no one heard the time keeper ring the bell, which should have ended the round.
Instead, confusion reigned, as Dempsey thought that Willard had been counted out and he began to celebrate. Then, several fans and members of his entourage jumped into the ring to celebrate with him.
As many more people filled the ring, confusion continued, as to whether Willard was counted out before the bell rang or not? And, in that time Dempsey left the ring to go celebrate his victory, but was then quickly called back in to the squared circle, when the officials determined that the first round had ended before the referee counted 10 over Willard.
After more than three minutes of mayhem and with the ring cleared, the fight resumed.
And, Dempsey continued to pound Willard all over the ring in round two landing trademark left hooks and multiple punch combinations. However, Willard, out of sheer, desperate, self preservation did a better job of grabbing onto and wrestling with Dempsey to keep from being knocked down, again.
Hear Dan Rafael and me re-counting this fight and also Dempsey’s win over Georges Carpentier two years later on July 2nd, 1921 in front of a then record, 90,000 people in New Jersey on the newest “Fight Freaks Untie Recap” podcast by clicking play below,
By the third round “The Manassa Mauler” was all but ready to take the title and continuing to score with big left hooks and wobble Willard, who was now swelling and bleeding profusely from the right side of his face. The blood also got on to Dempsey, who was undaunted and continued to stalk and hammer the champ, as the bell sounded to end the third.
And, there would be no fourth round, as Willard retired on his stool and Dempsey could now officially celebrate, again, as the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
There was controversy in the weeks and years after the fight that Dempsey may have either had plaster on his hand wraps or even that he had used some kind of foreign object inside the closed fist of his gloves early in the first round to land a devastating punch on Willard.
All of that was refuted by legendary boxing writer, Nat Fleischer, who founded Ring magazine and was at ringside that day in Toledo, when both fighters hands were wrapped. Fleischer made clear for historical purposes and multiple interviews for years that there was nothing illegal done with Dempsey’s hand wraps or gloves and that the knockout of Willard was legitimate.
Dempsey would go on to reign for seven years, as Heavyweight Champ defending against the likes of: top American Bill Brennan, French WWI hero, Georges Carpentier and Luis Firpo of Argentina during his run. Finally, former U.S. Marine, Gene Tunney, who had served honorably in World War I, eventually upset Dempsey by 10 round decision to take his title in September 1926.
Dempsey won what turned out to be for the final time in his career in dominant fashion by KO over Jack Sharkey at Madison Square Garden in New York City early in 1927.
Tunney successfully defended his heavyweight crown in the epic rematch with Dempsey in September 1927. That night had a massive estimated crowd of 104,000 fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field and became one of the most controversial fights of the first half of the 20th century.
Known as “The Long Count Fight,” it saw Dempsey behind on points but actually score a critical 7th round knockdown of the champion Tunney. However, a new sanctioning rule was in place that a fighter had to go to a neutral corner before the count began.
Dempsey cost himself several seconds by not doing so, and Tunney rose wearily at the count of “9” to survive, and eventually, defeated Dempsey again by 10 round decision.
After the second loss to Tunney, Dempsey never fought again.
However, “The Manassa Mauler” became an even bigger name after his fight career, acting in movies, opening famed restaurants in New York and Hollywood and living off the celebrity of having been Heavyweight champion for nearly a decade. He died in 1983 at the age of 87.
The Associated Press deemed Dempsey, with a 68-6-11 record, as the top fighter in the world for the first 50 years of the 1900s.
And, he became the first ever fighter inducted into the international Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, after having first won the title on America’s “Independence Day” in 1919.