Dempsey’s Early Career Mostly as Punching Bag

Damon Runyon

Washington Times/June 15, 1921

Jack Dempsey cut away from the softening influences of home life early, and did not get back to them until he had rubbed against the roughest edges of existence.

His associates for several years up to the time he left New York after his first visit, and journeyed westward again, had been the gentry of the road, and the “jungle,” the wayside camps of the hoboes, and the “guns.”

What experience he had had in the rung had been chiefly in the fistic scullery, so to speak, as a sparring partner for third raters, as a preliminary fighter to second-raters, figuring in cheap main events.

He had been punched and knocked about until he was almost sick of the whole business. He was morose and suspicious. He had been cheated, and robbed, and dubbed around until he trusted few persons.

The next time I saw him was after he had come on from a four-round sensation on the West Coast to a recognized heavyweight contender. He had gone down a long line of opponents, clipping them over with a few punches until the fistic world watched him with new interest.

He Slammed Fulton

Then he hit long Fred Fulton on the chin in the first round, ending the “fight” before half the spectators were settled in their seats, and Jess Willard, the heavyweight title holder, was forced to recognize his claims to a battle.

I came in contact with Dempsey more or less intimately from the fact that I was writing the story of his career, and the first thing that struck me was the change in his demeanor

He no longer impressed me as sulky. He was bright, and cheerful, and so far from being sparing of speech as on the occasion of our first meeting, he was almost as chatty as his old friend, “John, the Barber,” who was now claiming contracts, and the other binding agreements with the new fistic sensation, and bringing legal actions against Dempsey.

The reason for the change in Dempsey was quite obvious He had struck sunshine. He was no longer a punching bag for brother boxers, but a fighter in his own right. The old hand-to-mouth days were behind him. He was making money. His future was before him.

Now He Laughs

He talked now of the days in which he was still living when I first met him, in a reminiscent mood. He laughed about his old adventures, sure that he wouldn’t have to go through them again. I saw him again sometime after he became heavyweight champion of the world, and it was difficult to believe that he was the same chap I had met that night in Brooklyn when Gunboat Smith and blonde Frank Moran were swinging ponderously at each other.

It was out in Los Angeles. Dempsey had now been champion long enough to enjoy that good living, and eat that best food that Dapper Dan McKetrick cites as one reason for a man’s mental and physical improvement.

Dempsey has been in moving pictures. He had come in contact with educated polished persons. He had lived in good hotels. A chap as young as Dempsey reflects his environment. The champion had acquired polish, and ease of manner, especially in conversation.

Wears Good Clothes

He wore clothes made by the best tailors he could find. I did not recall that suit he had on the night “John, the Barber,” towed him around. At one stage of his prosperity, Dempsey affected a diamond ring and pin. Now no jewelry appeared on his person save a watch chain.

I saw him the first time the very day I am writing this chapter. It was at his training quarters out at Airport, where he is making ready for his battle with Carpentier.

A gathering of rather distinguished persons was on hand, including a state official and several theatrical celebrities, male and female Among the Dempsey was perfectly at east, laughing and joking with them, modest when they spoke of his own ability and deprecating what they said he would do to the Frenchman, which seems to be the average camp visitor’s idea of saying something nice.

But he was not for a moment embarrassed.

He was not the Dempsey of our first meeting by all of five years, and then some.

(To Be Continued)