Dempsey vs. Firpo: They Don't Get Any Better Than This!

25.11.06 - By John Howard: I just love a good barnburner fight. I'll take it over a boxing match any day. Give me George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle, Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns or Bert Cooper vs. Michael Moorer and I feel that I've gotten my money’s worth of action.

Even though the name of the game is boxing, I'll admit to having fallen asleep during one of Pernell Whitaker's fights. I forget which one it was, they seem to all run together. I know he's Max Kellerman's favorite fighter, with all due respect to Max, Whitaker's style bored me. I need a KO percentage of above 37% (Whitaker's) to keep my attention.

I was prompted to write this clip after watching Sergei Liakhovich being knocked out of the ring by Shannon Briggs a few weeks ago. The final minute of the twelfth round reminded me of the September 14, 1923 fight, or I should say war, between Jack Dempsey and Argentinean giant Luis "The Wild Bull of the Pampas" Firpo. In that fight, Dempsey, like Liakhovich, was knocked completely out of the ring.

By today's standards, Firpo wasn't much of a giant. Standing about 6'3" and weighing in at 216 lbs doesn't constitute a giant. But standing next to Dempsey at 6' and 192 lbs (Dempsey's highest weight ever for a fight), Firpo outweighed the champion by 24 pounds and by all accounts appeared to stand a half head taller.

For those of you who haven't seen the fight, there's not a lot of technique but plenty of raw action. You'll see wild haymakers and wide amateurish punches thrown by both men. This wouldn't be a fight you would show to a beginning boxing class, unless of course, you were attempting to teach "heart and guts." In that case, this fight would be perfect.

I love reading about the early 1900's in America. Dempsey's life was nothing short of a fairy tale from the time he left home after graduating from the eighth grade, until the time he reached the pinnacle of his sport. Let me quote from the late Jim Murray, former Los Angeles Times sport's columnist, what I feel captured Dempsey and that extraordinary period of time:

Whenever I hear the name, Jack Dempsey, I think of an America that was one big roaring camp of miners, drifters, bunkhouse hands, con men, hard cases, men who lived by their fists and their shooting irons and by the cards they drew. America at High Noon.

The Dempsey / Firpo fight lasted a total of three minutes, fifty-seven seconds. Firpo kept charging, pawing, and getting up when it appeared he was finished. What a show of courage. If you watch the fight you can see how Firpo got the nickname “The Wild Bull of the Pampas.”

Even though Dempsey floored the challenger seven times in the first round (Dempsey was down three times), Firpo wouldn't stay down. The universal boxing rule of going to a neutral corner in the event of a knockdown was not in effect this night. So, as a fighter went down, the other fighter would stand over his fallen foe and punch him again while he tried to get to his feet. Shortly after this fight the neutral corner rule became a common practice. This rule would come back to haunt Dempsey in "The Long Count" fight with Gene Tunney several years later.

Toward the end of round one, Firpo connected with a thunderous left and then a wild barrage of punches that sent Dempsey flying through the ropes and onto the first row table occupied by sportswriters. Unlike Liakhovich, who was offered no help when knocked out of the ring, Dempsey had plenty of help. In later years two dozen people, including the late actor Milton Berle, claimed to have helped shove Dempsey back into the ring. The newsreel cameras of the time don't show what happened in the area outside of the ring during the time Dempsey left it. It looks strange. The camera shows Firpo and referee Johnny Gallagher, but no Dempsey. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, in the corner of the screen here comes Dempsey just before the count reaches ten. Several seconds later the round ends.

Dempsey, in his 1977 autobiography, claimed to not remember climbing back into the ring but was quoted as saying "I remember seeing about twenty Firpos standing in front of me." During the minute rest between rounds, trainer "Doc" Kearns shouted to Jack "Get in there fast and box this guy. Finish it!"

At the bell for the second round, Dempsey charged forward and finished off Firpo with two more knockdowns. Then Dempsey, as Mike Tyson mimicked in later fights, rushed across the ring and gently, but with enormous strength, lifted Firpo to his feet. Damn! What a fight.

"I won as I thought I would, but I can truthfully say that I never had such a fight in all my life. When he socked me on the chin in the first round, knocking me through the ropes after I had knocked him down, I thought my finish had come. ~ Jack Dempsey “Los Angeles Times,” September 15, 1923.

Dempsey vs. Firpo, in my opinion, was the most exciting 3 minutes 57 seconds of fight action ever. If I could climb into a time machine and travel through space back in time, this would be the fight I would choose to see.

Article posted on 25.11.2006

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