THE death of Jack Dempsey at the grand old age of 87 on May 31, 1983 ended that great era of boxing. Old Jack was the last link with the days of huge crowds at open-air fights and the first million dollars gates made only possible by the magic name of Dempsey, who will be always included in the list of all-time greats.
For me, personally, I’m grateful to Dempsey for some of my earliest childhood memories and for his charm and kindness to me as a boxing writer throughout the Forties and Fifties.
I was privileged to shake the hand of the great Dempsey in 1926 a few months before he lost the title he had held since 1919 to Gene Tunney.
He made a tour of Europe with his first wife, the film actress Estelle Taylor, his manager ‘Doc’ Kearns and a famous New York boxing writer named Damon Runyon.
Dempsey had graciously agreed to box an exhibition against Phil Scott, the then British heavyweight champion, for a charity tournament run by Sir Harry Preston at the Dome in Brighton.
My father, then a leading boxing writer, had joined the Dempsey party and had also agreed to drive Tommy Milligan, the new British middleweight champion, by car to Brighton as Tommy was also boxing an exhibition.
I was a small boy but recall the drive from London to Brighton in an old Austin car. We stopped for lunch at the George Inn at Crawley, almost opposite the restaurant now run by Alan Minter, who succeeded Milligan as 11st 6lb champion fifty years later.
Milligan had brought his Lonsdale Belt with him and there was a scare during lunch when my father realised the car containing the belt was not locked and in a panic he and Tommy rushed from the dining room to check that the belt was safe. They brought it back into the restaurant.
Dempsey, of course, was given a tremendous reception in Brighton but his rugged two fisted style was not suitable for exhibitions and Scott with the orthodox straight left was made to look very impressive against the world champion whose fists were clearly wrapped in cotton wool.
But it was obvious to even me that had it been a contest, Scott would not have been allowed to stay around for very long.
Having shaken the great fist and received his autograph, Dempsey was clearly now my hero and though I never saw him in a contest, I was thrilled at seeing the films of some of his fights in the Twenties.
At school we didn’t have the entertainment that television provides for the children of today… The Oxford v Cambridge boat race or England v Scotland football games provided us with fun months before the events took place.
The two Dempsey-Tunney fights of 1926 and ’27 were perfect for schoolboys. Just as you were either ‘Oxford’ or ‘Cambridge’ so you were either ‘Dempsey’ or ‘Tunney’. Fights went on in the playground every day, long before the fights took place.
I was, of course, ‘Dempsey’ though I still don’t believe the other boys accepted my proud boast that I had shaken the hand of the champion.
My next meeting with the great man was in London during the blitz. I was stationed in Devon for the Daily Express when I was called to London for the day to interview the former champion who was due in London with the US coastguards. He held the rank of Commander.
I met him and found him as charming as ever. He remembered my father, who had kept in touch with him. We drove to the US Army headquarters at Kingston-on-Thames to watch a Services boxing tournament and I recall that Dempsey’s biggest astonishment was how the British all got about so well in the blackout, driving without street-lights and with heavily masked headlamps.
‘I might just as well be in a fog,’ he said.
I met Dempsey again in New York in the summer of 1946 and once again his generosity and charm were tremendous. He had his famous Restaurant on Broadway but when I phoned on my arrival he insisted I come to his hotel and have breakfast with him on the roof of a skyscraper at eight in the morning.
A perfect host he introduced me to his daughter and gave me a signed copy of his autobiography and photos of him in action. He couldn’t have been kinder or more attentive.
In all my years in boxing I have never met a boxer more unpretentious and helpful. After all, he had not only been one of the greatest heavyweight champions but was still a very successful and important man in the Forties and Fifties.
When he later came to England, the boxing writers entertained him and he was just the same as he came down to Fleet Street and sipped beer with us at Mickey Barnett’s Albion. As always, he signed autographs and posed for photos with all the writers.
Alas, in my last meeting with him in the Seventies, he was far from well and had developed severe arthritis and was using a stick. Worse still, his memory was going and he could no longer recall the happy events we had so often discussed. He lived on but never enjoyed good health again.
Yet what a marvellous example he is for boxing. Not only did he outlive millions, who say boxing is harmful to the health, but he loved the fight game and boxing writers and never cut dead even those who criticised him.
Was he the greatest heavyweight? This can never be proved but he was one of the finest ambassadors and was the last of the great champions who went out of his way to help without asking: ‘How much?’