Monday, May 25, 2020

When a Legend is not a Legend

While diving into the Jack Dempsey rabbit hole last week, the Kingfish came across a boxing legend that bore investigation.  It has been rumored and reported for quite some time that boxing greats Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey once squared off in a secret prize fight in 1921.  The fight supposedly took place in Saskatchewan.   Some experts, including Muhammad Ali, consider Johnson to be the best heavyweight boxer of all time while Dempsey's name needs no introduction even today. Such a bout would have been one of the ages but did it actually happen?

The legend began in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Yes, it actually existed.).   Boxing artist David Putland relates the storied match on Boxingscene.com:

David Putland explores the history of what may have been one of the biggest heavyweight fights in history

Some years ago someone in America placed on eBay a newspaper called The Brooklyn “Daily Eagle” dated December 11 1921. What was remarkable about this newspaper was that it purported to have an account of a secret fight between Jack Johnson the fabled “Galveston Giant” and Jack Dempsey, the menacing “Manassa Mauler”, who was the Heavyweight Champion at the time. This article apparently was sold on eBay and disappeared from the minds of interested observers alongside the thousands of other items sold on a daily basis. Yet for a student of boxing history this newspaper may have reported the most stupendous undiscovered event in the history of the sport.

For over nine decades there have been occasional rumours about a secret match between Johnson and Dempsey. Rumours? Chinese whispers? A hoax story to amuse and entertain created in the fun-loving crazy 20’s? Maybe – but maybe not.

Twenty five years ago a great American boxing friend of mine called John Peterson sent me a whole pile of boxing material including newspapers and magazines, some of which had been scanned. There was so much that I placed it to one side and only occasionally dipped into it. John knew his boxing and had met nearly all the great champions going back to the forties. I came across a scanned article from the long departed and short-lived American boxing magazine “Fight Beat” from 1985. It contains an article by the late Lew Eskin, a renowned boxing historian in the 70’s and 80’s. Eskin was a former editor of the fight magazine “Boxing Illustrated”. He provides strong evidence that Johnson and Dempsey may have fought in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada reported in a Brooklyn newspaper (The Daily Eagle) dated December 11 1921.

Eskin had purchased a newspaper (possibly in the late 70’s or early 80’s) and within its contents had discovered this startling account of the fight in the aforementioned Brooklyn newspaper. The fight was only for a private audience. It tells of a hard fight between the 43-year-old Johnson and the 27-year-old Dempsey, who was in his prime. Dempsey wins by a KO in round seven after recovering from a fifth round knockdown. The report of the fight for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was written by one Ray Pearson. In brief it tells of a hard contest with Johnson getting the upper hand in the early rounds and then failing to stop a Dempsey rush in round seven.

Pearson writes, “As early as the second Dempsey’s adherents were standing on their toes, white faced and fearful, as they saw Johnson snapping left jabs to Dempsey’s nose and mouth, blows which straightened Dempsey out of his crouch, then with the speed of machine–gun fire ripping over right crosses which landed squarely on the jaw of the Utah mauler. They saw something happened to Dempsey that never had happened before, a punch-intoxicated Dempsey reeling and staggering and trying to protect himself from the punishing blows.

“Johnson’s right crosses befuddled Dempsey and he couldn’t fight in his usual style. He took more punishment in the third round and more in the fourth and was still on the receiving end of punches in the fifth session.

“One of Johnson’s rights cracked Dempsey in the fifth round and the Utah mauler dropped to the canvas. He staggered to his feet at ‘five’ and was still ‘taking it’ when the gong ended that tough session for him.

“Dempsey seemed a rejuvenated man when the going started them into action in the sixth, no longer did Dempsey permit the Johnson to take the lead. When he [Johnson] missed his unerring left jab, the Dempsey got ‘inside’ left, right, left went the Dempsey’s fists to Johnson’s midsection. Those crushing blows by Dempsey who now could not be denied, almost doubled up Johnson.

“The tide had turned and the Dempsey followers scented victory for their man. Then came the seventh round and the finish. Once more the swaying, dashing Dempsey came catapulting out of his corner. He clashed with Johnson in the centre of the ring.

