MANASSA — William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey was born on June 24, 1895, in Manassa and worked hard to become heavy weight boxing champion of the world, a title he won on July 4, 1919 and which is being celebrated this year at his birthplace.
According to a website devoted to biographies, Dempsey’s parents, Hyrum and Celia Dempsey, were originally from West Virginia, where his father had worked as a schoolteacher.
Then around 1880, a missionary group of Latter-Day Saints visited Dempsey’s parents and converted them to Mormonism. Soon after, they moved west to Manassa, where Dempsey was born.
Although Hyrum Dempsey later abandoned Mormonism, his wife remained faithful and observant throughout her life and Jack Dempsey was raised in the church. The boxer later described his own religious beliefs: “I’m proud to be a Mormon. And ashamed to be the Jack Mormon that I am.”
A Jack Mormon is a person who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but seldom or never practices their religion.
Unlike ex-Mormons or anti-Mormons, Jack Mormons usually support the goals and beliefs of the church and maintain friendships with practicing Mormons, but for reasons of their own choose not to attend church services and activities.
As a boy, he worked as a farm hand, miner and cowboy and was taught to box by his older brother. Dempsey’s early prize fights were in mining towns, then on July 4, 1919, he beat Jess Willard, then referred to as “The Great White Hope,” and became world heavyweight champion. He defended his title five times but lost to Gene Tunney in 1926. Dempsey died in 1983 in New York City.
As an adult, Dempsey often said that he loved three kinds of work—boxing, mining and cowboying—and would have been equally happy doing any of the three.
During these years, Dempsey’s older brother, Bernie, earned extra money as a prizefighter in the saloons. It was Bernie who taught young Jack how to fight, instructing him to chew pine tar gum to strengthen his jaw and soak his face in brine to toughen his skin.
Nicknamed the “Manassa Mauler,” Dempsey ranked second only to Babe Ruth among the great American sports icons of the 1920s.
He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and many commentators still rank him among the 10 greatest boxers of all time. Known for his ruthless, unbridled violence in a prizefight, Dempsey was renowned for his warmth, kindness and generosity outside of the ring.
He displayed a level of sportsmanship perhaps unrivaled in the history of the notoriously violent sport. Half-dazed and heartbroken after his loss to Tunney in the controversial “long count” match, Dempsey offered his opponent nothing but his earnest congratulations. “Lead me out there,” he said to his trainer because he could not walk straight. “I want to shake his hand.”
At the age of 8, Jack Dempsey took his first job picking crops on a farm near Steamboat Springs. Over the next few years, he worked as a farm hand, miner and cowboy to help support his struggling family. When Dempsey was 12 years old, his family settled in Provo, Utah, where he attended Lakeview Elementary School. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade, though, to begin working full time. He shined shoes, picked crops and worked at a sugar refinery, unloading beets for a measly 10 cents per ton. By the age of 17, Dempsey had developed into a skilled young boxer, and decided he could make more money fighting than working.
Bernie Dempsey was still prizefighting at that time, calling himself Jack Dempsey, after the great 19th century boxer Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey. 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 booked 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 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 finally achieved widespread popularity when he lost his championship title. On Sept. 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.
Dempsey retired from boxingand opened Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant in New York City, where he was famous for his hospitality and willingness to chat with any customer who walked through his doors.