Dempsey-Wills Fight Looks To Be Certain Inside of This Year

Damon Runyon

Washington Times/February 4, 1922

Paste this in your hat:

The surest thing on the pugilistic calendar is a fight between Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion, and Harry Wills, “the brown panther of New Orleans.”

It will probably take place before the trees begin shedding their foliage of 1922.

The preliminary fires of the “smoke-up” have been flickering faintly along the fistic horizon for some weeks, gradually growing stronger as the boys keep piling on the fuel of publicity.

In a couple of months the blaze will be a heavy glare, reddening the entire pugilistic sky. You cannot mistake the early signs, familiar to the followers of Fistiana. You can find them along every old match-making trail back to the days of the black Molineaux and Tom Cribb.

The attitude of both the Dempsey and the Wills camps at this time is passive. They are, in a manner of speaking, permitting fistic nature to take its course.

And fistic nature, operating by way of the newspapers, and by back room and street corner argument, is doing very nicely. The match is steaming.

Jack Kearns, the slim, suave manager of the champion, and probably the cagiest handler of a fighter the game has ever known, is in New York.

He tacitly admits that he is willing to make the match “if there is a public demand” for it. Kearns knows better than anyone else that “public demand” for a pugilistic bout is not born, but made, and made only by the exercise of much persistence and patience.

His adroit answers to questions about the match are as so many bricks in the building up of the Dempsey-Wills structure. They are construed by some as meaning that the champion is trying to evade Wills, whereas they lead the more directly to a meeting.

Kearns is the business manager of a man that he firmly believes is the greatest fighter in the world. As business manager it is Kearns’ duty to produce business for his fighter. And although there is money to be made in vaudeville tours, motion pictures, and other side lines, Kearns knows that the real money is in a fight.

Wills seems to be the most formidable opponent that Dempsey’s championship era has produced. Kearns knows that a match with Wills will probably give Dempsey the biggest purse in the history of the boxing game.

Kearns would be a fool to overlook such an opportunity, and Kearns is no fool.

It was Kearns who first saw the possibilities of the match with Georges Carpentier. It was, in fact, Kearns who dug up Carpentier as an opponent for Dempsey, sending Dan McKetrick to Descamps, the Frenchman’s manager, to make the match at a time when it looked as if it had dropped through.

When Kearns asked for $500,000 for the fighters’ end, speaking for himself and for Descamps, who was dazed at the very idea of asking so much money, many said Kearns was foolish.

Yet the gate receipts of $1,600,000 proved that Kearns had not exaggerated the value of the fighters, but had indeed undervalued them.

As manager of the champion, Kearns’ present attitude must necessarily be more passive than that of Wills, the challenger. The champion is not supposed to go around hunting up opponents.

Wills’ manager is Paddy Mullins, an old-time New York East Sider. Mullins is not the aggressive type of manager when it comes to seeking matches for his man. He has been content to let the prospect of a shot at the championship simmer along quietly.

Wills, unlike Jack Johnson, who would have been booming all over the country, is also unaggressive in the matter of seeking publicity, and oddly enough this bashfulness is adding something to the “smoke-up.”

With conditions reversed, and the brisk Kearns handling Wills, the match would probably have been signed, sealed and delivered long ago, although Mullins’ attitude will probably attain the same end. It might be added that Kearns and Mullins are old friends in the fistic game, which both have followed for years.

The chief obstacle in the way of the match is supposed to be Wills’ color. The promoters may have some difficulty in locating a site for the bout, but in the end they will find one. They always do. In view of the fact that the state athletic commission has taken it upon itself to edit Dempsey’s opponents, it might consider Wills worthy enough to permit the bout here.

Objectors to the match will point out that great prejudice was developed by the Johnson-Jeffries affair. Most of the prejudice was due, of course, to the fact that the colored man won. Part of the present “smoke-up” is demonstrating that Wills is quite a different character from Johnson.

The so-called “color line” is a racial prejudice that we have always contended should have no place in sport. Indeed, it exists only in pugilism, a sport which has less to commend it than any other. You may be sure that however gingerly Jack Kearns and his fighter, Dempsey, speak of Willis’ color, they have no real feeling on the subject.

Kearns has managed colored fighters. Dempsey has fought a number of them, John Lester Johnson, George Christian, and others. He once acted as sparring partner to a black boxer. He always has colored men working with him in training. Kearns offered Wills $5,000 to work with Dempsey at Atlantic City and Wills refused.

Kearns and Dempsey are fully informed as to Wills’ ability. Kearns has seen Harry fight time and again. And it is the opinion of the writer that their opinion of his ability is reflected by the fact that they are letting events move on to a match with Wills.

Dempsey is now in Los Angeles completing the details of a deal for a home for his mother. He recently closed a vaudeville tour, and will probably reopen in vaudeville again shortly to work his way Eastward.

Then it is believed that Kearns and Dempsey will hop over to Europe, either for another meeting with Georges Carpentier or for a theatrical tour. It is quite likely that Dempsey will put a fight under his belt before he meets Wills.

One offer has been made for the Dempsey-Wills bout. This was the $200,000 tender from William A. Brady. It is not regarded seriously, but it is a stick in the fire that is starting the pot to boiling.

If a match with Carpentier, who was not conceded a chance against Dempsey, could draw $1,600,000, what would a fight with Wills, a man that many seem to think has a great chance, bring?

One little dark cloud hangs over the Dempsey-Wills matter at this time, in the form of Kid Norfolk, the Baltimore black. Norfolk is matched to meet Wills at Madison Square Garden for the colored heavyweight championship, and if Norfolk should outfight the “brown panther” it would be a sad blow to a Harry’s prospects.

Norfolk scrambled all over the angular Bill Tate one night at the Garden when Jack Kearns was behind Bill, mopping William’s steaming brow and urging him to fight. Norfolk is a bounding ball of India rubber, and down in his heart Kearns probably views the coming Wills-Norfolk thing with apprehension.

With a referee who will not permit Wills to clamp little Norfolk under the shoulder with his left hand, while slugging with his right, Harry may have plenty of trouble with the Kid.

Tate has made a couple of good fights with Wills since Norfolk beat him. Kearns and Dempsey were recently in Portland and got a line on Wills’ work there. Tate, who thinks Dempsey is the greatest fighter that ever lived, was around to see the champion. Bill claims he is the colored heavyweight boss, but that he will never challenge Jack.

(Source: Chronicling America,

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