When Jack Slew the Giant—and Modern Sports Were Born

Jack Dempsey ducks in front of Jess Willard during their fight in Toledo, Ohio, on July 4, 1919. (Getty Images)

One hundred years on, no one can say for sure what happened to the gloves. In December 1934, a decade and a half after they had done their wicked work, the gloves were buried beneath a restaurant cornerstone in Manhattan, with the man who had once worn them and New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia looking on. Were these the real gloves, though? As late as 1964, Pete Herman, a former bantamweight champion, claimed to own the gloves—yet when he died in 1973, newspaper notices made no mention of this remarkable artifact. Did Herman have the real gloves? If they were ever located—or excavated—the gloves, priceless relics from the most savage boxing match ever held in the United States, would fetch a fortune. And their proud owners would surely look for clues to verify, or refute, claims that the gloves bore traces of Plaster of Paris or other hardening substances, which, the story went, had covered the hands that wore them, making them practically deadly weapons. That the existing evidence made such claims dubious mattered little. A legend grew up and lived on.

And yet, the mythology surrounding the “loaded” gloves obscures their real significance. What we don’t know about them is less important than what we do know: that they were worn on July 4, 1919, when the heavyweight championship of the world changed hands in a sun-blasted wooden arena in Toledo, Ohio—and the modern era of American sports was born.

Sports have long been an enveloping passion, a kind of religion, in the United States, and that’s especially true today, when technologies exist to give fans the proverbial 24-7 coverage of their favorite teams. Major pro sports leagues sell broadcast rights for billions of dollars, while on cable, a measureless universe of channels brings contests of every kind onto home-television screens, laptops, and cell phones. The top-paid athletes make tens of millions of dollars each year. The highest-paid athlete of all time, Floyd Mayweather, twice earned more than $200 million for a single fight. Fans older than, say, fifty can remember a time when sports didn’t occupy our consciousness quite so pervasively—but even in their youth, America was sports mad.

It all started in the 1920s, when sports reached primacy in our national life as part of a burgeoning leisure and entertainment culture. It was in this fabled age of flappers and bootleg gin that Americans started spending significant dollars on sports, and when team owners, promoters, and press agents began to realize just how much money could be made. The 1920s were a festival of modernity: they brought us nightlife, home appliances, sexual liberation, talking movies, gangsters, skyscrapers—and sports. “The Golden Age of Sports,” as it came to be called, had the gift of timing: World War I had just ended, and the United States was eager to forget about it. The economy boomed for much of the decade, giving Americans more disposable income than they had ever had. The population was young—median age twenty-five, compared with thirty-seven in 2008—and increasingly located in cities, where the games were played. Technology was knitting the country together, not only through the development of news syndicates and wire services but also through the advent of radio. When the Golden Age was over at the end of the 1920s, the key components that we associate with modern sports—saturation press coverage, obsessed fans, big crowds, and big money—were all in place.

The Golden Age was also memorable because many of its major sports—baseball, boxing, college football, golf, tennis—produced a superstar who would become a presence in popular culture. Only one of those stars remains generally known to Americans today: Babe Ruth, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, baseball’s first and greatest home run king. Ruth survives in American memory, enshrined not just in the Baseball Hall of Fame but in folklore. If there is one athlete who made modern sports, most agree, it was Ruth.

They’re forgetting someone, though: the man who wore the gloves in Toledo—those mysterious gloves. He inspired the same fanatical devotion as Ruth. He performed in arenas larger than Yankee Stadium, where Ruth played. And he burst onto the scene before Ruth or any of the other Golden Age figures had achieved true prominence. The truth is, Babe Ruth didn’t launch the modern era of sports. Jack Dempsey did.


Jack Dempsey: the name is now dimly remembered. During the 1920s, though, he was Ruth’s equal in fame, with an outsize presence in newspapers, newsreels, Hollywood films, and radio broadcasts. He was known internationally. The multitudes that came to his fights created some of the greatest spectacles of the decade.

