One hundred years ago yesterday—July 4, 1919—Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight championship from Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio, in the most savage beating in the history of the title. Dempsey’s destruction of Willard—which has to be seen to be believed—almost single-handedly made him into a legend of the ring. He was a ferocious performer whose appeal at the box office would set a new standard for boxing and also launch what became known as the Golden Age of Sports in the 1920s. The Golden Age, in turn, is what made modern sports as we now know it, a hugely lucrative commercial enterprise with a pervasive cultural presence. Most Americans associate this development with Babe Ruth, but as I argue in “When Jack Slew the Giant,” my commemorative essay for Hannibal Boxing, Dempsey is overlooked in this story. In my view, he deserves equal or even greater credit as Ruth for shaping American sports.
His performance in Toledo has never been equaled, both in terms of its physical realities and in the impact it would have on the future. Reading about this fight as a youngster hooked me on boxing history and set me off on the path toward The Boxing Kings, so many years later. So happy birthday, America, and happy anniversary, Jack Dempsey—the one and only.
Image credit: Public Domain/Brian L. Bossier Collection