Brief Battle Was Hopeless for Carpentier From the First

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/July 2, 1921

New York, July 2.—In the great combat, staged there in that colossal sterilizer beneath the harsh Jersey sun, there was little to entertain the connoisseur of gladiatorial delicacies. It was simply a brief and hopeless struggle between a man full of romantic courage and one overwhelmingly superior in every way.

This superiority was certainly not only in weight nor even in weight and reach. As a matter of fact, the difference in weight was a good deal less than many another championship battle had witnessed and Carpentier’s blows seldom failed by falling short. What ailed them was that they were not hard enough to knock out Dempsey, or even to do him any serious damage. Whenever they landed, Dempsey simply shook them off. And, in the intervals between them, he landed dozens and scores of harder ones. It was a clean fight, if not a beautiful one. It was swift, clear-cut, brilliant and honest.

Before half of the first round was over it must have been plain to even the policemen and Follies girls at the ringside that poor Carpentier was done for. Dempsey heaved him into the ropes at the end of the first minute, and thereafter gave him such a beating that he was plainly gone by the time he got to his corner. Blow after blow landed upon his face, neck, ribs, stomach and arms. Two-thirds of them were uppercuts at very short range, blows which shook him, winded him, confused him, hurt him, staggered him. A gigantic impact was behind them. His face began to look blobby, red marks appearing all over his front.

Where was his celebrated right? Obviously he was working hard for a chance to unlimber it. He walked in boldly, taking terrific punishment with great gallantry. Suddenly the opportunity came and he let it fly.

It caught Dempsey somewhere along the frontiers of his singularly impassive face. The effect upon him was apparently no greater than that of a somewhat angry slap with an ordinary ax. His great bulk hardly trembled. He blinked, snuffled amiably and went on. Five seconds later Carpentier was seeking cover behind the barricade of his own gloves and Dempsey was delivering colossal wallops under it, over it and headlong through it. He fought with both hands and he fought all the time. Carpentier, after that, was in the fight only intermittently. His right swings reached Dempsey often enough, but as one followed another they hurt him less and less. Toward the end he scarcely dodged him. More and more they clearly missed him, shooting under the arms or sliding behind his ears.

In the second round, of course, there was a moment when Carpentier appeared to be returning to the fight. The crowd, eager to reward his heroic struggle, got to its legs and gave him a cheer. He waded into Jack, pushed him about a bit, and now and then gave him a taste of that graceful right. But there was no left to keep it company and behind it there was not enough amperage to make it burn. Dempsey took it, shook it off and went on. Clout, clout, clout. In the space of half a minute Carpentier stopped 25 sickening blows, most of them short and all of them cruelly hard. His nose began to melt, his jaw sagged. He heaved pathetically. Because he stood up to it gamely and even forced the fighting, the crowd was for him and called it his round, but this view was largely that of amateurs familiar only with rough fights between actors at the Lambs Club. Observed more scientifically, the round was Jack’s. When it closed he was as good as new and Carpentier was beginning to go pale.

It was not in the second but in the third round that Carpentier did his actual best. Soon after the gong he reached Jack with a couple of uppers that seemed to have genuine steam in them, and Jack began to show a new wariness. But it was only for a moment. Presently Carpentier was punching holes through the air with wild rights that missed the champion by a foot, and the champion was battering him to pieces with shots that covered almost every square inch of his upper works. They came in pairs, right and left and then in quartet and then in octets, and then almost continuously. Carpentier decayed beneath them like an autumn leaf in Vallombrosa. Gently and pathetically he fluttered down. His celebrated rights by this time gave Jack no more concern. It would have taken 10 of them to have knocked out even Fatty Arbuckle. They had the effect upon the iron champion of petting with a hot­water bag. Carpentier went to his corner bloody and bowed. It was all over with the high hopes of that gallant Frenchman. He had fought a brave fight and kept the faith, but the stars were set for Ireland and the Mormon.

The last round was simply mopping up. Carpentier was on the floor in half a minute. I doubt that Dempsey hit him hard in this round. A few jabs and all the starch was out of his neck. He got up at nine and tried a rush. Jack shoved him over and gave him two or three light ones for good measure as he went down again. He managed to move one of his legs, but above the waist he was dead. When the referee counted 10, Dempsey lifted him to his feet and helped him to his stool. With his arms outstretched along the ropes he managed to sit up, but all the same he was a very badly beaten pug. His whole face was puffy and blood ran out of his nose and mouth. His facade was one great mass of hoof prints. Between them his skin had the whiteness of a mackerel’s belly. Gone were all his hopes. And with them the hard francs and centimes, at ruinous rates of exchange, of all the beauty and chivalry of France.

Many Frenchmen were in the stand. They took it as Carpentier fought, bravely and stoically. It was a hard and square battle and there was no dishonor in it for the loser.

