The First Latino Sports Star: 100 Years After His Epic Fight With Jack Dempsey, They’re Still Cheering For Luis Firpo
The chants started one hundred years ago, in the front rows where you’re close enough to the boxing ring that you can hear the boards underneath the canvas rattle like an old boardwalk.
That night, two heavyweights slugged it out in the most savage and controversial fight ever.
The challenger, a self-managed boxer from Argentina with a case of vertigo, an injured left arm, and little chance of winning, landed first. A short right, thrown with a grunt, simultaneously sent the champion to his knees and the crowd to their feet.
Firpo! Firpo! Firpo!
The champ rose immediately, and a few seconds later, landed a right that sent the challenger down. The tone for the wildest boxing match ever was set. The chants, roars, and cheering all merged into a distorted sound, one that blanketed New York’s Polo Grounds and the streets around it in white noise for the following four minutes.
As fast as a telegraph could be read, the cheers spread south, following the cable lines to Florida or Texas, then down to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Along the way, hunched over transistor radios, or gathered in front of the local newspaper office, millions waited for news of the fight.
In Puerto Rico, El Imparcial, gave updates from their second-floor balcony to men in dress suits below.
In Mexico. Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Chile, and Brazil, and many other cities, the local papers did the same.
In Buenos Aires, the theaters interrupted their shows with updates, and the stomps of thousands of cheering fans who gathered in front of the recently constructed Palacio Barolo, where a light in the tower at the top would announce the winner – blue for Firpo, red for Dempsey – nearly caused a seismic event along the Avenida de Mayo.
Luis Firpo had just sent the champion of the world, Jack Dempsey, tumbling head-first out of the ring. The light at the top of the Barolo turned blue.
For a few seconds that night of September 14, 1923, millions in Latin America cheered for who they thought was their first heavyweight champion of the world.
Fireworks went off, balloons were released, and hats were thrown into the air.
Then the light turned red.
Today, ninety-nine years after a controversial loss to Dempsey, they’re still chanting Firpo’s name.
Usulután, El Salvador, is a city bordered on one side by the Pacific, and a volcano on the other. It’s a city that wakes up with the sun. The residential areas are quiet with squat homes and clean streets that have few traffic lights.
Along the commercial strips, fast food places and Japanese cars maneuvering around potholes dominate the scenery.
In the northern part of the city, where the prison sits and the view of the mountains is the best in town, the 5,000-seat Sergio Torres Rivera Stadium is where the local soccer team plays.
Hours before any game, the streets leading to the stadium are packed with fans dressed in the team’s red, white, and blue jerseys. They carry long banners that read “Firpo.”
Large stuffed bulls – the team’s mascot – are carried by several and, during games, passed along from one cheering fan to another. Throughout those games, you can hear the same chant that was heard at ringside 100 years ago.
It starts in the front row, where you are close enough to see the grass stains on the soccer balls. It spreads left and right, and then back, until nearly everyone is chanting.
Firpo! Firpo! Firpo!
The crowd then stood and began to sing:
Here comes Firpo.
Viva el Firpo!
Luis Angel Firpo was born a sickly child in Junin, Argentina in 1894.
An ear condition that later disqualified him from serving in the military caused him constant pain and dizziness. Doctors in Buenos Aires alleviated much of the pain, but the dizziness and lack of balance continued into adulthood. If asked to cross his arms in front of his chest and close his eyes while raising one leg off the ground, he may have toppled over for a ten count.
Standing 6’3’ tall, with hands that could conceal a grapefruit, Firpo was twenty-two when he started boxing. Because of him, boxing would become a staple of Argentine sports.
In his day, Chile was the boxing hotspot. Continuing in boxing meant going to Chile. Today, Buenos Aires to Santiago is a two-hour flight in good weather. Back then, Firpo had to travel by foot.
He walked ten hours per day, taking the route of the muleteers, until he reached the foot of the Andes, sometime sleeping against a rock or tree, more concerned with avalanches than he was with a potential encounter with an Andean Bear.
At times, he crossed the jagged range on a donkey. He arrived about a month later, a few pounds lighter, his skin a few shades darker.
His fighting style was hindered by his poor balance. He took short steps in the ring but was quick to find the correct pivot that placed him in position to land his secret weapon.
It was a right-hand punch, thrown straight.
When it landed, Firpo would leave his arm outstretched and glance at the legs. If the legs quivered, he’d put all his weight into his arm and extend the punch a few more inches into something that was almost a push. He called it the Firpazo and it was responsible for most of his wins.
For some of those wins, he was paid in cranberry beans, which he later resold in Argentina at a profit.