It was Dempsey’s performance in Toledo that forged his image with the American public. It was not just that he won the heavyweight title that day from the champion, Jess Willard, after three rounds of relentless pounding in temperatures that, according to one ringside thermometer, reached 114 degrees. It was how he did it, destroying the 245-pound Willard, who towered over him at six feet six and outweighed him by fifty-eight pounds, in a way no heavyweight champion had ever been destroyed: Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times in the first round, rendering his face into a misshapen tenderloin and raising red welts all over his body. Details of the assault that Willard absorbed soon morphed into lurid lore, with boxing histories long after describing how Big Jess had lost as many as six teeth, that his jaw had been broken in thirteen places (if that’s even possible). Reading about these terrible injuries made it easy to believe in Dempsey’s loaded gloves—what else could account for what had happened? A century later, the likeliest explanations seem less dramatic: that Dempsey wore extra-hard hand wraps, not yet illegal, though controversial; and that Willard did not suffer quite the monster-movie level of damage often described. In any case, though, the beating that he endured was surely bad enough, as one can see for himself by viewing the fight on YouTube. Be grateful that the film is in black and white. The New York Times correspondent called the fight “a kind of pugilistic murder.” It would never be permitted today.

Before Dempsey came along, attendance for boxing matches had been modest: even the so-called Fight of the Century, Jack Johnson versus James J. Jeffries in 1910, drew only about sixteen thousand people. But after Dempsey’s slaughter of Willard, boxing’s leading promoter, Tex Rickard, saw rich new possibilities. As champion, Dempsey would defend his title in front of crowds numbering eighty thousand, ninety thousand, and one-hundred-twenty thousand people. Before Dempsey came along, New York had mostly banned boxing; within a year of his winning the title, the Empire State legalized the sport, and New York City soon became its mecca. Dempsey would make almost more money in one fight, in 1926, than Ruth would earn in his entire baseball career. In 1924 alone, when Dempsey did not even box in an official match, he made $500,000 in income from movies, theater, and personal appearances.

Though he was the son of parents who had traveled West in a covered wagon, Dempsey was a herald of the future. Look at early films of boxers on YouTube, and you’ll often see them standing straight up, in variations of nineteenth-century postures. Then switch to Dempsey, and you see the ghost of the modern style. Crouching, bobbing and weaving, his onslaughts like lightning strikes, he pioneered the attacking approach that would be the blueprint for Mike Tyson’s seventy years later.

In 1921, Dempsey battled a French war hero, Georges Carpentier, in a huge wooden arena in Jersey City, New Jersey. An unprecedented crowd of between eighty and ninety thousand turned out. The event became an international sensation—it, too, was called “The Battle of the Century”—and prompted extravagant preparations on both sides of the Atlantic. In Paris, military planes prepared to fly over the city and flash their lights to signal the outcome—red for Carpentier, white for Dempsey. The French government ordered diplomatic cables suspended until the fight was over. In the United States, the Recording Company of America (RCA) made its on-air debut, broadcasting the bout to perhaps three hundred thousand listeners—radio’s first mass broadcast. Barely fifty miles away from ringside, in Raritan, New Jersey, President Warren G. Harding signed articles formalizing the peace terms ending the First World War—a momentous occasion, you’d think, though you wouldn’t know it from the smattering of observers who bothered to witness it. Even the president seemed to sense that the action was elsewhere: no sooner had Harding signed the papers than he asked for an update on the bout. The next morning, the New York Times, which often editorialized against boxing, devoted most of its first thirteen pages to the fight, which Dempsey won by knockout in the fourth round.

Rickard’s promotions of Dempsey fights involved two key elements: a compelling storyline, one in which, varyingly, Dempsey played hero or villain; and the event itself, in which, unvaryingly, Dempsey delivered the goods in one fashion or another, sending people home with vivid memories and the vague sense that nothing like what they had just seen had ever happened before.

That was certainly the case in New York’s Polo Grounds, in September 1923, when Dempsey, defending his title against an Argentinian, Luis (Angel) Firpo—the “Wild Bull of the Pampas,” he was called—put his challenger down seven times in the first round. It looked like a Toledo replay, though Firpo seemed angrier than hurt, and he kept getting up. After the seventh knockdown, he backed Dempsey into the ropes, where he landed a looping right to the champion’s head. Then, as if someone had pressed a switch, the gap between the ropes widened, and Dempsey fell through the opening, landing on a raft of typewriters in the press row. “Let me at ‘em!” some claimed to have heard him say, as he struggled to get back in the ring. Helpful hands pushed him up, and he returned just ahead of the count of “ten” that would have made him an ex-champion. He knocked Firpo out in the next round, the second—but by then, the Polo Grounds had dissolved into bedlam, with benches overturned and scuffles breaking out in the infield, where the ring was pitched. (One scrap involved Ruth, who, irked at being pushed from behind, cocked his fist to slug the offender—and recognized middleweight champion Mickey Walker.) It was the greatest fight “since the Silurian Age,” a Chicago Tribune reporter wrote. George Bellows immortalized it on canvas.

