Whatever one might say about the current crop of heavyweights--
or rather, the crop before Mike Tyson's recent release from
prison --the sight of 26-year-old Michael Moorer crumbling to
the canvas at the urging of George Foreman's 45-year-old right
hand constituted a unique moment in boxing history. Goliath
falls all the time, but it is usually a young, quick and clever
David who brings him down, not some Methuselah of the ring.
Until Foreman's 10th-round knockout of Moorer last November,
attempts by aging champions to regain their former glories
brought only memories of Joe Louis, slow and flabby, being taken
apart by the clumsy but ferocious Rocky Marciano in 1951, or of
Muhammad Ali, his lightning reflexes gone, absorbing hundreds of
punches from Larry Holmes in 1980.
Perhaps the most bizarre of all the
heavyweight-returning-from-retirement tales is one that has been
largely forgotten. In 1940 Jack Dempsey was 45 years old and
desperately in need of money. A notorious soft touch, he had
spent, given away and been cheated out of the millions of
dollars he had earned during his flamboyant boxing career. His
restaurant in New York City would not become profitable for a
few years. And among Dempsey's other troubles, he had separated
from his third wife, Hannah Williams.
Enter Max Waxman, the fighter's fast-talking, pastrami-craving
business manager. Waxman was keeping Dempsey afloat by booking
personal appearances for him, mostly as a wrestling referee. One
day in May, perhaps befogged by his own cigar smoke, Waxman
concocted an extraordinary plan: The Manassa Mauler, the boxing
hero of the Golden Age of Sport, would box again. Would the
public buy it? Waxman figured it was worth a try. One
evening later that month, while Dempsey was refereeing a
wrestling match in Atlanta, he got into an argument with a
notorious mat villain, Clarence (Cowboy) Luttrell. The two
exchanged words and swings, and a few days later, the fortyish
Luttrell issued a challenge.
``I've licked tougher guys than Jack Dempsey,'' he bragged to a
reporter. ``There's never been a boxer who could beat a good
wrestler. I want to be known as the guy who K.O.'d Dempsey.''
April 16, 1995
The fight was booked for the night of July 1 at Atlanta's Ponce
de Leon Park. ``We'll try out the show here, boys,'' Waxman told
Georgia sportswriters. ``We might work our way up to a fight
with Joe Louis [the reigning heavyweight champ].''
When Dempsey returned to Atlanta a few days before the match,
thousands greeted him at Terminal Station. There followed a
boisterous, police-escorted parade through town. On fight night
a crowd of 12,000 showed up at the stadium. People cheered as
the paunchy, 205-pound Dempsey, who hadn't trained a minute for
the match, made his way to the ring. But the man who had drawn
the first million-dollar gate, in 1921, and had packed
Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia with 120,757 fans for
his first bout with Gene Tunney, in 1926, now found that his
corner stool was an empty beer crate.
The bout was as quick as it was brutal. Dempsey, his foot and
hand speed gone, nonetheless pounded the clumsy 226-pound
Luttrell to the canvas four times, battering his face into a
bloody mask. Early in the second round, an exhausted Dempsey
caught Luttrell flush on the jaw with a left hook, knocking him
head over heels through the ropes and into the first row, where
he struck his head on a camera case and lost consciousness. The
crowd roared. Dempsey, gasping for breath, was exhilarated; he
had earned only $4,000, but he had the old feeling. As for
Luttrell, he woke up in the hospital an hour later, $800 richer.
Two weeks later, in Detroit's Fairgrounds Coliseum, Dempsey
fought another wrestling villain, a young cop from Hartford
named Bull Curry. ``Dempsey thought he could make a few easy
bucks fighting wrestlers,'' Curry recalled almost 40 years later
in a telephone interview from his home in Connecticut. ``I
showed him he'd get himself hurt.''
A professional ruffian, Curry had spent several years traveling
around the country with third-rate carnivals, fighting all
comers. He was neither intimidated by Dempsey's reputation nor
inhibited by boxing rules. Despite having to fight with gloves,
which he viewed as hindrances, he quickly turned the fight into
a wrestling match. Early in the first round, he clamped a
headlock on Dempsey until the former champ's face turned purple.