Firpo then asked to be paid in books on investing. He read every page of every book and kept the better ones, sold the rest.
When he arrived in Newark for his first bout in the United States, he brought with him all the knowledge he attained from those books, and the Firpazo.
His first fight received scant coverage in America. In Latin America, it was box office gold.
Firpo insisted on getting the Latin American film rights to the match. He showed up to the fight with one trainer carrying a towel, the other a camera. The film of that fight was played throughout Central and South America and made Firpo a small fortune. When 1923 came, he was as famous as Dempsey.
On the night of Friday, September 14th, 1923, in Usulután, the organizers of the team sat around a transistor radio and listened to updates of the fight from New York, hoping that the muscular and brave, Latin American underdog, would somehow upset the unbeatable imperial force. What happened that night led them to change the name of their team.
Films of Dempsey’s fights with Jess Willard and Georges Carpentier were shown throughout Latin America. The dark-haired, stubble-chinned brawler with a military fade haircut was a massive favorite to defeat Firpo.
The Argentine needed another year of experience, most agreed. He was considered primitive, in and out of the ring and, unlike Carpentier, where the Frenchman was the darling of the media, Firpo encountered a racist press.
Billed as a fight between the United States and South America, Firpo was called a “civilized gorilla.”
Firpo was fulfilling the “dream of the Latin Race,” by attempting to become champion, wrote George Trevor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“Patriotism fortifies Firpo,” Trevor wrote. Trevor described Firpo’s diet. Each meal of the day was composed of red meat and fruits along with six eggs – a diet that would “wreck a modern man’s digestion in quick order,” he concluded.
“Firpo’s teeth, stomach, and assimilative organs are not those of a modern man. The cave man utilizes 6,000 odd food calories per day. It does not take more than 3,000 calories to keep Dempsey going.”
Trevor was only warming up.
“Americans do not realize the intense racial hatred for the United States underlying the polite veneer which cloaks the secret thoughts of our Latin neighbors,” he wrote. Those peoples, he wrote, have always “passionately yearned for a champion who could fight with his fists in the virile fashion of the North.”
Dempsey became to many a symbol of U.S. imperialism. It was a time when American occupation was either taking place, or had recently taken place, in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Veracruz.
The Banana Wars were ongoing and the memory of American William Walker, the self-proclaimed President of Nicaragua, and his attempt – with the blessing of Pres. Franklin Pierce – to turn Central America into the new American South and a place where slavery would continue, was still fresh. A win by Firpo would be a small victory over imperialism.
Hours before the opening bell, the streets around the Polo Grounds were filled with men in black suits and beige hats. The announced attendance was 85,800 with about half holding binoculars. An estimated 25,000 more were left outside looking for ways to sneak in.
Pushing his way through the masses was Firpo. With everyone in front of them anxiously trying to get in and not wanting to risk losing their place in line, they did not notice that one of the men they came to see was standing behind them.
He was trapped in the crowd until, “four large Irish cops noticed,” Firpo later recalled. Using their clubs against the legs of those who did not move, they forced open a path.
Following a delay to allow Dempsey to re-wrap his hands after duct tape was found on his bandages, the fighters entered the arena.
The champ came into the ring wearing all white while Firpo concealed his injured left arm under his familiar yellow and black checkered robe with purple collars.
While Firpo’s right hand ranks amongst the hardest in history, the left was thrown in a pawing fashion, used to gauge if he was close enough to land the right. He can’t beat Dempsey with one hand, the experts said.
So, they worked on the left during training, at times, throwing nothing else. One of those lefts, thrown full force against a cement filled heavy bag, sent a sharp pain from the elbow up to the shoulder.
The humerus was fractured, some said. It was later revealed to have been dislocated.
The promoter, in front of the commissioner and with writer Nat Fleischer present, told him it was too late to cancel. They summoned Dr. Walker, who rubbed ointment on the arm then pulled, massaged, and yanked it into place. Twenty-four hours was not enough time for it to properly heal. Firpo would have to fight with one good arm.
The bell rang and everyone from New York to the tip of Tierra Del Fuego slid to the edge of their seats. Dempsey went down. The crowd rose to their feet and the band that was in the front row stopped playing. Dempsey used Firpo for a ladder and climbed up quickly. Then Firpo went down.
Again, Firpo went down, this time in that squatting position that sprinters get into when they say, “On your marks, get ready…”
There was fouling and clinching and each time Firpo went down, Dempsey hovered over him like Farnese Hercules.
Dempsey went down, briefly, but the referee missed it.
Firpo went down. He jumped up quickly. Seconds later, he went down again.
Dempsey was supposed to go to a neutral corner but did not. The referee was not enforcing the rules. A five-week suspension awaited him after the fight.
