Jan. 10, 1959
It was at a cocktail party, and Jack Dempsey was sitting at a table, surrounded by a wide variety of boxing “fans.” Some, I am sure, we’re trying to remember when Dempsey was champion, if he ever was. They asked the questions he must have heard a million times.
“Could you have whipped Joe Lewis?”
“Did you dislike Tunney?”
“What was your toughest fight?”
“Were you ever scared?”
Dempsey said he was scared at least once, when he got into the ring with a huge Kansan named Jess Willard.
“When I looked at him, 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds, Dempsey said, “I said to myself that I ain’t fighting for the title – I’m fighting for my life.”
That was the fight (ed. July 4, 1919) that started Dempsey toward becoming one of the greatest sports figures of all time.
He is a man you hate to see cutting ribbons at grocery store openings. But there he was, doing the things that go with being a ribbon cutter, and when the crowd thinned a little, he talked about the Willard fight.
“There has been more stuff written wrong about the Willard fight,” he said, “than any fight in history, I guess.”
I had read many times that his manager, Jack Kearns, bet $10,000 of Dempsey’s $19,000 share of the gate on a first-round knockout. Willard lasted three rounds, and the story goes that expenses ate up the rest of the purse and Dempsey got nothing but the title.
“I don’t think Kearns bet a nickel,” Dempsey said. “For one thing, he didn’t have it. We got about $27,000 from the fight. That was pretty good money in those days. He told me he had made the bet, but he was trying to get me ready for the fight. I still don’t think he bet anything.”
Dempsey said he “ate a lot of bananas and put rocks in my pockets” before weighing in for the fight. With this help he weighed 188 pounds. He really weighed about 180.
Dempsey knocked Willard to the canvas “seven or eight times” in the first round, and the referee grabbed his arm. Thinking the fight over, he left the ring. Kearns screamed and came after him, explaining that neither fighter had heard the bell ending the round.
After two more rounds, it was over. Willard couldn’t come out for the fourth.