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—and for American sports—the event represented a crossing of a rubicon: it was the first event for which gate receipts surpassed $1 million, the long-cherished Million Dollar Gate. By the time the decade was out, boxing had seen five million-dollar gate fights, all involving Dempsey. (In his day, the Manassa Mauler was as celebrated and prominent as Babe Ruth; nearly a century later, Dempsey's role in shaping modern American sports is largely overshadowed by Ruth, in similar fashion to how Joe Louis's contribution to integrating American sports is largely overshadowed by Jackie Robinson. In both cases, the heavyweight champion crashed the gates before the baseball player did. But baseball has survived as a mainstream taste and boxing has not, and therein hangs a tale.)
The Dempsey-Carpentier promotion caught fire in the aftermath of World War I, guided by the masterful promotional hand of Tex Rickard, whose genius was at its sharpest when he had strong contrasts to work with. The bout pitted the noble and dashing 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." The Frenchman’s debonair style and good looks made him a sex symbol for women on both sides of the Atlantic. He was elegant, almost delicate, and in the best French fashion, a dandy: he owned hundreds of suits and changed clothes six to eight times a day. Many in the intelligentsia preferred him for other reasons: he represented refinement and culture against the crude American. Thus, the unlikely phenomenon of a largely American crowd predominantly cheering for a French fighter against their own countryman. It’s unlikely that Americans have ever rooted in such numbers for a foreigner to beat a native son. 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, stunned 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 two rounds and knocked him out in the fourth.
The real significance of the bout was the way that it marked the arrival of boxing (and, by extension, of American sports) as a dollar-printing commercial juggernaut and cultural force. The roots of our modern sports obsession can be seen in the New York Times of the next day, July 3, 1921, when the paper of record devoted almost all its first 13 pages to the fight. That even the Times felt compelled to provide wraparound coverage of the spectacle in Jersey City reminds us not only of the astounding drawing power that Dempsey possessed—in terms of putting physical bodies in seats, no one has surpassed it—but also of the way that boxing made itself impossible to ignore, even in "respectable" quarters.
And it's not as if nothing else was going on that day: 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.