Firpo went down.
The referee counted slowly.
Firpo rose at “9.” It felt like “11.”
Firpo gets dropped again, landing in a dogeza pose. About two seconds after rising, a left hook put him down again, on his side, resting on his bent elbow as if he was at a picnic.
They fell into a clinch as soon as the Argentine got back on his feet.
The crowd was in disbelief.
Latin America held its breath.
Dempsey stalked, his hands dangling at his waist like a gunslinger. He paid the price for not protecting himself.
A right from Firpo landed by the ear. Dempsey’s head swayed to the side. The champ tried to clinch, but Firpo thwarted it by pulling his arm back. Dempsey resumed stalking, this time a little bit slower and a lot more cautious.
A heavy right to the body by Firpo followed by a right to the head forced Dempsey to back up towards the ropes. He was stunned. Dempsey covered up. The champ was in a shell, not fighting back. Firpo scored with another right. And again, another right. Then it happened. The single greatest sports moment in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Another right landed. For a moment, Dempsey was standing on one leg. Firpo noticed and turned the punch into his Firpazo. It sent the champion tumbling headfirst over the ropes and out of the ring.
Dempsey landed on a reporter’s typewriter. His back will hurt him for the rest of his life.
Some say the referee’s count reached ten. Others say fourteen, even seventeen seconds. The referee said nine. Firpo thought the fight was over. He had relaxed and his adrenaline dropped.
The telegrams reach Latin America. Dempsey was knocked out of the ring, was the message.
The light atop the Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires turned blue.
There was dancing in the streets of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Mexico. In Usulután, a soccer team has a new name. In Junin, the celebrated writer, Julio Cortázar, then only nine-years-old, celebrated with his family. Then the light turned red.
The reporters at ringside helped push Dempsey back into the ring. The fight continued.
Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring magazine, said Dempsey should have been disqualified. Firpo’s handlers protested but the only ones who paid attention were those who understood Spanish.
The fight continued.
Firpo missed. He missed again. The round ended.
During the 60-second break, Dempsey’s corner broke the rules and used smelling salts to revive him. In the other corner, Firpo – fully conscious – started feeling the effects of Dempsey’s punches.
Thirty seconds earlier, he was ready to lift his arms in victory. Now, he could barely lift them for round two.
Dempsey, refreshed, rushed out at the bell. Firpo went down hard. Physically drained and emotionally spent, he could not beat the count.
Dempsey, with the help from a couple of ringside reporters and a capsule or two of smelling salts, was still the heavyweight champion of the world.
A mob threatened to burn down the American embassy in Buenos Aires that night. The writer, Cortázar, recalled that “15 million Argentines called for a declaration of war” against the United States. It was a “national tragedy,” and many “asked to break diplomatic relations with the United States,” he wrote.
Firpo never got the promised rematch.
Instead, he fought Harry Wills, another fighter who never received a promised title shot against Dempsey.
The Firpo win turned out to be the last championship fight Dempsey would win.
The thrilling victory, along with the Gene Tunney fights a few years later, turned him into a legend.
Despite never getting another opportunity to challenge for the title, Firpo was treated like a champion everywhere he went.
For the Wills fight, Firpo recalled, “suddenly, I was the ‘white’ fighter.”
75,000 turned out for that fight and the streets surrounding the Jersey City arena were filled with hundreds of firemen who stood by their hoses in case the “Harlem contingent” got unruly.
Officially, the Wills fight was a no-decision, but Firpo was a step behind the entire night. The self-managed boxer with poor balance who had walked across South America to be a boxer had given the two best heavyweights in the world a run for their money.
In Argentina, children were named after him, and he received dozens of requests to be a godparent. He opened a chain of new car dealerships in both Argentina and Uruguay and operated one of the largest cattle ranches in Argentina.
Every year, on the anniversary of the big fight, Argentina remembers him with a holiday that is in his honor – Day of the Boxer.
Four streets in three cities bear his name and dozens of boxers and wrestlers, including Pampero Firpo, paid homage to him by calling themselves Firpo something or other.
Whenever they boxed or wrestled, the same chant that started in 1923 was heard.
Firpo! Firpo! Firpo!
You can still hear it today.
In a recent game in Usulután, forward Raúl Peñaranda Contreras was on the attack. He had a clear view of the goal. Two defenders closed in on him. The crowd erupted into cheers and that familiar chant.
White noise covered the streets around Sergio Torres Rivera Stadium.
That night, and every other night in Buenos Aires, when the blue skies above the Palacio Barolo fade to black, a light goes on at the top of its tower. It’s a white light but, from a distance, it looks blue.