“When he landed the deadly wallops to the body Johnson was forced to clinch. The round was about two and a half minutes old when Dempsey shot a right which landed over Johnson's heart. That blow sickened Johnson and he tried to protect himself. He dropped his guard and over went the knockout punch (a terrific right hook) on Johnson’s jaw.”

Strangely this fight has a sort of mirror image to the future Dempsey v Sharkey fight of 1927 when Dempsey was staggered by Sharkey and took a battering, then in round seven a series of punishing body punches caused Sharkey to drop his guard before a thunderous left hook put the ‘Boston Gob’ out for the count.

But what are we to make of this newspaper account of the fight? Did it really happen?

Let us first consider Jack Johnson’s situation at this time in 1921. By then Johnson was 43 years old and not only was he an ex-champ but had been inactive for over two and a half years. He had also just served a year in prison at Leavenworth federal penitentiary for violating the Mann Act; a dubious charge against Johnson concerning the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. This was brought about by the American government at the time which reflected deeply ingrained racism prevalent in white society. They hated Johnson’s refusal to do as they dictated, especially concerning his going with white women. Johnson did though box exhibitions in prison. When released he was out of condition and in desperate need of money. He challenged Dempsey publicly and other leading contenders. A fight with Dempsey would solve his problems.

Jack Dempsey at this time was in his prime at 27 years of age and Heavyweight Champion. On July 2 1921 Dempsey knocked out George Carpentier. This fight was boxing’s first million dollar gate. He did not box again until March 9 1922 against Packey O’Gatty in New York in a three round exhibition. He continued with a series of uneventful exhibitions in America and then on July 18 1922 he fought Elzear Rioux in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in an exhibition. There were at least four more exhibitions in Canada in that year.

Johnson also fought in Montreal in 1923 beginning with an exhibition with Battling Siki in September of that year and a further there more exhibitions there. He also fought a Homer Smith in a 10 round match in Montreal on February 22 1924.

There is no apparent record of either fighter being engaged in any other boxing match at that time, or that they were anywhere else on December 11 1921. They both could have met and both had links with fighting in Canada. In Dempsey’s early autobiography “Massacre in the Sun” he says after the Carpentier fight (and a trip to Paris): “[Dempsey’s manager, Jack] Kearns put me to work right after we got back to pay for the trip. He found tame ones for me in Canada, Boston and Michigan City. I knocked out three of them in one round in one night in Montreal.”

No mention of the Johnson fight admittedly, but there may be very good reasons why not. He was in the right place at right time though. Dempsey appears to be reluctant to say much concerning this period of time. We must remember that Dempsey’s manager Jack ‘Doc’ Kearns was a con-man of the first order and an inveterate gambler. For a long time what Kearns said Dempsey did. If a secret fight for gamblers only between Johnson and Dempsey did take place then Kearns was the man to swing it. Such a fight could generate huge revenue for all concerned.

But why should it be secret at all? There is a very good reason for this due to the aftermath of the Jeffries-Johnson match in 1910 which resulted in race riots throughout America resulting in hundreds of deaths and serious injury.

The American government would not countenance a fight for the heavyweight title between a black fighter and a white one for the heavyweight championship which could result in widespread violence, (the last inter-racial heavyweight title fight on American soil, between Johnson and Jim Flynn in 1912, was stopped by the police after a farcical performance of head butting by Flynn).

The great promoter of Dempsey, Tex Rickard, realized this and would never promote a mixed race fight for the heavyweight title. A few months after the supposed Dempsey-Johnson fight a fine Black American heavyweight contender called Harry Wills deservedly wanted to fight Dempsey for the title.

Rickard killed the fight in the making. It was far too risky. Had Rickard been involved in the Johnson vs Dempsey match then he could not have argued against Wills fighting Dempsey. Therefore if it happened, Kearns would have been a key organizer, not Rickard. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada would have been ideal and a long way from the threat of racial tension. Saskatoon was a booming frontier mining town and a gambler's paradise. A private gambler's fight without the knowledge of Rickard or the American authorities or even American society which otherwise could have triggered violence, would have made sense.

