HARD TIMES: The Mystery of the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard Fight

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It is, for boxing, as enduring a mystery as the Bermuda Triangle or the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask. On July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, Jack Dempsey ushered in the Golden Age of Sports with a splatter by massacring defending champion Jess Willard in three of the most bloodcurdling—and one-sided—rounds in boxing history. Incredibly, Dempsey dropped Willard seven times in the first round and left the “Pottawatomie Giant,” who entered the ring as a 6-5 favorite, a gory mess after less than three minutes of action. Dempsey gave up five inches in height to Willard and spotted the defending heavyweight champion nearly 60 pounds, but Big Jess was nothing but an oversized chopping block for the former saloon brawler.

Today such a beating would not have been allowed to take place, but in 1919, when prizefighting was an outlaw pursuit in most of America and social Darwinism was still in the air, boxers fought through spectacular agonies. Ever since that bloodthirsty display took place, however, the question of whether or not Dempsey wore loaded gloves has haunted the legacy of the most popular heavyweight champion of all time.

What reason would Dempsey have for taking such extreme measures? For one thing, notorious flimflam man Jack “Doc” Kearns, who managed Dempsey, dropped $10,000 on an outrageous 10 to 1 prop bet: that “The Manassa Mauler” would KO Willard—who had never been stopped before—in a single round. That wager would have brought Dempsey and Kearns a return of $100,000, roughly equal to $1.4 million today. Such a ludicrous bet may have been cause enough for monkey business. “I was a product of the days—have they ever ended?—when it was every man for himself,” Kearns would write years later. “In those times you got away with everything possible. Turn your head, or let the other guy turn his, and knuckles were wrapped in heavy black bicycle tape or the thick lead foil in which bulk tea was packaged. The net result was much like hitting a man with a leather-padded mallet.”

And Dempsey nearly got the first-round KO, too—as well as the outlandish payoff—but a malfunctioning bell, which rang while Willard was down for the last time, could not be heard above the din of the crowd. Although Dempsey had already left the ring, he was called back and the fight resumed. For two more pitiless rounds, a bloody Willard dragged himself around the ring like a Great Dane run over by a Model T. Finally his corner threw in the towel, and Jack Dempsey was the new heavyweight champion of the world. Over the next few decades, Dempsey would establish himself as one of the most popular sports figures in history. Every now and then someone would bring up the subject of loaded gloves, most notably Willard himself, but time fogged over the particulars, and Dempsey went on to become an American hero.

Plaster of Paris brought Dempsey back into the spotlight in 1964. There he was, 45 years after winning the heavyweight title, on the cover of Sports Illustrated and once more an item in the New York dailies, almost as if were the 1920s all over again. In the January 13, 1964, issue of SI, Jack Kearns, long on the outs with Dempsey, “confessed” that he had used Plaster of Paris on the handwraps Dempsey wore for the Willard fight. Dempsey hotly denied the claims and sent his lawyers after Sports Illustrated. Kearns was already dead by the time the article, an excerpt from his forthcoming biography The Million Dollar Gate, had appeared. Dempsey went on to score a TKO against Sports Illustrated, winning an out-of-court settlement and a printed apology from the magazine.

There were plenty of other refutations of the Kearns tall-tale. Nat Fleischer, in his autobiography 50 Years at Ringside, effectively dispels the Plaster of Paris myth. “I was at the fight,” wrote Fleischer. “I saw Jimmy Deforest, Dempsey’s trainer tape Jack’s hands. I watched every move of the men in Jack’s quarters. I think I can clear the atmosphere once and for all with an accurate version of what happened. Jack Dempsey had no loaded gloves, and no plaster of Paris over his bandages. I watched the proceedings and the only person who had anything to do with the taping of Jacks’ hands was Deforest. Kearns had nothing to do with it, so his plaster of Paris story is simply not true.”

Indeed, photos from the fight prove that Dempsey entered the ring without gloves on and that Jess Willard lumbered over to take a look at Dempsey’s hands before the opening bell rang. In addition, attempts to re-create the methods described by Kearns—by Boxing Illustrated & Wrestling News—revealed that using Plaster of Paris would be an iffy method with little chance of success. Then, in response to the controversy, Pete Herman, former bantamweight champion of the world, produced the original gloves that Dempsey wore at Toledo and could find no traces of cement or plaster.

