'A fighter gets up even when he can’t': In praise of Jack Dempsey

James Oddy
14/01/2019 11:59am

Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Who is your favourite boxer and why? James Oddy ponders the eternal question faced by fight fans and writers alike, and finds himself drawn, as ever, to the incomparable Jack Dempsey...

I recently used that most modern of mediums, Twitter, to ask an age-old question: who’s your favourite boxer and why?

Chiseling down a list of just one boxer, from the thousands that have laced up gloves, is one of those questions every aficionado longs to be asked but dreads to answer.

You think of your childhood favourite; the first boxer who captured your attention, inspired you to stay up until 5am, a mixture of bravado and excitement. Prince Naseem was mine.

Then you think of the first technician you ever fell in love with, the balletic footwork and defensive mastery. Strangely, Bernard Hopkins was the first pugilist who made me appreciate the artistry of what I was watching.

Perhaps, as a writer, you have a soft spot for the first fighter you ever reported on or interviewed. Step forward, Ruslan Provodnikov.

But ultimately, my own personal favourite provided was none of these men I’ve mentioned above.

If pressed, I have to plump for William Harrison ‘Jack’ Dempsey.

I never saw Dempsey box live, of course - he was long gone by the time I was born. Indeed, I doubt anyone reading this article saw him fight live. He certainly wasn’t a technician, at least in the modern sense of the word. Hell, he didn’t even box to the rules we are so accustomed to seeing in rings in the modern era, as footage of him looming over a shattered Jess Willard attests to.

So why would I pick Dempsey?

I’ve long believed, when you drill down into why people are drawn to boxing, that it’s because of a desire to see into the soul of people, to see what depths human beings can reach down to, in both triumph and defeat. Prize fighting, stripped of its modern-day bells and whistles, is still a fight, the most basic of struggles. It reaches back to our origins, our myths and our battles, our will to survive, thrive and prosper.

Dempsey, the first fistic star of the technology age, symbolises the moment when that struggle became big business. It was when boxing was in the process of becoming almost civilised, a domesticated wolf. The sport went from being banned and vilified under certain jurisdictions to drawing a million-dollar gate.

Dempsey bridged that gap, imagined and extravagated by the passage of time.

Then, like now, boxing was capable of taking a man or woman from vagrancy to Paris, New York, a denizen of high society.

You had to be a dangerous, bad man, of course, and you couldn’t get much more dangerous and bad than Dempsey, at least in his prime. Later he became the venerable old gent of boxing, a raconteur at his Broadway restaurant, but he spent his adolescence and early manhood riding the rails, fighting whoever and wherever would pay.

As a champion, he was the harbinger of the golden age of sports, the embodiment of the roaring 20s. Like that age, his legend during that time has surpassed the reality of the age. He was not exactly a fighting champion (he won the title in 1919 and defended it just five times before losing it in 1926); although when he defended it was invariably entertaining.

He wasn’t a modern man, by any stretch, but that may also be why other fighters of a similar ilk, the likes of Stanley Ketchel and Harry Greb, far removed from what we see in modern boxing, still hold an allure in the minds of many fans.

Nostalgia is a strange beast, but time is even stranger, and nostalgia alone can’t solely explain why these fighters still loom in the conversations of special fighters.

I remember after a personal tragedy some years ago looking at a picture of Dempsey, with a quote attached: “a fighter gets up even when he can’t."

Like many aspects of the information age, the Twitter age, it was probably made up, or a mangled quote or wrongly attributed.

But the words stuck with me.

I saw in the story of Dempsey, something which perhaps John Steinbeck might cook up with some help from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway - a timeless tale of refusing to compromise, perhaps even playing dirty, to come out on top, to transcend your origins completely.

Dempsey may be long gone, but his story still reaches out to you.

So, ultimately, is a favourite fighter an extension of our own world view, the personal reflections with which we experience life?

Perhaps. But it’s not just the aesthetic of a fighter that appeals to us, but also the narrative that envelopes them.

And no narrative is more enthralling than that of Jack Dempsey.