By Bobby Franklin
On September 14, 1923 Jack Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo stepped into the ring at the Polos Grounds in New York. What happened in the first round turned a one sided fight into the stuff of legend.
The previous July, Jack Dempsey had defended his title against Tommy Gibbons via a 15 round unanimous decision. The fight, held in Shelby, Montana became better known for bankrupting the town than it did for being an exciting fight.
Since winning the title from Jess Willard in 1919, Dempsey had defended the title four times. He was fighting once or twice a year, which was fairly active for a heavyweight champion in that era. After Willard won the title from Jack Johnson in 1915, he only fought one time before facing Dempsey.
In addition to beating Gibbons, Dempsey also defeated Billy Miske (KO in 3 rounds), Bill Brennan (KO in 12 rounds), and Georges Carpentier (KO in 4 rounds). The Miske and Brennan fights were financial flops, while the Carpentier fight drew the first million dollar gate. The fact was, Dempsey was not a big draw as champion. The fight against Carpentier drew a large crowd because the French Champion was promoted for his heroism during the Great War. This was contrasted with all of the negative publicity Dempsey had received when it was reported he avoided being drafted. The majority of people came to see Jack get beaten.
During this time, Jess Willard was on the comeback trail. He was itching for a rematch with Dempsey. He believed there had been some monkey business with Jack’s gloves in their fight in Toledo, and he wanted to prove he was the better man. Jess was also still a huge draw,
In May of 1923, Willard took on Floyd Johnson in Yankee Stadium. The fight drew 65,000 spectators. Contrast this with the 13,000 who showed up for the Dempsey/Brennan fight or the approximately 11,000 who attended the Dempsey/Miske bout. It was clear Jack needed am opponent who could draw if he wanted to make big money.
On July 12, 1923, Jess Willard took on Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina at Boyles Thirty Acres, the same site where Dempsey fought Carpentier. Billed as the Battle of the Giants, this fight actually drew a larger crowd than the Dempsey fight. The winner was to get a shot at the Heavyweight Championship. In front of 100,000 fans, Firpo stopped Willard in the 8th round.
While a Willard vs Dempsey rematch certainly would have been a huge attraction, Firpo now became quite an attraction himself with his display of raw punching power against Willard. Thus, promoter Tex Rickard had a drawing card to match against Dempsey.
Going into the fight with Dempsey, Firpo had fought 28 times losing just twice. He hadn’t lost a match in four years and had scored 22 knockouts. He was crude yet powerful with a devastating right hand. His free swinging style earned him the name Wild Bull Of The Pampas which was also a reference to his home of Argentina.
1923 was a busy year for Firpo. He fought eight times leading up to the Dempsey fight in September. Among his victims were Bill Brennan and Charley Weinert, both of whom he kayoed.
The Dempsey matchup against Firpo proved to be a fight the public wanted to see. 80,000 fans jammed the Polo Grounds on the night of September 14 to see the two fierce punchers go at it. They were not disappointed, though the match might not have become legend if something unusual hadn’t happened in the first round.
The champion weighed 192 pounds while Firpo tipped the scales at 216 pounds. Luis was also taller at 6′ 2½″ to Jack at 6’ 1”, and the size difference showed when the two men met mid ring for the preflight instructions.
At the bell, Dempsey came out with fire in his eyes. It was clear he was looking to make an early night of it. In the first few seconds of the fight, In his haste to get to the challenger, Jack actually slipped to the canvas briefly. With under a minute gone Dempsey had decked Firpo four times. With the fourth knockdown it looked like the fight was over as the Argentinian was slow to arise, just beating the count. He was dropped again almost immediately. This was turning into a one sided match.
Firpo was throwing haymaker rights hoping to connect. Dempsey was staying low and focusing on the body where he was doing serious damage to the challenger. After being down for the fifth time, Firpo went for broke throwing punch after punch while hurling himself forward. One of these punches grazed Jack and caused him to drop to a knee for less than a one count. Could Firpo get lucky?
Dempsey kept pounding the body and dropped Firpo again with a right hand and then a seventh time. The end appeared near. By now Firpo was throwing right hands almost exclusively. Big, strong and powerful, he remained dangerous.
It was at this point the fight turned from Pier Six Brawl to something else. Firpo was lunging at Dempsey throwing those rights. He backed Jack against the ropes where he caught the champion with a good right hand to the jaw. He followed this up with another right to the side of the face that was more of a push. This was enough to cause Dempsey to fall through the ropes and out of the ring.
The crowd, which had been on its feet since the first knock down was going wild. Dempsey was back in the ring by the count of five and the fight resumed. Firpo was going wild now and was all over the champion, but could not hurt Jack again.
At the bell for the second round Dempsey was not wasting any time. He dropped Firpo for the eighth time, and then finished him off with a left and a right to the chin. The fight was over at 57 seconds of the round.
There was and still is controversy over the fight. When Jack was knocked out of the ring, the rules state he had to return under his own power. It has long been argued whether or not the sportswriters at ringside assisted him with getting back through the ropes. The referee, Johnny Gallagher was criticized by some for not disqualifying the champion. He was also called to task for not keeping Dempsey away from Firpo when the challenger was on the canvas. While there was no neutral corner rule at the time, the referee was supposed to prevent the fighter from scoring the knockdown from standing directly over his floored opponent. Gallagher was suspended from the sport after an investigation and never refereed again. In 1930 he was found dead in a New York City hotel room. The official cause of death was liver failure due to alcoholism. Many believed he committed suicide.
As for the fight. If you take out the moment Dempsey was knocked out of the ring and the controversy surrounding his getting back in, the fight would be looked back on as an exciting but one sided affair. It’s doubtful it would have become the thing of legend. For a century now the fight has stirred excitement in the hearts of boxing enthusiasts. It has been mentioned in movies and was the subject of a famous 1924 painting by George Bellows titled “Dempsey and Firpo”, but popularly known as “Dempsey Through The Ropes”.
Jack Dempsey would not fight again for three years, losing the title to Gene Tunney in 1926. Luis Firpo retired in 1926 but made a comeback ten years later. His last fight was a loss by stoppage to Arturo Godoy in 1936.
In his fight with Dempsey, Firpo was dropped nine times in less than four minutes. The fight was almost as one sided as the Dempsey/Willard fight, and in fact, Jess was still standing at the end of that fight while Luis was counted out against Jack. However, The Wild Bull did something Willard never came close to; he not only decked Jack, he knock him clear out of the ring. This eclipsed what was otherwise a very one sided fight. Firpo was always dangerous in there, but he did not have the skill to defeat Dempsey.
While the fight can be broken down and analyzed, it is better remembered for the emotional thrill it has given fight fans. The line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” seems appropriate here:”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I can go along with that!