But as a spectacle, of course, it suffered by its shortness and its one-sidedness. There was never the slightest doubt in any cultured heart from the moment that the boys put up their dukes that Dempsey would have a walkover. As I say, it was not only or even mainly a matter of weight, for between the two of them as they shook hands there was no very noticeable disparity in size and bulk. Dempsey was the larger, but he certainly did not tower over Carpentier. He also was a bit the thicker and more solid, but Carpentier was thick and solid, too.

Carpentier’s Battle Was Hopeless

What separated them so widely was simply a difference in fighting technique. Carpentier was the lyrical fighter, prodigal with agile footwork and blows describing graceful curves. He fought nervously, eagerly and beautifully. I have seen far better boxers, but I have never seen a more brilliant fighter—that is, with one hand. Dempsey showed none of that style and passion. He seldom moved his feet and never hopped, skipped or jumped. His strategy consisted in the bare business (a) of standing up to it as quietly and solidly as possible and (b) of jolting, bumping, thumping, bouncing and shocking his antagonist to death with the utmost convenient dispatch.

This method is obviously not one for gladiators born subject to ordinary human weaknesses and feelings. It presents advantages to an antagonist who is both quick and strong. It grounds itself, when all is said, rather more on mere toughness than on actual skill at fighting. But the toughness is certainly a handy thing to have when one hoofs the fatal rosin. It gets one around bad situations. It saves the day when vultures begin to circle overhead. To reinforce it Dempsey has a wallop in his right hand like the collision of a meteorite with the Alps and a wallop on his left hand like the bump of a ferryboat into its slip.

The two work constantly and with lovely synchronization. The fighter who hopes to stand up to them must be even tougher than Jack is, which is like aspiring to be even taller than the late Cy Sulloway. Carpentier simply fell short. He could not hurt Dempsey and he could not live through the Dempsey bombardment. So he perished there in that Homeric stewpan, a brave man but an unwise one.

The show was managed with great deftness, and all the usual rumors of a frame up were laid in a manner that will bring in much kudos and mazuma for Mons. Rickard hereafter. I have never been in a great crowd that was more orderly, or that had less to complain of in the way of avoidable discomforts. Getting out of the arena, true enough, involved some hot work with the elbows; the management, in fact, put on some small fry after the main battle in order to hold some of the crowd back and so diminish the shoving in the exits, which were too few and too narrow. If there had been a panic in the house thousands would have been heeled to death. But getting in was easy enough; the seats, though narrow, were fairly comfortable, and there was a clear view of the ring from every place in the monster bowl. Those who bought bleacher tickets, in fact, saw just as clearly as those who paid $50 apiece for seats at the ringside.

The crowd, in the more expensive sections, was well dressed, good humored and almost distinguished. The common allegation of professional moralists that prizefights are attended by thugs was given a colossal and devastating answer. No such cleanly and decent looking gang was ever gathered at a Billy Sunday meeting, or at any other great moral outpouring that I have ever attended. All the leaders of fashionable, theatrical and sexual society were on hand, most of them in checkerboard suits and smoking excellent cigars, or, if female, in new hats and pretty frocks. Within the ring of my private vision, long trained to aesthetic alertness, there was not a single homely gal. Four rows ahead of them there were no less than half a dozen who would have adorned the Follies. Behind me, clad in pink, was a creature so lovely that she caused me to miss most of the preliminaries. She rooted for Carpentier in the French language and took the count with heroic fortitude.

I saw nothing rough, nothing vulgar, nothing disgusting. The mayor of Jersey City and the governor of New Jersey climbed into the ring before the great battle to be presented to the crowd. If they ever faced more decorous and well-washed multitudes in the course of their political tours of Jersey, then no news of such miracles has ever reached me. The spectators took it all calmly. There was no yelling beyond the seemly; the sight of blood reduced no one to the frenzies of a camp meeting; even the wheezes of the volunteer comedians, in so far as I heard them, were always of a polite and amiable character. I sweated there from 10 o’clock in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon and heard only one man loose a damn. And that single damn was addressed, not to any human enemy, not in anger or in blasphemy, but simply in courteous remonstrance to high heaven against the heat that poured down through the thin clouds.

In but one particular did the show fall short. The preliminaries were second-rate, and bored almost everybody. Who wants to see a mob of third-raters clouting one another when the big boys are being greased and powdered down under the stage? It is an anti­climax turned upside down, and hence made doubly obnoxious. What such a day’s sport needs is a touch of refined humor. My suggestion is that Dr. Rickard, when he gives his next show, reject the services of all the Soldier Joneses and Battling McGinnisses and that in place of their banal struggles he put on six eight-round bouts between gentlemen chosen by lot from the audience. This would be a show indeed.

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