Jack Dempsey

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Jack Dempsey (given name William Harrison Dempsey, also known as The Manassa Mauler) (born June 24, 1895 – died May 31, 1983) was a professional prizefighter and heavyweight champion of the world from July 4, 1919 through September 23, 1927. Dempsey was an extremely popular and successful champion, a public figure so iconic that decades later in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan could say “nobody ever insulted Jack Dempsey” with the expectation that his hearers would understand his meaning.

Dempsey was born in Colorado to a Mormon couple, and was raised in that faith, but would later describe himself as a “Jack-Mormon”, a term meaning a Mormon who had left the faith. From about the age of 10, he developed an ambition to be heavyweight champion of the world. He adopted an intense training regimen, which included jump roping, racing against farm and wagon horses, punching bag work, and “pickling”, which was a process which involved soaking the hands in horse urine and the face in horse urine and which was believed to toughen the skin and to help prevent cuts. At 16, Dempsey left home, and began earning a living by entering mining camp bars and saloons and offering to “lick anything for a buck” (one dollar). In 1916, Dempsey came to New York City, where he began his formal career as a prizefighter. He rose rapidly in the rankings, and took the heavyweight championship from Jess Willard, a fighter who was 50 pounds heavier. Dempsey defended his title several times, notably against K.O. Bill Brennan, Georges Carpentier, and Luis Firpo. He finally lost his title to former United States marine Gene Tierney.

Among other things, Dempsey's reign as heavyweight champion is notable for being the first time an athlete earned more than one million dollars in a year.

Dempsey married four times. At age 20, while still living an itinerant lifestyle, he married a 35 year old prostitute, Maxine Cates. They were divorced within three years. He next married silent film actress Estelle Taylor, but this marriage also ended in divorce. His third marriage was to singer Hannah Williams, who bore him two daughters, but this marriage too ended in divorce. Finally he married Deanna Piattelli, who would survive him.

Dempsey received a deferment from the draft during World War I, a circumstance which was used by his critics to accuse him of draft dodging. This charge dogged Dempsey throughout his boxing career. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dempsey volunteered for the armed forces, but was initially rejected as too old. He later was accepted into the United States Coast Guard. Late in the war his unit was assigned to support the invasion of Okinawa Island in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and Dempsey participated in the landing at age 49.

After his retirement from boxing, Dempsey opened a restaurant which remained a New York City landmark until its closing in 1974.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Kahn, Roger. A Flame of Pure Fire. Harcourt Brace and Co., 1999.
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