Jab Hook’s Boxing in Art: “Dempsey Through The Ropes” by George Bellows



Jab Hook’s Boxing in Art: “Dempsey Through The Ropes” by George Bellows

Jab Hook's Boxing in Art #2: “Dempsey Through The Ropes” by George Bellows (1924)

September 14, 1923, Jack Dempsey vs Luis Firpo at the Polo Grounds, New York City

The backdrop of prohibition and the stories around this legendary era in American sports, art and society are the rich setting for the creation of this wonderful, leading example of boxing in art. George Bellows was a member of the Ashcan School taking American art from the salon to the back alley. This work depicts one of the most important bouts of the twentieth century, which was voted the most dramatic sports moment of the century in 1950 by journalists. 

The bout was historic as Luis Firpo was the first Latin American to fight for the heavyweight world title, and also because it ended up being the most action packed, memorable championship match of that boxing era.

Though Jack Dempsey (see below) was already very well known, he was more of an infamous personality than a popular champion.

Jack Dempsey was a rock star of a pugilist.

The events in this bout were so dramatic that Dempsey became the national manifestation of the archetypal champion and was transformed into an American hero.

Dempsey vs Firpo can hardly be called a boxing match. It was a pure, back-alley brawl with no jabs, just swarms of hooks and power shots. An extremely violent and rather short heavyweight bout with wild action and brutal punches. Both men became international icons as a result of this dramatic contest. Luis Firpo (below) was already a hero in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the center of the birth place of modern tango.

Luis Firpo aka The Wild Bull of the Pampas.

Can you hear the faint, sweet echos of Piazolla's bandoneon? 

Jab Hook sees this painting daily. An excellent, reduced-size, oil-paint copy (3.28′ x 3.28′, 1 x 1m) hangs in his home. Jab's dream is to make a movie about the bout and the painting.

Shout out to Rob Kolodny at House of Nod Films!


The Painting:

“Dempsey and Firpo” (aka ‘Dempsey Through The Ropes'), 1924

George Bellows (1882–1925), Oil on canvas, 51.125 x 63.25 in. (129.9 x 160.7 cm)

Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC –

Purchased with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. 

This art piece has hung in the Whitney Museum since opening day in 1931.

Object label- Dempsey and Firpo, one of George Bellows's most ambitious paintings, captures a pivotal moment in the September 14, 1923 prizefight between American heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and his Argentine rival Luis Angel Firpo. The frenzy lasted less than four minutes, Firpo going to the floor nine times and Dempsey twice. Although Dempsey was the eventual victor, the artist chose to represent the dramatic moment when Firpo knocked his opponent out of the ring with a tremendous blow to the jaw. At the match on assignment for the New York Evening Journal, Bellows portrays himself as a balding man at the extreme left of the picture. His geometrically structured composition also creates a low vantage point that includes the viewer: looking up at this angle, we find ourselves among the spectators pushing Dempsey back into the ring. The excitement is further heightened by the chromatic contrast between the fighters bathed in lurid light, and the dark, smoke-filled atmosphere around them.


The Painter:

George Bellows (1882–1925)

Born in Columbus, Ohio, young George had two favorite things which he pursued with passion, drawing and sports. Bullied as a boy, he learned to fist fight. As a young man in high school his skills in baseball attracted the attention of professional scouts, but Bellows chose to go to college enrolling at Ohio State University. He continued to play baseball in college for a few years, but neither his studies, nor the overtures of the Cincinnati Reds pro baseball team could deter him from his growing desire to become a painter. So although he was soon to graduate, Bellows did what artist do. He quit college and moved to New York in 1904 to study art.

George Bellows, an Ohioan, left the world a marvelous legacy.

Bellows's instincts were right and his talents were quickly recognized in New York City, the mecca of Modern Art. He became an academic art insider and quasi-superstar by his late twenties. In less than a decade his work was already exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. George Bellows is definitely a heavyweight among the elite of twentieth century American Artists. His “Dempsey and Firpo” work may be the main reason why boxing is such a firm part of Bellow's fame, though he only did half a dozen works on the theme. He started the painting a few weeks after being ringside covering the bout for the New York Evening Journal. He finished it a couple of months later and within a year he was dead.

In 1925 Bellows was more famous than his colleague and buddy Edward Hopper. At the time of his death he was just 42 years old and still very active in sports. His sudden death sent shock waves through the American art world. For several days George Bellows had been feeling poorly, and as the severe stomach pain moved across his belly he tried to ignore it, hoping to avoid going to the hospital. Soon it was unbearable and his appendix ruptured, leading quickly to peritonitis. On January 8, 1925 he died in New York City. He was survived by his wife, Emma, and two daughters, Anne and Jean.

The Bout:

New York City, September 14, 1923, Jack Dempsey vs Luis Firpo at the Polo Grounds, site of many historic boxing matches. This fight was promoted by Tex Rickard and announced by the wildly popular Joe Humphreys in front of over 86,000 people. Demsey was making his 5th defense of the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship that he had wrested from Jess Willard. Johnny Gallagher was the referee.

Boxing pundits speak of fights of the year, or the decade, but this international matchup delivered the drama and ethos of an all time legendary meeting of men in the ring. Just two rounds and power punches were flying and landing like Eddie Rickenbacker throughout the fight. At the opening bell Dempsey lunged in and went down from Firpo's check right hook. Dempsey then put the Argentinean boxer on the canvas seven times within the 1st round. The bigger man got up again and again, and as the action cresendoed late in the round, Firpo knocked Dempsey through the ropes and onto ringside reporters. Dempsey eventually made it back into the ring with the help and survived the round. The 2nd round started where they had left off, Dempsey wanted to stop him and he put Firpo down again early in the round. The end was near and moments later the classic Dempsey left hook/right cross combination put the Argentine and out for the count, KO at 0:57 of round 2.

(Note: The unassisted, 20 second rule for boxers knocked out of the ring had not yet been established and neither had the exact procedures for counting and neutral corners. Rules for boxing matches were still negotiated by the promoters and boxers, without any sanctioning organization.)


The Boxers:

On September 14, 1923, Jack Dempsey 57(40)-4(1)-10 vs Luis Firpo 25(21)-2(1).

The “Manassa Mauler” vs “El Toro Salvaje de las Pampas”

Height- 6'1”/185cm vs 6'2.5”/189cm

Reach- 77”/196cm vs 79”/201cm

Weight- 192.5 lbs/87.3 kg vs 216.5 lbs/98.2 kg

Dempsey had been champ for four years and was facing a leading contender in Firpo.

The “Manassa Mauler”was favored to win.

The Painter of Jab Hook's copy:

Heinz Pischel  (1928-) lives in Bad Aibling, less than an hour south of Munich. He is a fit, 80 years old and retired aerospace technician who supported NASA's Apollo program in the 1960s. Also an accomplished hobby artist/painter, he has created hundreds of canvases. His specialty is “copies” of famous artworks. The Bellows copy was painted as gift for Jab's 50th birthday. Two more large oil paintings of famous bouts are among Pischel's body of work.

Joe Healy has a Pichel oil painting in his residence.

Boxing in Art is an ongoing series by “Jab Hook”, aka “Brooklyn” Joe Healy a boxing expert commentator for, a professional cutman from the BOXWERK gym, and a licensed referee/judge in amateur boxing. A lifelong aficionado born in Brooklyn and living in Munich, “The Sweet Science” is his passion. Please feel free to contact him as Jab Hook on FaceBook, at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoxAficionado.