- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The nation’s most renowned sports writers were tapping typewriters or dictating to Western Union operators at ringside when a surprise package weighing 192 pounds landed in their midst with about 45 seconds left in the first round.

It was Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion of the world.

The date was Sept. 14, 1923, and challenger Luis Angel Firpo, a menacing Argentine known as the “Wild Bull of the Pampas,” had knocked Dempsey clear out of the ring in the first round of their title fight at New York’s Polo Grounds.

In his 1954 autobiography, “The Tumult and the Shouting,” famed sports writer Grantland Rice related how promoter Tex Rickard had asked Dempsey to “carry” Firpo for four or five rounds to give the crowd of 125,000 its money’s worth.

“I told Tex to go to hell, that Firpo was too strong and hit too hard to play with,” Rice quoted Dempsey as saying. “I told him I’d put Firpo away in the first round if I could.”

He couldn’t, not quite, and the reverse almost came to pass.

Today Firpo would never have been around long enough to throw the overhand right that sent Dempsey sprawling between the ropes onto press row. Jack already had knocked him down seven times - hovering over his opponent and battering him anew as soon as his knee left the canvas - but somehow the 206-pound South American champion retained enough strength - or instinct - to fight back.

As it turned out, that was Firpo’s only moment of blood-spattered glory. Dempsey, fighting for his life as well as his title, finished him off 57 seconds into the second round. Yet Jack never forgot his closest call before master boxer Gene Tunney did lift his crown three years later.

“I had no memory then, none at all, of the most spectacular moment of my career,” Dempsey admitted years later. “To find out about it, I had to look at [movies].”

Dempsey landed on the wooden board where reporters had their typewriters and growled to the assorted newsmen, “Push me back - I gotta get back.”

Several writers and spectators helped him, probably in the interest of self-preservation, although the rules stated that a fighter who was knocked out of the ring must return unassisted. Referee Jack Gallagher never explained why he did not stop the bout and declare Firpo “the winnah and new champeen.”

Heywood Broun of the New York World described the electrifying scene thusly: “Dempsey lay as helpless as he did on the day he received his first spanking. … He did not know where he was or what was happening. … His head lolled and his mouth was open. We saw his eyes wandering about hopelessly in search of something to remind him of what this fearful thing was all about.”

After getting back on his feet and into the squared circle, Dempsey’s mind remained in a fog. At the bell, he kept on punching until the referee tugged at his arm and the crowd started to boo.

Mercifully seated on his stool, he asked trainer Doc Kearns, “What round was I knocked out in?”

Replied Kearns: “You slipped. You’re coming out for the second. Now!”

So Dempsey did. After wrestling briefly with Firpo, he shoved his huge opponent across the ring, administered a left hook and followed with two right crosses as the Wild Bull went down and finally out. Following the count, Dempsey tenderly picked up his fallen foe and helped him to his corner. An incredibly brutal 3 minutes and 57 seconds of boxing was over - but hardly forgotten. (The film can be seen on YouTube.)

A short time later, Firpo astonishingly was digging into a huge spaghetti dinner at a Manhattan restaurant. Pocketing a check for $156,250, his share of the purse compared with Dempsey’s $500,000, he spent the next day buying a flashy red sportscar.

Always smart and careful with money, Firpo ended his boxing career in 1926 with a record of 32-6 with 26 knockouts and returned home to become a multimillionaire businessman and national hero in Argentina. And he never lamented the fact that he had come so close to the heavyweight championship without winning it. After all, nobody else ever slugged Dempsey, aka the Manassa Mauler, out of the ring.

As fierce boxing rivals sometimes do, the two men later became friends. In 1957, three years before his death, Firpo threw a huge party for Dempsey in Argentina and handed him an envelope. When Jack returned to New York and opened it, he found $20,000 in cash and this note: “Just a small token of friendship and appreciation from one old friend to another.”

That might have been the second time Luis Angel Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey for a loop.

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