John Huston, who directed the 1972 boxing film “Fat City” and won two Academy Awards – for best director and best adapted screenplay – for the 1948 classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” often said that he admired former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey more than any man he had ever met.
As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, Huston, whose father was Academy Award winning actor Walter Huston, said all his heroes were boxers, including Fidel LaBarba, Baby Joe Gans, Jackie Fields, Georgie Levine, Ace Hudkins, and Sergeant Sammy Baker.
But none left a more positive impression on him more than Dempsey did.
In September 1923, before 80,000 fans at New York City’s Polo Grounds, Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo engaged in what is arguably the greatest slugfest in history.
Dempsey, who held the heavyweight title, knocked Firpo down nine times.
Firpo, an Argentinean strongman whose nickname was the Wild Bull of the Pampas, knocked Dempsey down twice, one of which was out of the ring.
All of this occurred in less than two rounds of action – with a 17-year-old Huston in attendance.
“My father took me to see the Dempsey-Firpo fight, which was the greatest thing that could happen to a kid,” Huston told Sports Illustrated during the filming of “Fat City” in Stockton, California.
Huston, who was born in 1906, recalled a later story about going to New York to see his father perform in a play during a time the underworld was making moves on the theater industry.
When he entered his father’s dressing room, his father told him, “John, there’s a man outside who’s giving me a little trouble. I think he’s one of those hoods.”
The young feisty Huston went outside, eager for a dustup.
“I was full of myself then, so I jumped up and went outside, ready to do something,” recalled Huston. “And there stood Jack Dempsey.”
Huston laughed at the memory even though the joke was on him.
Dempsey’s popularity cut a wide swath.
American bank robber and murderer Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, who the FBI labeled Public Enemy No. 1 after the death of John Dillinger in 1934, named his son Dempsey in deference to the charismatic champ.
During visits to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, as late as the early 2000s, scores of male fans over the age of 70 described Dempsey as their childhood hero and spoke of him in reverential terms.
They included the late Bob Shepard, a longtime boxing collector and appraiser for Sotheby’s, who appeared awestruck when discussing Dempsey with his contemporaries. Shepard owned a sports jacket that had been custom-made for Dempsey and had the name of the tailor and the champ sewn inside.
One night in Brooklyn in 1973, Dempsey congratulated teenaged boxers Gerry Cooney and “Irish” Johnny Turner for their outstanding performances that evening in Golden Gloves matchups.
He presented them with giant trophies and praised them for their fistic acumen.
“Meeting him was like meeting Babe Ruth,” said Turner. “I had read a lot about him, and I was in awe of him.”
Between 1975 and 1984, Turner, now 67, compiled a professional record of 42-6-2 (32 KOS). He went to work for the NYC Department of Sanitation and played French boxer Laurent Dauthuille in the Academy Award winning film “Raging Bull.”
He and his wife are currently actors in a television commercial for a medication called Verzenio.
Cooney, now 64, challenged Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title in 1982 and retired eight years later with a record of 28-3 (24 KOS).
He recalls the experience of meeting Dempsey as “pretty exciting.”
“He was an awesome man and champion, but I was too young to recognize his greatness,” said Cooney. “He told me I was big and tall and would have a nice career if I worked hard. He was kind of quiet, not very outspoken, but there was something about him that stood out.”
Dempsey’s aggressive style, tremendous punching power, rugged persona, and overall humility and likeability made him a cultural icon of the Roaring Twenties. His immense popularity lasted right up until his death in May 1983.
Between 1924 and 1952, he appeared in 22 movies, but for decades afterwards was a regular guest on such popular television programs as “The Mike Douglas Show,” The Ed Sullivan Show,” The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar,” “This is Your Life,” and “What’s My Line?”
Born William Harrison Dempsey in 1895 in Manassa, Colorado, the future champion grew up dirt poor and left the family home as a teenager. He rode the rails, hopping freights and bunking down in mining and homeless encampments throughout the American West.
He soon began boxing in saloons and labor camps under the names Kid Blackie and Young Dempsey, often beating grown men. In 1918 he fought 21 times, defeating such established boxers as Gunboat Smith, Battling Levinsky, Bill Brennan, and Billy Miske.
On July 4, 1919, Dempsey stopped the gargantuan Jess Willard in the third round. At 6’1” tall and 187 pounds, Dempsey was dwarfed by Willard, who was 5 ½ inches taller and 58 pounds heavier.
After knocking Willard down seven times, the former champion, who previously had never been off his feet, described Dempsey as “a remarkable hitter.”
Dempsey won five bouts, including the savage brawl against Firpo before losing his title to Gene Tunney, a former Marine, in September 1926.
After Tunney won a unanimous decision in Philadelphia, in front of more than 120,000 fans, Dempsey told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
More than a half-century later, U.S. President Ronald Reagan repeated that same line to wife Nancy after being shot and wounded by would-be assassin John Hinckley in 1981.
Dempsey rebounded from the Tunney loss with a stoppage win over future titlist Jack Sharkey and then faced Tunney in a rematch in September 1927 in Chicago.
In that fight, known as “The Long Count,” Dempsey again lost a decision to the clever Tunney.
The defeats to Tunney did not diminish Dempsey’s widespread popularity in any way. After retiring with a final ring tally of 54-6-8 (44 KOS), he dabbled in Hollywood, fought exhibitions until 1942, and opened Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in New York in 1935.
The eatery was located on Eighth Avenue and West 50th Street, directly across from the old Madison Square Garden.
The restaurant’s name was later changed to Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant when it relocated to Broadway, between West 49th and 50th Streets.
It was there that he held court daily, greeting visitors with his standard “Hiya, Pal,” until a rent dispute forced him to heartbreakingly close its doors in 1974.
When Dempsey passed away from a heart ailment at the age of 87, the New York Times wrote that “during his long retirement, [he] set a standard of dignity rarely equaled by a former champion.”
Cooney and Turner, both long retired, in good health, and living fulfilling and enriching lives with successful marriages and accomplished children, have achieved similar standards in their personal lives.
They could not agree more with that assessment.