The referee, Sam Hennessy, a dour, white-haired gentleman,
finally pried the fighters apart, but Hennessy was overmatched.
Grunting and grimacing, Curry took a few punches and was able to
cuff Jack's ear with one of his own swings. Near the end of the
round, Curry grabbed Dempsey by the legs and jack-knifed both
Dempsey and himself out of the ring and directly into the lap of
John Hettche, chairman of the Michigan State Boxing Commission,
which had sanctioned the exhibition. Hettche, after recovering
his hat and his glasses, may have wondered at the madness he had
helped let loose.
At 1:05 of the second round, Dempsey landed a vicious right to
Curry's midsection. The wrestler, in agony, crumpled to the
canvas and was counted out. But Curry got up almost immediately
after the count and demanded to continue. He cursed the referee,
shoved him aside, ran over to Dempsey's corner and smacked the
boxer on the back, challenging him to keep fighting. The two men
traded shoves and punches until Dempsey's handlers and the local
police hustled the boxer out of the ring. Curry shouted insults
at Dempsey as he left. The meager crowd--only 4,509 paid--jeered
at the shabby burlesque.
``I won his respect, I'll tell you that,'' Curry claimed years
later. ``That's all I wanted to prove.'' Still, Curry always
thought he had been given a raw deal. ``I was on my feet when
they all jumped into the ring,'' he said. ``I wasn't knocked
out.'' Asked why the fight was stopped, Curry said, ``They knew
Dempsey would get hurt, let's put it that way. I'm the guy who
ended his career.''
Curry may not have ended Dempsey's comeback--there would be one
more fight--but he certainly hastened its conclusion. There was
no more talk of meeting Joe Louis, and if Waxman still floated
trial balloons, including a possible bout with the Chilean
contender Arturo Godoy, they were immediately deflated.
Meanwhile, 62-year-old Jack Johnson, who had been heavyweight
champion from 1908 to 1915 issued a challenge to Dempsey, and a
Los Angeles promoter offered Dempsey a match with the former
wrestler Ed (Strangler) Lewis, who was 50 and weighed 290. Bob
Dumby, a New York sportswriter and a Dempsey admirer, spoke for
many others: ``Already he has sold a magnificent fistic
birthright for a cheap mess of small-time pottage.''
The last serving of pottage was offered on July 29 in Charlotte.
Dempsey's opponent was another wrestler, who had been known as
the Purple Flash until someone pulled his mask off in the ring.
Now he was merely Ellis Bashara, who had been a star lineman for
the Oklahoma Sooners from 1927 to '31. Bashara registered a
flabby 209 pounds at the weigh-in and promised that he would
behave himself in the ring.
Among the 6,500 or so at Charlotte's Memorial Stadium was Grady
Cole, then a popular local radio personality who was also the
chairman of North Carolina's boxing commission. Cole remembered
the night well. ``There was a real threat of rain,'' he said in
an interview in 1979. ``The promoter, Jim Crockett, stopped one
of the preliminary bouts after two rounds, even though it was
supposed to go six. Nobody complained, though. Hell, we were all
there to see Dempsey.''
Cole, who had boxed a little himself, remembers the fight as an
easy one for Dempsey. Former lightweight champion Benny Leonard
had been hired to referee, but he had little to do that night.
Bashara was bloodied early and went down three times in the
first round. At the start of the second round, Dempsey flattened
his opponent for good.
``Jack could still hit a ton,'' Cole said, ``but his legs were
As for Bashara, he had no alibis. ``That Dempsey has a lulu of a
right,'' he said after the fight. ``You don't see it coming, but
you sure know when it arrives.''
Four days later Dempsey quietly announced that his comeback was
over. Surely he and Waxman realized that to continue would
permanently tarnish Dempsey's still-brilliant name.
Happily, the grotesque image of a wheezing middle-aged man
clubbing wrestlers has faded. What remain vivid are pictures of
the young tiger of the Western minefields using his flashing
fists to destroy Jess Willard, Georges Carpentier and Luis
Firpo--images of the Manassa Mauler, the greatest fighter of
sport's Golden Age.
Mort Kamins is a freelance writer who lives in Studio City, Calif.