Fight #43: Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Firpo, September 14, 1923, Polo Grounds, New York City
By the 1920s, the title of heavyweight champion of the world conferred a special kind of mythical power, one that was intimately connected to the prevailing constructs of race and gender in a decade that saw the explosive rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. After Black heavyweight Jack Johnson had won the championship in 1908, the writer Jack London put out a call for a Great White Hope to "remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson's face....The White Man must be rescued!" That led to the 1910 fight between Johnson and Jim Jeffries, which Johnson easily won, prompting white supremacists to riot around the country. After that Johnson held the title for another five years, until Jess Willard knocked him out in 1915. Willard, who was white, kept the title for another four years, until he was battered and beaten by Jack Dempsey.
Officially, Jack Dempsey was heavyweight champion of the world from 1919, when he beat Willard, to 1926, when he lost to Gene Tunney. He is one of the first athletes one associates with the 1920s, right up there with Babe Ruth. But whereas Ruth has a legitimate claim to being the best baseball player of all time, no such claim can be made for Dempsey. Just take a look at his record. Despite holding the heavyweight title for seven years, he only defended it five times, a pathetic work rate that makes even today's top fighters look like Sugar Ray Robinson by comparison. And most importantly, he never gave a single Black fighter the opportunity to win back the title. I suspect this was less Dempsey's decision than the ruling of his handlers, who didn't want to expose their fighter to the kind of racial humiliation that Jeffries had received just a decade earlier. In any event, I find my self unimpressed with Dempsey as champion, despite his reputation.
The Manassa Mauler's fight with the Argentinian Luis "Wild Bull of the Pampas" Firpo is considered Dempsey's best performance. In less than two rounds, it featured ten knockdowns of Firpo, a clearly overmatched fighter who nonetheless tried his level best to demolish Dempsey. The ten knockdowns in less than two rounds sounds more impressive than it actually is. Under the rules at the time, a fighter knocked to the ground did not get the automatic eight-count by the referee before the fight could continue. So what typically happened is that the prevailing fighter would stand over the fallen one, waiting for him to try to get up, and then knock him down again before he had his bearings. From a twenty-first century perspective, it looks ridiculously unfair.
This fight is most famous for the fact that, after being knocked down seven times in the first round, towards the end of the round Firpo connected with a right hand that sent Dempsey tumbling through the ropes and onto a table where the assembled writers were watching the action. Dempsey actually landed on one of the writer's typewriters, which put a gash through the back of his head. When a fighter is knocked entirely out of the ring, he has 20 seconds to get back in and continue the fight. To help him get there, the assembled (white, American, male) writers helped Dempsey to his feet so that he could retain his title and finish off Firpo in the next round. Don't blame them for cheating: the White Man must be rescued!
The white boxing writer Bert Sugar once said this was the best fight in the history of the sport. Sugar, who got to see Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Marvin Hagler, was reportedly not wearing a white hood when he made this statement.
The best thing about this fight is the painting, "Dempsey and Firpo," made by one of my favorite American painters, George Bellows. It captures the moment that Firpo sent Dempsey through the ropes. I have attached it here.
Here is a video of the fight: