This is what boxing's first true mega-crowd looked like, on July 2, 1921, in Jersey City, New Jersey, at a site known as Boyle's Thirty Acres, where officially 80,000 but more likely 90,000 people came out to watch heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey defend his title against light heavyweight champion and French war hero Georges Carpentier. At the time, it was the largest crowd to witness a sporting event in the United States, and for boxing, the event represented a crossing of a rubicon: it was the first fight for which gate receipts surpassed $1 million, the long-cherished Million Dollar Gate. With Dempsey as the heavyweight king, there would be many more of these in the 1920s.
The promotion caught fire in the aftermath of World War I, pitting the noble Carpentier, winner of France's Croix de Guerre, against the non-serving Dempsey, who pleaded family support as an excuse for avoiding service. In 1920, Dempsey had been put on trial for draft evasion, and though he was acquitted, many still considered him a "slacker." Thus, the unlikely phenomenon of a largely American crowd predominantly cheering for a French fighter against their own countryman. The French were pretty excited, too: the government in Paris ordered that news about the fight’s result take precedent over all other messages, even diplomatic communications, and it arranged for military planes to fly over Paris to flash news of the winner—red lights for Carpentier, white lights for Dempsey.
Dempsey-Carpentier was not memorable as a fight. Carpentier, the smaller man, hurt Dempsey in the second round, bringing fans in the massive, custom-built wooden bowl to their feet (the bowl itself was shaking violently; it had been built with ingenuity and speed, not care). But the Frenchman had hurt himself worse than Dempsey, breaking his thumb. Dempsey gave him a pounding over the next few rounds and knocked him out in the fourth.
The real significance of the bout was the way it marked boxing's arrival not just as a dollar-printing commercial enterprise but also as a cultural force. The next day, July 3, 1921, the New York Times devoted almost all its first 13 pages to the fight. This is simply inconceivable today, and it reminds us not only of the astounding drawing power that Dempsey possessed--you could make a good argument that no one has truly surpassed it--but also the way that boxing made itself impossible to ignore, even in "respectable" quarters.
And it's not as if nothing else was going on: one of the few non-Dempsey-Carpentier items in those first 13 pages of the Times was this ho-hum headline: "Harding Ends War." In Raritan,
New Jersey—barely 50 miles away from Jersey City, and about an hour after Carpentier
took the ten-count, President Warren G. Harding signed the Knox-Porter resolution, formalizing the peace terms ending World War I. About 30 people attended the no-frills ceremony. While the war had shaped the promotion of the Dempsey–Carpentier fight and accounted for much of
its public appeal, the war itself, at least in America, was no longer a story.
Boyle's Thirty Acres is an interesting subplot in the Dempsey-Carpentier saga, a relic of an age in which great boxing promotions would necessitate the construction of arenas specifically to host the big fight. Two years later, Boyle's would play host to an even bigger crowd--more than 100,000, a new record--as former champion Jess Willard battled Luis Firpo. (It also drew 60,000 in 1922 for Benny Leonard's lightweight championship battle against Lew Tendler, a remarkable crowd for a non-heavyweight fight.) But by June 1927--a few months before Dempsey's last fight, in Chicago, against Gene Tunney--Boyle's Thirty Acres was facing the wrecking ball. In the early 1950s, the Montgomery Gardens Housing Project was erected on the land, but the project, after 62 years in existence, faced its own wrecking ball in 2015.
And that brings us up to the present day. I don't know what's planned next for this plot of ground, but the land once known as Boyle's Thirty Acres, on which an event took place that captivated the world, makes me think of Luc Sante's musings about how we're usually "barely conscious of the much deeper past" that lies all around us. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but some sparks flicker longer than others.