We must remember in the 1920's the world was very different. Sport was not regulated as it is today. Communication often took days. Secrecy was essential for such a match to take place successfully. Possibly Dempsey did not want to speak of it in his various autobiographies due partly for tax purposes. Secret money avoids tax. Private fights for gamblers were allegedly common in the 1920's and 1930's. Charles Bronson played a fighter who fought for gamblers in the film Hard Times. The fine American artist George Bellows who immortalized Dempsey in oil being put through the ropes by Firpo, also painted the seedy world of private fights in the twenties especially in his excellent 'Stag at Sharkey's'

There may be other evidence to give credence for this fight. The son of Jack Kearns apparently said the fight likely happened. Jack Hay, the alleged illegitimate son of Jack Dempsey, thought the fight could have happened and even wrote a play about it called 'Hoopla'. The play was never published. Hay, who died in 2008, always argued he was Dempsey***8217;s son and devoted his life to becoming accepted by his alleged father, but was sadly unsuccessful.

Hay contacted me many years ago concerning his book 'A pair of Jacks' and asking to invest in a Hollywood film about his life. Apparently the project later collapsed.

Above all Lew Eskin himself wrote in the aforementioned long departed 'Fight Beat' magazine that he showed the clippings to Dempsey at one of the New York Boxing Writer's dinners a few years prior to 1985. He asked, 'Did the fight really take place, or was it just a hoax?', Dempsey laughed and replied 'I always said I could beat Johnson.'

Eskin pressed further and Jack refused to comment. When he asked Dempsey if he could run the story in 'Boxing Illustrated'. (Eskin was then its editor) Dempsey smiled and said; 'Not now'. Eskin understood this to mean that Dempsey didn't want it printed while he was alive. Eskin honoured his wishes and the story was put on hold. Dempsey did not deny it which he could have done, but why the silence and continued secrecy? This remains unclear, but maybe it could be explained in the following way.

Dempsey in later life re-invented himself leaving behind him the brutal fighting in mining towns, of riding the rods, of dodging accusations of draft-dodging and especially the possible seedy connections with the world of prostitution and gambling. It was a life he wanted to move away from and become the successful businessman and sporting icon. Such a story of such a fight would not have been part of his agenda.

A postscript to this story concerns the fact that, despite efforts to keep the alleged fight secretive, it did leak out. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed to have heard the story and wanted to print it and made efforts to verify it. A copy of a telegram was apparently sent to the sporting editor of the Saskatoon Star. This is apparently printed in the Brooklyn Eagle fight account together with the said sporting editor's reply, which said that as far as they knew Johnson was not in town. Of course secretive fights are illegal fights and the local press would not be told. If the Brooklyn Eagle had made the story up, it would be a very strange thing to try and verify it through another newspaper.

A 40-something boxer giving the champ a rough go of it is not exactly unheard of as Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer can attest.  Archie Moore won the belt in his 40's.  Johnson is considered to be one of the best boxers who ever lived and was a defensive master so a match between a prime Dempsey and a past champ who was actively seeking bouts at the time is not a far-fetched scenario.  

The Kingfish dug deeper into this rabbit hole to see if the legend was indeed true.  Fortunately, yours truly has a subscription to Newspapers.com.  The website just happens to have the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and sure enough, the story was indeed published although it was on December 7, 1921 instead of December 11, 1921. The author was not Ray Pearson but Louis De Casanova,


This story is the fount from which the legend of the private bout sprung.   Newspapers.com is not exactly a household name as is Amazon so Mr. Putland and others can be forgiven for missing the original article.  Numerous boxing websites and forums refer to the storied match as the legend took a life of its own and even appeared on Youtube. 




Well, the Kingfish continued digging through the website and found something else: old issues of the New York Daily News. The weeds reveal the Brooklyn newspaper literally fell for a piece of fake news.

Debating athletes of different eras is a favorite American pastime.  Ali/Tyson, Brady/Manning, and of course Lebron/MJ are just some of our favorite arguments.    The Daily News took this tradition one step further and turned it into a series of articles that reported mythical fights between various boxing greats. Don't laugh.  Sports Illustrated published similar fiction back in the early 1990's when Washington and Miami split the national championship in college football.

The first reported match was of course, Dempsey-Johnson.  The author of that story (pun intended) was Ray Pearson, a noted sports reporter for the Daily  News.  The newspaper published a different "mythical" match each Sunday.  However, the story has managed to escape the notice of all today.

