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 Negro’s 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 black man to take the lead. When he [Johnson] missed his unerring left jab, the white man 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 the Negro 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 the Negro’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, realised 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–Dempsey match then he could not have argued against Wills fighting Dempsey. Therefore if it happened, ‘Doc’ Kearns would have been a key organiser, 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 immortalised 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’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.