JACK DEMPSEY left his mark in Nevada
Dempsey in Nevada:
Guy Clifton’s book can be found on Amazon or at Sundance Books and Music in Reno.
Jack Dempsey is remembered as a legend of boxing and one of the most significant athletes from the Roaring ‘20s. Reno author Guy Clifton takes it one step further, though, when he makes a strong case that Dempsey was the most famous of that decade.
“In his day, he was the most famous athlete in the world,” Clifton said on Saturday during a presentation at the Dangberg Home Historic Park. “When we look back at the 1920s now, most people will say Babe Ruth was. But Babe Ruth’s highest salary with the New York Yankees was $88,000 in 1927; Jack Dempsey made $717,000 for one fight against Gene Tunney in 1926. He fought in the first million dollar gate, the first two million dollar gate and the first million dollar gate where there was no title attached to the fight itself. So, he was as big as it gets.
“He went to Hollywood, he starred in some of the movies of the 1920s, he was known to hang around with all the actresses of the day and everything like that. So if there was a matinee idol of the Roaring ‘20s, it was Jack Dempsey,” added Clifton, a retired journalist who worked as managing editor for The Record-Courier in 1989-90.
Clifton spoke about his book, “Dempsey in Nevada,” during the one-hour presentation held as part of the park’s Ferris Family Speaker Series.
Dempsey, known as the Manassa Mauler (born in Manassa, Colo.), followed a road to the world heavyweight championship (1919-26) that passed through Nevada, where he lived and fought many times. His first trip from Utah to Reno to take on an April, 26 1915 fight at Jack Thurm’s Jockey Club in downtown Reno was far from a luxurious one.
“He was too poor to afford a seat on the train, so he tried a practice the hobos used called riding the rods, which means he went underneath the train and held on to the brake rods from Salt Lake all the way to Reno,” Clifton said.
Nor did he resemble a heavyweight fighter.
“He was a skinny 19-year-old, far from being the heavyweight champion … he got booked for a fight in the 158-pound weight class,” Clifton added.
Dempsey wasn’t even expected to win his bout against Emmanuel Campbell.
“He ended up knocking the guy out,” Clifton said. “It depends on which newspaper report you read, it was either at the end of the first round or he knocked him out in the third round. He did such a good job that nobody else in Reno wanted to fight him.”
A month later, Dempsey was back “on the rods” on his way to Goldfield, where he was set up for a 10-round bout against Johnny Sudenberg. The two fought to a draw on May 31, 1915 in Goldfield and again 12 days later in Tonopah, however, the post-fight outcome is the stuff of legend.
“He couldn’t even afford a hotel room so he stayed in one of the caves where the miners stayed in Goldfield during the rush,” Clifford said of Dempsey. “So after the fight, they took him across town in a wheelbarrow and just dumped him into the cave.
“He got paid $150 for that fight, but he woke up the next day and went to look for his manager, who was a guy named Jack Gilfeather, and come to find out, Gilfeather had gotten drunk and gambled all the money away playing craps,” Clifton added with a chuckle.
The two fighters were given a rematch in Tonopah, which once against turned into a slugfest
“This time, they were paid $100 and they were so happy, they went into the Cobweb Saloon to celebrate and in behind them came two gunmen who stuck up the place and took everybody’s money,” Clifton said, drawing a round of laughter from his audience. “Now, when I read that in Dempsey’s 1959 autobiography, I said, ‘There is no way that happened.’ But then I went back to the newspapers of the day, and sure enough, there was a report of two gunmen who stuck up the Cobweb Saloon.
“So that’s two fights, Dempsey and Sudenberg decided they were going to skip town. They find an unattended hand car and jump on it heading north. They push this thing about 60 miles before they stop at one of the saloons and offer to fight an exhibition if people will pass the hat for them. They made $3.60, so they fought 30 rounds and made $1.80 each.”
Dempsey saw his fortunes begin to rise within the year. He teamed with manager Jack “Doc” Kearns — “The Don King of his day … he had the diamond stick pin and fancy rings,” Clifton noted — and had 49 bouts coast-to-coast from 1916-19. It was all part of a build-up to his July 4, 1919 world championship date with Jess Willard, the “Pottawatomie Giant.”
Famed promoter Tex Rickard (also founder of the NHL New York Rangers) needed some persuasion to book Dempsey for a fight against Willard.
“When Rickard first saw Dempsey, he said, ‘I am not going to make this fight because if you get in the ring with Willard, he’ll kill you,’” Clifton said. “Willard had already killed a man in the ring in 1908. And he was worried … Willard was 6-6 and about 260; Dempsey was 6-1, 180, if he had rocks in his pockets. But Dempsey finally convinced him to do so.”
Reno was considered as a location for the fight before Rickard decided on Toledo, Ohio. Dempsey, then 24, quickly took charge of the fight as he knocked Willard, 37, down seven times in the first round. Dempsey won it when Willard was unable to answer the bell to start the fourth round.
That completed the rags to riches story for Dempsey, who was then able to travel in his own private rail car.
“In those days, the heavyweight champion immediately went on Vaudeville, making tours all over the country and recreating their fights,” Clifton said. “So he was making $1,000 to $2,000 a week just for Vaudeville and everything.”
In time, Dempsey would relinquish his title after two losses at the hands of Gene Tunney on Sept. 23, 1926 in Philadelphia (the first million dollar gate) and on Sept. 22, 1927 at Soldier Field in Chicago (the first $2 million gate and a reported crowd of 104,943). The second fight with Tunney would go down as Dempsey’s last official fight, although Clifton said he made 60 appearances during a comeback that was launched in 1931 out of Reno.
So, what was Dempsey’s attraction to fans that brought him fame and fortune? That aggressive style was part of it. He was also friendly with the press, known for signing autographs and posing for photographs, especially when it came to kids.
“I think, at that time, the heavyweight boxing champion was considered the greatest athlete in the world,” Clifton said of the 1920s. “There was no NFL and a lot of other stuff hadn’t started yet, so he was the big sports star of the day. And he was pretty charismatic.”
Dempsey was known for his left hook, however, the “Manassa Mauler” brought other strengths to the ring. Start with a tenacity that supported his nickname.
“He was super strong through his shoulders, his arms, and he lived to fight when he was a little kid. That was his favorite thing to do in the world and his older brothers were fighters,” Clifton said. “He was relentless, he fought out of a crouch all the time, he would crowd his opponent all the time and he was constantly active. He’d take a lot of punishment to be able to dole out a lot of punishment.”