Posted below is the Daily News "story."   The round-by-round account is what appeared verbatim in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


Don't accuse the Daily News of publishing a hoax. The newspaper published a disclaimer smack-dab at the top of the page:

This is the first of a series of article by Ray Pearson describing mythical battles between present-day champions and those of a decade or more ago.  The object of the articles is to show possible results of battles if each of the principals was in his prime today. 
The story was published four days after the Daily Eagle account but the Daily Eagle account is copied verbatim from the Daily News edition.  Some people apparently skipped right over the disclaimer because the Daily News published this notice a week later:


The newspaper published a different mythical match every Sunday for awhile. Here is another one.


The Daily Eagle must have obtained a leaked copy of the fictionalized account without the disclaimer and ran with it. Thus a legend about a private prize fight between Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey began with a newspaper falling for a fake story appearing in a rival newspaper.  The story gained traction as it was so fantastic that it just had to be true.  The story was just that: a story boxing fans told to each other until it became part of boxing's oral history.   Unfortunately, the story was just as real as the Phantom Punch.


9 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's good to see someone take a serious interest in Jack Johnson and his exploits. However, I trust very little of the contemporary accounts and
"news" articles written about him. Most are outright lies. Most were written to belittle and slant any accomplishment or effort this man or anyone of his race made while challenging white supremacy. The government itself took an active hand in destroying him. Boxing was at best a highly suspect activity, full of shady deals and rank exploitation. The fact that Johnson accomplished what he did at that time was beyond monumental. It was incredible.

Ho Hummm said...

A legend is not a legend when nobody gives a flying fuck, Kingfish. Prizefighting, boxing, wrestling...all pathetic and boring.

Kingfish said...

Johnson also did much to destroy himself. Like many pugilists, he made a ton of money and lost it too. That puts him with Ali, Sullivan, and many others. The few mentions he got in the Clarion-Ledger were brutal. Johnson also ducked the top black heavyweights once he got to the top.

Boxing is still filled with exploitation. Ali took a beating in his fight against Holmes. A real beating, including a killer shot to the liver that made him scream. King stiffed him. Ali sued and settled for all of $50,000. Basis for a scene in the Great White Hype.

Anonymous said...

Yea KF All true. But they wouldn't be boxers if they were smart enough to make money doing something else. For the Black boxer especially in Jack Johnson's time it was the ultimate no-win situation. If you faced a no-win situation as a champion of your profession, how would you live? What a life!

Anonymous said...

A legend is not a legend when nobody gives a flying fuck, Kingfish. Prizefighting, boxing, wrestling...all pathetic and boring.

Another attention seeking comment from JJ's nutless troll.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding post KF!!
I spent over 3 hours last night diving deeper into Johnson and other boxers
back in his time frame. There are some really great Utube videos out there of old fights.
Some fights last 25-35 rounds!! There was no such thing as a “3 knockdown rule”.
Some of the videos showed boxers getting knocked down 6-7 times....per round...but still
kept fighting! Insane-O!

Supposedly, one fight went 72 rounds! WTH??
Really neat stuff to read about.

Kingfish said...

Yeah but I'll be honest, Johnson is very boring to watch thanks to the rules. That's why there were 20 and 30 round matches. Dempsey really changed the game. Notice how many of Johnson's opponents don't even jab. Few combos. Mike Tyson broke down those fights pretty well. Cus made him a real student of the sport. There was much more clinching in those days, clinching that wouldn't be allowed today. Of course, some such as Dempsey and others learned wrestling so they could infight better when clinched.

Some of those knockdowns took place because of the lack of a neutral corner rule. Watch Dempsey Willard. Jack was just standing over him, waiting for him to get him and then wailed into him immediately when he got to his feet.

Burke said...

My favorite Jack Johnson story is told in a song attributed to Leadbelly called "Titanic." Supposedly JJ wanted to board the Titanic for its "maiden voyage," and was turned away because he was black. It's not true, but should be.

Quote from one refrain:

"Jack Johnson tried to get on board,
The Captain said, "We don't haul no coal."
Fare thee Titanic, fare thee well!

Kingfish said...

8:08: I read the newspaper accounts of his prosecution back then.

The woman was a 17 year old girl. He would be in major trouble today for that one. Mother prosecuted, he took her across state lines. I don't think there was a federal kidnapping statute until the Lindberg case but I could be wrong.

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