Why would Kearns make up such an outlandish tale? There was the money, of course, for the book and for the excerpt. But he may have had vindictive reasons as well. “He was bitter to the end,” Dempsey told Sports Illustrated. “I fired him as my manager. He owed me about $200,000, so I arranged with Tex Rickard to collect my end of the Firpo purse myself instead of having Kearns collect it. I took out what he owed me and gave him the rest. He was furious.”

With the plaster of Paris angle debunked, conspiracy buffs in the 1970s focused on the “Railroad Spike Theory,” based on photos of an unidentified object seen in the ring at the end of the chaotic first round. A large cigar-shaped object–the magic bullet of the Dempsey-Willard mystery–can clearly be seen on the canvas, where Willard sits in a gruesome heap. Unfortunately for iron spike enthusiasts, video footage of the fight shows that Dempsey is nowhere near Willard when the object is first seen. Dempsey floored Willard for the umpteenth time late in the first and when the bell rang, he retreated across the ring. At this point, no object is visible, but the next shot reveals it clearly. Unlike something out of Sigmund Freud, however, here the cigar seems merely to be a cigar. As Monte Cox pointed out in his exhaustive treatment on the loaded gloves controversy, Dempsey would not have been able to grip an iron spike since he can be seen with open gloves throughout the first round, holding the ropes, for example. “How could Dempsey be holding an iron spike in his left hand when his hand is grabbing the ring ropes after the first knockdown?” asks Cox. “How could he push Willard in the clinches with open gloves if he had something in his hands?” In the end, the iron spike seems to be as implausible as the Plaster of Paris scheme.

But is that the end of a mystery that was not really a mystery to begin with? Maybe not. For years, those who pooh-poohed the Railroad Spike Theory and the Plaster of Paris Plot have ignored two simple details.

The first is the fact that Dempsey did wear “loaded gloves.” Many fighters during his time, when regulation barely existed, got away with this practice. As Al Spink pointed out in The Atlanta Constitution only months after Dempsey annihilated Willard: “As a matter of fact, there is hardly a pugilist in the country whose hands are not more or less bunged up….So bandaging knuckles has become an art among the boxers, and the trickiest glove men are adepts in putting on the wraps so as to make the glove as hard as the old Roman cestus, with which the ancient gladiators often killed each other.”

Even before Dempsey had annihilated Willard, rumors about his punching power were afloat. Fred Fulton, a 6’6 ½” heavyweight contender in line for a shot at the title, asked to see Dempsey’s wraps before the bell rang for their July 1918 bout in Harrison, New Jersey. It did him no good; Dempsey flattened him in less than thirty seconds.

Ironically, or perhaps incredibly, Jess Willard himself expressed concern about Dempsey and his handwrapping methods. “I have been up against pretty rough practice in the matter of hand wrappings which really amounted to armor over the knuckles,” Willard said in newswire article just days before his butchering in Toledo. “Some fellows have wound adhesive tape so thickly that the fist felt like iron through the glove. There have been cases where seconds have provided themselves with two cans, one containing talcum powder, the other plaster Paris. After the bandages on the hands of their men were adjusted they would dust the lint and then spray it with water. The plaster of Paris would set like rock and the unfortunate fellow who went up against that glove would feel as though a hammer hit every time a punch found its mark.”

When Willard spoke about having been up against slugs in his career prior to facing Dempsey, he was telling the truth. In 1913, Willard lost a 20-round decision to Gunboat Smith in a bout where Willard’s ear was shredded. Years later, Smith would tell Peter Heller just how Willard sustained such a grievous wound. “So in the tenth round I hit him with one of my right hands, but it was on the ear. Tore his ear right off. That hushed him up for the rest of the fight. The blood was running down, and oh God, I, of course, had my gloves ‘loaded.’ I had insulation tape laid across my hands.”

The kind of wholesale damage Willard suffered against Dempsey—in roughly 90 seconds, since the two men opened the bout cautiously—is unusual, to say the least. But Jimmy Deforest explained how Dempsey had achieved such carnage in so short a time. In 1930 he told Joe Villa of the New York Evening Sun exactly how it happened. “When I handled Kid McCoy, I used to bandage his hands with a certain type of adhesive tape,” DeForest told Vila. “As soon as McCoy drew on the gloves, the tape hardened and, as a result, he was able to inflict unusual punishment. I wound Dempsey’s hands, which Willard inspected. The story that Dempsey wore aluminum pads over his knuckles is a lie. His bandages became hardened, no doubt, and that was why he cut Willard’s face to ribbons.” Is it possible that Willard actually inspected Dempsey’s hands before the tape hardened?

