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Jack Dempsey—known as the "Manassa Mauler"—was the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1919-26.
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One day in 1914, Bernie fell ill, and his younger brother offered to fill in for him. Assuming the name Jack Dempsey for the first time that night, he won his brother's fight decisively and never relinquished the name. By 1917, Dempsey had earned enough of a reputation to book more prominent and better-paying fights in San Francisco and on the East Coast.
On Independence Day in 1919, Dempsey got his first big opportunity: A fight against world heavyweight champion Jess Willard. Nicknamed "The Great White Hope," Willard stood a menacing 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighed in at 245 pounds. No one in the boxing world thought the 6'1", 187-pound Dempsey stood a chance. Despite his enormous disadvantage in size, Dempsey dominated Willard with his superior quickness and ruthless tactics, knocking the bigger man out in the third round to earn the title of world heavyweight champion.
The Willard-Dempsey fight became the subject of controversy in 1964, when Dempsey's former manager, Jack Kearns—who, by this time, had fallen out with Dempsey—claimed that he had "loaded" the boxer's gloves with Plaster of Paris. The "loaded glove" theory held some credence because of the seemingly extraordinary amount of damage Dempsey did to Willard's face. However, film evidence revealed Willard inspecting Dempsey's gloves before the fight, making it highly improbable that the fighter could have cheated.
Dempsey successfully defended his heavyweight title five times over the next six years, in what is considered one of the greatest runs in boxing history. Despite his successes in the ring during this period, however, Dempsey was not particularly popular with the public. He had not served in the military when the United States entered World War I in 1917, leading some to view him as a slacker and draft dodger. Furthermore, an infamous and widely ridiculed photograph showed Dempsey at a Philadelphia shipyard, supposedly hard at work, but wearing shiny patent-leather shoes.
Strangely, Dempsey finally achieved widespread popularity when he lost his championship title. On September 23, 1926, he was defeated by challenger Gene Tunney before a record crowd of 120,000 fans in Philadelphia. When the bruised and battered Dempsey returned to his hotel that night, his wife, shocked at his gruesome appearance, asked him what happened. "Honey," Dempsey famously answered. "I forgot to duck." The hilarious and self-effacing anecdote made Dempsey something of a folk legend for the rest of his life.
A year later, in 1927, Dempsey challenged Tunney to a rematch in a fight that would become one of the most controversial in boxing history. Dempsey knocked Tunney down in the seventh round, but forgot a new rule requiring him to return to a neutral corner while the referee counted, extending the pause in the fight. Dempsey's slipup afforded Tunney at least five precious extra seconds to recover and return to his feet, and Tunney eventually won the fight. Although Dempsey fans argue that he would have won if not for the "long count," Tunney maintained that he was in control throughout the fight.
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