Ninety-nine years after he rolled out from the underside of a boxcar in Reno and gave the boxing world an inkling that his was a name to know, Kocosports Hall of Famer Jack Dempsey is about to receive another accolade in Nevada.
The world’s heavyweight boxing champion from 1919 to 1926, an iconic figure in America’s Golden Age of Sports, and a one-time Reno resident, Dempsey is among the Class of 2014 that will be inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Dempsey, who died in 1983 at age 87 in New York, is part of an 18-member class that includes fellow heavyweight champions Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Evander Holyfield, as well as Reno’s Luther Mack, who is being inducted in the “executive” category after his long service on the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Dempsey is being inducted in the two-year-old Hall’s new “Pioneer Class,” which recognizes individuals who were involved in Nevada boxing in the first half of the 20th Century, according to Reno’s Rich Moratta, the Nevada Hall of Fame’s founder.
Dempsey’s place in boxing history has been long established. In 1950, a poll of sportswriters named him the greatest fighter of the first half of the 20th century, and he was a charter inductee of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Nicknamed “The Manassa Mauler” by Damon Runyon after his birthplace in Colorado, Dempsey finished his career with a record of 55 wins, six losses and nine draws. He fought 11 times in Nevada starting in 1915 in Reno.
Dempsey was an unknown, skinny kid with holes in his shoes the first time he arrived in Reno. He had come by train from his family’s home in Utah, traveling by holding onto the brake beams underneath the train because he couldn’t afford the fare to ride in one of the boxcars. It was a practice known as “riding the rods,” and a dangerous way to travel.
His first Nevada fight was April 26, 1915, at an arena built at the corner of Third and Plaza streets in downtown Reno in which he defeated Anamas Campbell via a third-round knockout and caught the attention of an unnamed sportswriter for the Reno Evening Gazette, who described him this way: “Dempsey showed great cleverness and aggressiveness and has a punch with either hand that makes him a dangerous opponent.”
A few weeks later, Dempsey fought the first of three memorable fights with Johnny Sudenberg in Goldfield. Knocked silly near the end of the fight, Dempsey was hauled out of the arena in a wheelbarrow and awoke to find his manager had lost his prize money gambling and skipped town. A month later, Dempsey and Sudenberg fought in Tonopah and each man was paid $100. They went to a Tonopah saloon to celebrate when a gunman entered the bar, held the place up and robbed the two men of their purse.
In 1916, Dempsey fought twice in Ely before returning to Reno in 1918 to fight as the No. 1 contender to the heavyweight championship. His first-round knockout of Jack Moran was part of a string of early knockouts on his way to the world championship bout against champion Jess Willard in Toledo in 1919.
Sports greatest star
It was the first fight in which Dempsey and Tex Rickard, a former Goldfield saloon keeper, teamed as boxer and promoter. They would go on to smash all records for attendance and purses over the next seven years. With Rickard as the promoter, Dempsey fought in the first $1 million gate and first $2 million gate in boxing history. More than 125,000 people saw him lose his title to Gene Tunney in 1926 in Philadelphia and more than 100,000 witnessed the rematch (the famous “long-count” fight) a year later in Chicago.
Dempsey was the one of the great sports stars of the 1920s — called the Golden Era of Sports — along with baseball’s Babe Ruth, golf’s Bobby Jones and football’s Red Grange.
Dempsey earned more than all the others combined. Ruth’s largest salary with the New York Yankees was $85,000. Dempsey earned $717,000 alone for his first fight with Tunney in 1926.
He was a multi-millionaire when the stock market crashed in 1929, leaving him essentially broke.
In 1931, with his career as a fighter essentially over and his second marriage failing, Dempsey still was one of the most famous figures in America. In mid-April that year, a banner headline in the Reno Evening Gazette announced “Dempsey here for six weeks rest.”
Dempsey was getting a divorce from Hollywood actress Estelle Taylor and needed six weeks residency in the state to get it. He rented the Steinmiller/Parsons home on California Avenue for $1,000 a month and settled in.
His stay extended more than two years. He promoted the Max Baer-Paulino Uzcudun bout on July 4, 1931 at the “Jack Dempsey Arena” built in the middle of Reno’s horse racing track (now the Reno Livestock Events Center grounds). A year later promoted a bout between Baer and Kingfish Levinski.
He bought a house on Joaquin Miller Drive in Reno and launched a yearlong comeback before retiring for good. In 1933, he married Hannah Williams in Elko and left Nevada for New York later that year.
Dempsey made many return trips to Nevada over the ensuing years. In 1944, while serving in the Coast Guard, he raised a half million dollars in war bonds in a single morning. He was the honorary mayor of Tonopah in 1950 for the town’s 50th anniversary.
In 1964, he stayed in Reno for six more weeks, waiting for his fourth wife to establish residence for a divorce from her previous husband.
One of his favorite stops was Dick & Ernie’s Eastside Inn on East Fourth Street — a boxing bar owned by Dick and Ernie Evans — which was a hangout and shrine to boxers of the past. Dick Evans was a former fighter from Youngstown, Ohio.
When Dempsey died in 1983, the late Reno Gazette Journal columnist Rollan Melton wrote, “When he died, I joined millions who said, ‘a part of my own living history is gone.'”
President Ronald Reagan said Dempsey “was a champion who never lost his title in the hearts of the American people.”
Dempsey’s granddaughter, Valerie Leighton will be in Las Vegas on Saturday to accept the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame induction in her grandfather’s memory.
For more information on the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame induction ceremony, go to www.nvbhof.org.