The second overlooked detail concerns Dempsey himself, or, better said, his character. Although Dempsey was an incredibly gracious and affable man, there is no denying his early dark side. One of anywhere between nine and thirteen children born to an itinerant sharecropper and his long-suffering wife, Jack Dempsey was raised in the kind of appalling poverty that today might net him a spot in a United Way commercial. On the road by the time he was fifteen years old, Dempsey spent the next six or seven years in mining camps, saloons, brothels, hobo jungles, freight trains, flophouses, carnival grounds, and pool halls. At times, Dempsey went days without eating, and often the only possessions he owned could be found in a single ragged bindle he carried with him from town to town. Long before Dempsey met the amoral Kearns, the “Manassa Mauler” was living on the edge. At home in boxcars, bust towns, fleshpots, tenderloins, and cathouses, Dempsey spent more time on the wild side than can be expected for a man who eventually developed such a stellar reputation.

A pool shark, a hobo, and a saloon brawler, Dempsey wound up marrying a prostitute, Maxine Cates, in 1916 and moving into a house of “ill repute” with her in a San Francisco slum. According to Herbert G. Goldman, former editor of Boxing Illustrated, Dempsey was more than just a star-crossed lover. “The rumor was that he had been a pimp for Maxine between fights and that he married her to avoid prosecution under the Mann Act,” Goldman told The Denver Post in 1995. “In his autobiographies, he tries to portray himself as a love-struck kid who didn’t know she was a prostitute until after he was married. Will somebody please give me a break? He met her on Salt Lake City’s Commercial Street, which was the city’s red-light district. He was no innocent boy. He had been on his own for at least five years, living and fighting in the Wild West towns that existed mainly so that cowboys and miners could drink, play poker and get laid. In his autobiography, Jack wrote that he couldn’t understand why Maxine left him. The reason is that she was scared shitless of Dempsey because he dislocated her fucking jaw.”

As heavyweight champion, Dempsey began hobnobbing with high society superstars, and he felt increasingly inadequate among the fine manners of the nouveau riche. Like something out of The Great Gatsby, Dempsey embarked on a program of reinvention, turning himself from the sullen hobo with an eighth-grade education and the grammar of a stevedore into a celebrity bon vivant. Part of that process involved recasting his colorful but sordid past. But that past exists independently of attempts to downplay it over the decades.

Finally, the cast of characters Dempsey surrounded himself with could have filled more than one Rogues Gallery. Start with Kearns, whose wily rascal image is little more than revisionist history. He was a pure con artist who found his dream grift in boxing, as opposed to much tougher hustling gigs like badger, thimblerig, or poker. Kearns himself once confessed to using Plaster of Paris for one of his own bouts during his fighting career. Joe Benjamin, lightweight hellraiser and one of Dempsey’s best friends, also once admitted to using a lead slug in the ring. And Jimmy DeForest, who trained Dempsey, also trained Kid McCoy, whose legendary “Corkscrew Punch” may have been nothing more than doctored wraps.

In other words, Dempsey, whose desperate poverty spurred him to obsess over “being somebody,” was no choirboy. Would he have worked the tape on his hands beyond how he normally did with the promise of fame and fortune waiting for him?

Roger Khan, author of A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring 20s, when asked by Ferdie Pacheco about the possibility of Dempsey cheating had this to say: “I would rather think it was not an iron spike, but we have to remember where it was in the early part of the century that Dempsey came from: a very, very tough America. When he was traveling in boxcars, he had to fight for his life against homosexual rape. His first wife was a prostitute, and he was her pimp. He was accused of many things, including being a professional rapist of virgins who would then be sent to brothels. Some of this is undoubtedly so. It was a very tough America and Dempsey did what he had to do to win.”

And you? What would you do? If you stuffed your battered shoes with newspapers as a child? If you wore the same shirt to school week after week? If your parents picked up and lit out in a covered wagon from one bleak hinterland to another? If you knocked on doors looking for handouts? If you ate rotting banana skins from trash barrels? If you slept nights in hobo jungles and spent your days in the depths of a gloomy copper mine? If you had Doc Kearns as your right hand man, lopsided grin, hat brim askew, diamond stickpin glittering even on sunless days? What would you have done?

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This article was originally published in Undisputed Fight Magazine. Special thanks to David Duenez of Leave it In The Ring radio for permission to reprint it.

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Tags: HEAVYWEIGHTS Jack "doc" Kearns Jack Dempsey Jess Willard

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