Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn-based historian and author
Brooklyn’s Forgotten Middleweight World Champion Jack “ The Non-Pareil” Dempsey. Friday marks the birthday of one of the greatest boxer’s Brooklyn ever produced, Jack Dempsey who is now overshadowed by the heavyweight champ who later took his name, but the original Jack Dempsey was so great that he earned the nickname, the non-pareil, meaning the incomparable. Dempsey was born as John Kelly in the Curragh, Coounty Kildare, Ireland in 1862, but emigrated to the United States as a boy. At age fourteen he became an apprentice barrel maker and as luck would have it, the other Irish boy who shared a bench with him in the cooperage would also go on to become a world champion boxer: Jack McAuliffe. The two became fast friends who studied the science of boxing. They jerry rigged a ring and created a punching bag. They spent hours honing their boxing skills. They would both become not sluggers, but scientific fighters and their arrival in the ring would mark a change in the nature of the sport. I described McAuliffe in my new book, “ The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King.” McAuliffe was one of seven boxers who was never defeated in the ring. His corner man was always Dempsey and Dempsey also used McAuliffe as his second. Dempsey turned pro at age twenty-one in 1883 when boxing was still illegal. A brilliant tactician, Dempsey was cool under fire and never got rattled. He changed his tactics in almost every battle, and his adversary never quite knew just how to size him up. If a man made a rushing fight, Jack would give him a whirlwind scrap. If, on the other hand, his adversary made a defensive fight, Jack would take more time and whip him at leisure.” Dempsey became lightweight champion of the world within a year of his turning pro, but he wanted to fight in the newly created middleweight division, so he left fighting as a lightweight. He was unbeaten in 14 fights when he won the world middleweight title in 1884 by knocking out George Fuljames at Great Kills, New York. Dempsey was the world middleweight champion from 1884 to 1891. The middleweight division was new (in Dempsey’s time, the middleweight limit was 152 pounds instead of today’s 160), and Dempsey is recognized today as the division’s first true champion of the modern era. To a generation of American boxing followers, he was a fighter who first demonstrated that boxing could be performed as art, with style, grace and athleticism. Dempsey’s earnings seem puny by today’s standards, but in the 1880s, few athletes made more. For his early major fights, his purses ranged from $500 to $3,500. In August 1899, Dempsey was knocked out in the 32nd round by George Lablanche, but retained his status as the World middleweight champion as Lablanche had weighed in for the fights at 161 pounds, over the middleweight limit. He lost the fight because his opponent threw a punch called a pivot punch that subsequently became illegal. Dempsey reigned supreme at middleweight until January 14th, 1891, when Bob Fitzsimmons shockingly beat him in 13 rounds. In what was a sensational result at the time, the gangling and freckled Fitzsimmons handed Dempsey a terrible beating, and the Nonpareil gave a great exhibition of courage to last as long as he did, before he was finally pulled out by his corner-men in the 13th round. Fitzsimmons pleaded with Dempsey to quit, but he would not and he suffered injuries in the fight he would carry for the rest of his life. Dempsey developed tuberculosis. His last fight was on January 18 1895, against the Welterweight world champion, Tommy Ryan. Dempsey’s condition and display in the ring was so poor that he was cruelly jeered and booed from the ring after the fight had been mercifully stopped in the 3rd round. Nine months later, on November 2 (some sources say Nov 1st) 1895, the Nonpareil died of tuberculosis, at just 32. Nonpareil Jack Dempsey’s final record was 54(23koes)-4-11.