- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

Sports and sports broadcasting became big-business partners 85 years ago this week at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, a hastily if flimsily constructed wooden arena in Jersey City.

The result didn’t matter much: As expected, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey knocked out French challenger Georges Carpentier in the fourth round in one of his easier title bouts that defined boxing during the Roaring Twenties.

Nonetheless, their fight on July 2, 1921, was a big deal for two reasons. It produced boxing’s first million-dollar gate. Then, too, it was the first widely broadcast sports event and, as such, a harbinger of the late 20th and early 21st century, when television revenues often seemed to control sports rather than vice versa.

At the time, radios were bulky, expensive things owned mostly by affluent citizens and saloons. The Dempsey-Carpentier fight was carried by WJY in Hoboken, N.J., with a broadcasting executive named J. Andrew White describing the action at ringside. On hand was the largest crowd in U.S. sports history: 80,183 eyewitnesses who paid about $1.6 million for the privilege. According to estimates at the time, the broadcast was heard by an estimated 300,000 earwitnesses spread over 125,000 square miles.

These numbers cannot be proved, but one fact is indisputable: The fight was instrumental in broadcasting’s stunning growth spurt. In the early 1920s, an estimated 2 million radios were in use. By 1930, 60 percent of American homes had at least one. The same scenario would ensue when television appeared a quarter-century later.

Fortunately for neophyte sportscaster White, Dempsey did not require much time to dispatch the smallish Carpentier — and the so-called Manassa Mauler could have done so even sooner. But promoter Tex Rickard, who had sold the newsreel rights, prevailed upon Dempsey to “carry” the Frenchman long enough to produce a film of respectable length.

In a magazine article written soon after, White called the fight “the toughest reporting job I ever tackled.” When Carpentier began to topple in the fourth round, White recalled, “[he] was within eight inches of my unprotected head. … Fortunately, he dropped forward when he crashed.”

Another working reporter was Elmer Davis of the New York Times, later a renowned radio news commentator. In his story the next morning, Davis described the vanquished Carpentier as “in many respects the most serious opponent Dempsey has faced.” Still ahead, of course, were Jack’s more notable title fights against Luis Firpo and Gene Tunney.

It is startling to learn, in retrospect, that Dempsey successfully defended his championship only five times between winning it from Jess Willard in 1919 and losing it to Tunney in 1926. By contrast, Joe Louis defended 25 times, Rocky Marciano six times in two years and Muhammad Ali nine times in three years before his 2-year banishment from the ring.

But in the 1920s, as now, legitimate contenders were hard to come by — especially since Dempsey would not fight black men because the flamboyant behavior of Jack Johnson, the champion before Willard, had angered America’s white establishment. The biggest victims of this prejudice were Harry Wills and Sam Langford, tremendous fighters whom some thought could beat Dempsey. It remained for Louis to KO such prejudice in the late 1930s.

Yet Dempsey’s meeting with Carpentier aroused great interest, principally through some adroit PR by Rickard and Jack Kearns, the champion’s manager and alto ego. Together the two portrayed Carpentier as a true French hero in what was then known as the Great War. Dempsey, meanwhile, had merely spent time in a war plant and was widely portrayed as a “slacker” after a widely circulated publicity photo showed him ostensibly “working” while wearing shiny patent-leather shoes.

In addition, Dempsey was a stubbled, glaring brawler in the ring in sharp contrast to the clean-cut, graceful Carpentier. So Rickard and Kearns, no dummy, sold the fight as good and evil and settled back to rake in the profits.

Strangely perhaps, Dempsey was not embraced by the public until his losses to Tunney in 1926 and 1927. After the second, his wife, the actress Estelle Taylor, is supposed to have inquired, using her pet name for the ex-champion, “What happened, Ginsberg?” And Dempsey is supposed to have replied ruefully, “I forgot to duck.”

Nothing touches the hearts of Americans more than a brave loser. So it was that Dempsey became part of American and boxing folklore. But against Carpentier, he was strictly a bad guy in the eyes of many — and a fearsome one.

Before the fight, Rickard paid a call to the champion’s dressing room. “Don’t kill him, Jack,” the promoter begged. “If you kill him, you kill boxing.”

Telling the story 40 years later to writer Roger Kahn, Dempsey shook his head. “You know,” he said. “It wasn’t as if I had a gun.”

Nonetheless, Dempsey was 16 pounds heavier at 188 pounds, and his murderous jabs, hooks and uppercuts left the challenger staggering. Carpentier was further handicapped by a broken thumb sustained in the second round. The end came about 1 minutes into the fourth after the champion knocked him down with a left to the face and a hard right to the ear. Carpentier arose at the count of nine, but Dempsey landed a right to the ribs and right smash to the jaw that sent Carpentier to what legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called “the poppy field of unconsciousness.”

For all his viciousness in the ring, Dempsey was a kind, thoughtful man who later ran a Broadway restaurant for decades. The first thing he did after leaving the ring was to grab a pencil and scratch out a telegram to his mom, Celia, in Salt Lake City: “Dear Mother: Won in the fourth round. Will be home as soon as possible. Love and kisses. Jack.”

Carpentier would have had trouble with the image of his conqueror as a gentle soul. The next time he saw Dempsey, he told him, “When I looked at you in your corner, Jack, you resembled a lion, and I had no intention of getting killed by a ferocious beast.”

We may assume Dempsey smiled.

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