Criminal stupidity - the day two muggers tried to rob Jack Dempsey
In his latest journey back through boxing history, Gary Lucken attempts to sift myth from reality while examining the famous tale of how an aged Jack Dempsey fought off two muggers in New York ...
Picture the scene – two young men lurk on a sidewalk on the mean streets of New York City nearly 50 years ago.
It’s late at night and the pair are up to no good, their eyes flitting around looking for someone to rob for a quick buck.
Suddenly their attention is drawn to what seems like easy prey - a smartly dressed elderly man, aged in his 70s, making his way home to his wife.
The duo sprint towards their victim in a pincer movement, grab hold of him from either side and there is a brief but savage explosion of violence.
The dust settles but a totally unexpected scene emerges - the old man, calm and unruffled, is standing over the unconscious bodies of his much younger assailants.
Why? The 'punks' have made a truly epic mistake – the grizzled septuagenarian is the legendary Jack Dempsey, the 'Manassa Mauler' himself, the iconic human wrecking ball who reigned as World Heavyweight Champion from 1919 to 1926.
Dempsey made New York City his home after retiring from the ring following his second loss to Gene Tunney in the 'Long Count' fight of 1927, and in 1935 opened a famous restaurant bearing his name – initially it was on a corner of 50th Street but it later relocated to Broadway between 49th and 50th Streets.
On most nights he could be found there 'glad-handing' customers, posing for photos and autographing menus.
The tale of the day he KO’d two muggers in the city in his old age has become part of folklore and is one of the great fistic anecdotes.
It frequently pops up on social media and in boxing forums but accounts of what exactly happened, and when, vary dramatically.
The date given for the incident ranges anywhere from the mid-1960s to the onset of the 1980s and claims differ as to whether there were one or two muggers.
In some versions Dempsey is set upon while walking in Central Park, in others he is attacked while getting groceries, other variations have him targeted as he climbs in a cab after closing his restaurant.
One popular embellishment suggests that when the muggers awoke they refused to get up and begged for police to come quickly and save them from further punishment.
Occasionally, people question whether the mugging attempt ever happened at all.
The one thing the different versions usually have in common is that they fail to provide any sources or evidence to back up their claims.
So what exactly did happen and when?
The question of 'what' is relatively easy to answer – Dempsey talked about it in the 1977 autobiography which he co-wrote with his stepdaughter Barbara ('Dempsey', published by Harper & Row).
He recalled: “Late one night, riding home in a taxi that had stopped at a red light, I saw two young punks running for the cab from both sides.
“The cabby was frozen with fear as they flung the doors open, so I took care of the situation by swiftly belting one with a right and the other with a left hook, flattening them both.
“In a way I felt sorry for them, having to hustle what they thought was the perfect victim – a nicely dressed older gentleman who would have forked over his money immediately rather than risk a fight.”
Dempsey estimated that his attackers were “no more than nineteen or twenty” and added: “These were the kids that boxing would have helped, by rerouting their hostility and aggression until they developed a sensible defensive or offensive skill with pride instead of vengeance.”
The question of when it happened, however, is slightly more difficult to pin down.
Dempsey, in recounting the incident in the book, mentions it immediately after talking about attending the Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden on 8 March 1971.
He brings it up because just prior to the fight announcer Johnny Addie initially forgot to mention Dempsey while introducing celebrities in the audience (sparking chants of “We want Dempsey!” from the crowd) - an illustration, said Dempsey, that his time in the spotlight was gradually coming to an end.
Dempsey, although not overly bothered by the accidental snub, mentions the mugging to show that, despite his ebbing fame, he should not be “sold short” (his words) in his old age - essentially he is making the point that he isn’t “past it”.
In doing so he inadvertently gives the impression that he was set upon that night as he headed home after the fight but in actual fact he simply doesn’t specify when it happened.
A trawl through contemporary newspapers reveals that the attempted mugging occurred some considerable time before the Ali vs Frazier showdown.
The incident is mentioned in a July 1971 edition of the Hendersonville Times-News (North Carolina) which said that Dempsey mentioned it when asked to recall the last time he had used his fists in anger after Liberty, the newly revived nostalgia magazine, presented him with a plaque honouring him as “The Sports Star to Remember”.
The paper said two muggers jumped on Dempsey from behind and grabbed his arms as he walked (the walking part appears to be an assumption on the part of the writer) “near his home a few years ago” but he “struggled free” and “did what came naturally”.
The “old master”, it claimed, showed he “hadn’t lost his touch” by dishing out “two left-handed bone-smashers plus a couple of rights to the belly - those last two punches merely as a bonus”, and the youths were left “stretched out flat on the sidewalk”.
Curiously, however, the piece only contains one direct quote from Dempsey about the incident, who said of the aftermath: “I just let ‘em lie there and walked away.”
Going back further in time, the mugging is mentioned in the Gloversville Leader-Herald (New York) in June 1970 in an article marking Dempsey’s 75th birthday.
The paper quoted him as saying: “A couple of guys tried to mug me on Third Avenue a few months ago – they tried to rob me but I flattened them.”
Dempsey added sadly: “Times have changed. On Saturday and Sunday it used to be so crowded that people walked in the street. They couldn’t even get on the sidewalk. Now people are afraid to go out nights.”
An even earlier edition of the Leader-Herald appears to finally pinpoint (almost) the date when Dempsey dispensed his own form of justice.
On 24 December 1969 the paper, underneath a headline of “Dempsey Is Still Potent” (pictured), carried a single paragraph in a round-up of news items which stated that “Jack Dempsey was mugged by two guys – and flattened both”.
The available evidence therefore suggests Dempsey battered two muggers who set upon him as he sat in a cab on Third Avenue in the run up to Christmas in 1969, presumably as he headed home from his restaurant to the apartment at East 53rd Street that he shared with fourth wife Deanna.
That would mean he was 74-years-old at the time.
As Dempsey seems to have continued home after the fracas, either in the cab or on foot, and there is no hard evidence that the police were ever involved, it could well be that the bungling crooks never discovered who it was that they picked on that fateful day.
The pair, if still alive today, would now themselves be in their late 60s - one can only speculate how they would feel if thieves attacked them in their old age and how they would fare if they tried to fight back.
As a final footnote it’s interesting to recall what Dempsey told reporters one day more than three decades before his encounter with the muggers.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in April 1935 how the then 39-year-old Dempsey chatted to newsmen after enjoying a 45-minute workout in a New York gym.
Dempsey told them he was determined to stay in shape as he got older and added: “I’m just fortifying my body against the time when I’ll be 75 so that I’ll feel spry as a youngster.”
To claim that at 74 he was in the same shape as in his prime would of course be ridiculous - for one thing he suffered from a painful hip which he blamed on falling onto pressmen’s typewriters when he was famously knocked through the ropes and out of the ring by Luis Angel Firpo, the 'Wild Bull of the Pampas', in his 1923 title defence.
But he was sufficiently spry to beat the hell out of the New York City street toughs who committed an act of literally criminal stupidity.
So Dempsey seems to have largely succeeded in accomplishing his goal of staying fit into his 70s.
Mission accomplished, Jack. Job done.
Pictured below: Dempsey in his pomp – destroying the giant Jess Willard to capture the world heavyweight crown in 1919