The Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey, a figure who eclipsed even Babe Ruth as the most famous sporting star of the 1920's, fought in all three of these venues. One of his biggest fights, however, was fought just across the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey. When in 1921 Dempsey, the reigning heavyweight champion, signed a contract to fight the European champ, Frenchman Georges Carpentier, it was originally planned to be held in New York, but temperance and anti-gambling activists drove the fight from the state. Few stadiums of the day could hold the throngs that clamored to see the heavyweight legend, so when promoter Tex Rickard settled on Jersey City, he decided to build his own stadium. Built on a plot of land known as Boyle's Thirty Acres, the arena took two months to construct and cost more than $250,000. The mammoth complex spread over 300,000 square feet and was meant to accommodate 91,000 spectators.
“A Chicago paper, anxious to beat all its contemporaries in getting pictures of the happenings inside or near the ring, has made a big offer to an aviator to rush plates westward as soon as possible.”
The citizens of Benton Harbor, Michigan probably had the best access to news about the fight, with the exception of those actually in attendance, of course. Spectators gathered in a local arena to watch lightweight title holder Benny Leonard and his brother Charley re-enact the bout punch by punch just moments after each blow was delivered in Jersey City. A special telegraph line was set up to deliver every detail of the fight directly to Benton Harbor, and the fighters were told which punches to deliver.
“You may ask what all this has to do with prizefighting, but there is a distinct connection. These Frenchy dances, sex movies and joy rides are a form of animalism that is akin to the animal instincts brought forth by pugilism. What we want is a return to American moral normalcy. Back from Spanish bullfights to American clean boxing. Back from German beer to – er – er – American habits of sobriety.”
The fight itself was a mismatch. Dempsey battered Carpentier throughout, finally knocking him out in the fourth round. But the gate receipts totaled $1.6 million, the first time a boxing match had ever passed the million-dollar mark, and the victory cemented Dempsey's position as the biggest box office draw of the day. You can watch video footage of the fight below:
Two years after the Carpentier fight, Dempsey was lured to Shelby, Montana, a small town in the state's remote Hi-Line region. In an attempt to attract investment, the town offered to pay Dempsey a $300,000 purse and to erect a 42,000-seat stadium at their own expense. Unfortunately, when the town was late with part of the payment, Dempsey's manager leaked to the press that the fight was off; by the time word got out that the fight was back on, there was no time to get enough people out to the remote town. Around 4,000 people, most of whom crashed the gate without paying, watched a fantastic fight with Tommy Gibbons, and the town was left broke.
Today, boxing's popularity has waned, and big prizefights are mostly held in Las Vegas and broadcast on Pay-Per-View. But there was a time when New York's sporting temples were thronged with boxing fans, and even the giant stadiums couldn't hold the talents of fighters like Dempsey.
This blog post was written by Andrew Gustafson, a regular contributor to the Urban Oyster blog. You can find out more about him and his work for Urban Oyster here.