rope from Dempsey-Firpo fight

While Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig may be best remembered today, there was no more popular athlete in the 1920s than boxer Jack Dempsey. Known as a “Flame of Pure Fire,” Dempsey’s reputation soared when he pummeled the huge heavyweight champion, Jess Willard, knocking him down seven times in the first round. Willard never came out for the fourth round – he had had enough and threw in the towel.

Dempsey’s draw was enormous. In 1921, he fought Frenchman Georges Carpentier in Chicago. A record attendance of 80,000, representing the first million dollar gate in history, saw Dempsey dispatch the challenger in the fourth round. Rumor had it that promoters wanted Dempsey to go easy on his opponent to make the fight last longer. In 1923, Dempsey’s fight with Luis Firpo looked more like a street brawl with Firpo going down seven times in the first round, then knocking Dempsey through the ropes in the second before Dempsey knocked Firpo out for good.

In 1926 the first of the legendary Dempsey-Tunney fights was held. Gene Tunney was a good defensive boxer, while Dempsey hadn’t fought in three years. Before 135,000 Dempsey lost in ten rounds in Philadelphia. A year later, the two squared off again, this time at Chicago’s Soldier Field. In the seventh round, Dempsey knocked Tunney down but Jack refused to go to a neutral corner. It gave Tunney an extra five seconds to clear his head (the referee did not start the count until Dempsey moved to a neutral corner). Those precious seconds allowed Tunney to continue the fight and retain his heavyweight title. Over 100,000 witnessed “the long count” in Chicago while 40 million more listened on the radio.

Section of rope from the Dempsey vs. Firpo fight, 1923.
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center.