JACK DEMPSEY’S fights throughout the 1920s were extravaganzas, occasions. He and Luis Firpo drew 82,000 fans to New York Polo Grounds for their amazing, 11-knockdown war that lasted only two rounds. Dempsey earned more than $500,000, Firpo a little over $150,000. Rickard’s official gross was $1,188,603.
Dempsey and Gene Tunney set a record attendance of 120,757 for their first fight at the Sesqucentennial Stadium in Philadelphia in 1926, and the return at Soldier’s Field, Chicago, the following year drew 104,943 fans who shelled out an incredible $2,658,660, a figure that was unmatched for almost half a century.
The record was finally broken by the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks in the New Orleans Superdome in 1978, which grossed $4,806,675.
That second fight between Dempsey and Tunney drew the largest crowd until August 1941 when middleweight champ Tony Zale attracted an incredible 135,132 to a non-title fight with Billy Pryor in Juneau Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin… however, the crowd was let in free to the public venue on the shores of Lake Michigan. The referee, incidentally, was Jack Dempsey.
Not all of Dempsey’s fights were remembered for the vast amount of money they made.
His heavyweight championship defence against Tommy Gibbons on Independence Day in 1923, ruined the small town of Shelby, Montana.
According to Dempsey’s manager Jack Kearns he was entertaining a lady in a Chicago hotel when he took a call from Loy J Molumby of Shelby, who wanted to talk to him about Jack fighting in their town.
When they met in New York Molumby stupidly asked Kearns to name his price. He did – $300,000. Charitably, he said they could pay in three separate instalments. Molumby gave him $100,000 in cash on the spot, paid up the second $100,000 two months before the fight… and then hit trouble.
The wooden arena holding 40,000 people cost the small fortune of $82,000, tickets at between $20 and $50 were too high for the locals – and Shelby’s remote location near the Canadian border put off the usual fight crowd. With a week to go, no less a dignitary than the Mayor of Shelby visited Kearns in nearby Great Falls, explained that they only had $1,600 of the final payment and tentatively enquired whether he might consider accepting 50,000 sheep instead of hard cash.
In the end Dempsey outpointed the crafty, defensive Gibbons over 15 rounds in searing heat – temperature at ringside was close to 100 degrees – before a crowd of just over 7000, but gatecrashers swelled the crowd to about twice that size.
James F. Dougherty was supposed to get $5,000 to referee the fight, but he only got half that amount.
Kearns got out of town with the gate receipts, leaving Gibbons with nothing – and the banks of Shelby, who had under-written the event, went bust.