Dempsey earned so much money outside the ring that he didn’t bother fighting for three years. Finally, in 1926, he was lured back by the promise of his greatest payday—$717,000—to defend the title against Gene Tunney, a former Marine from New York’s Greenwich Village whose deliberate style was the opposite of Dempsey’s start-a-riot methodology. In Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium, named after the 150th anniversary of American Independence being celebrated that year, 120,000 spectators, a new record, came out to see Dempsey vs. Tunney. Few left their seats, even when the heavens opened and drenched them for most of the bout’s ten rounds. They saw the upset of upsets: Dempsey losing his title by decision to Tunney, a skilled and resolute boxer who smothered his rushes and stymied him every step of the way.

Until 1926, Dempsey had had as many detractors as admirers. His loss to Tunney, and his gracious handling of it—he congratulated the victor and made no excuses—rallied millions to his side, replacing resentment with adulation, ambivalence with affection. He set out to regain his title, this time as a popular favorite. Here was another pioneering development—the transition from unloved world-beater to venerable underdog, a path that other American athletes would travel.

Dempsey’s journey culminated with the rematch against Tunney, in Chicago, on September 22, 1927. Special-order trains streamed into the city for the fight, in what one observer called “the greatest troop movement since the war.” The official paid attendance in Soldier Field was 105,000, but contemporary estimates put the number closer to 145,000. Whatever the figure, those attending saw a fight still argued about on internet discussion boards: the fabled “Battle of the Long Count,” in which Dempsey, trailing badly, knocked Tunney down in the seventh round but failed to go to a neutral corner, delaying the start of the count. Given extra seconds to recover, Tunney rose at the official tally of “nine” and went on to win.

The Long Count was Dempsey’s last fight. Two years later, the stock market crashed, and the “era of wonderful nonsense,” the 1920s, gave way to the stark 1930s. The Great Depression and then World War II ensured that sports wouldn’t reach this fever pitch in America again for a generation. Then, starting in the postwar years, professional sports began their climb to dominance, a development driven by forces including the birth of television, the rise of the National Football League and later the National Basketball Association, the growth of sports merchandising, and—with the emergence of ESPN, the internet, and social media, along with the proliferation of fantasy sports leagues—the evolution of a kind of ubiquitous sports consciousness.

The 1920s laid the groundwork, and the opening salvo was the fight in Toledo, an event that branded Dempsey as a new kind of American athlete.


Taking place less than a week after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Dempsey vs. Willard was the first big sports event in the United States since the end of the war. It shined a national spotlight on the northwest Ohio city of 250,000, famous for its glass making but also home, then, to the world’s largest automobile-manufacturing plant. In the steamy morning hours of Friday, July 4, 1919, with the region in the throes of an intense heat wave, spectators made their way toward a giant octagonal arena in Toledo’s Bay View Park, on the shores of Maumee Bay, an inlet of Lake Erie.

The enthusiasm that the upcoming fight generated, often reflected on newspaper front pages, suggested a new peak in Americans’ sporting zeal. Over the past year, those front pages had been dominated by two topics: the war in Europe and the Spanish flu, which, in the fall of 1918, became the deadliest pandemic in history. The Great Influenza killed more human beings in six months than the medieval Black Death did in a century. The plague waned in late 1918, though Americans were still coming to terms with its grim costs. Even with the flu’s passing, weighty matters dominated American headlines: the push for women’s suffrage; the looming of Prohibition; labor strife and racial tensions in cities; socialist and anarchist ferment, terrorist bombings, and the beginnings of the Red Scare. For the rest of the twentieth century, only 1968 would match 1919 for domestic turmoil. Millions craved the diversion that the Toledo fight offered, though few could have imagined that Dempsey and Willard would enact a pugilistic version of the Great War’s carnage.

Americans loved sports already in 1919, but by present-day standards, the national sporting landscape was barren. Football was a college game; the National Football League didn’t even exist. Neither did the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League. Boxing itself was a marginalized sport, still illegal in most states and a frequent target of social reformers and religious groups, who wanted it stamped out. The undisputed national pastime was baseball, nearing the end of its “deadball” period, when home runs were infrequent. Though he had begun showing his hitting prowess, Babe Ruth was still known as a talented left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox; he was not yet a Yankee, not yet a home-run-hitting sensation. Other figures who would come to symbolize sports in the 1920s—Red Grange in college football, Bill Tilden in tennis, Bobby Jones in golf—had not yet come on the scene. Sports stars were few; sports stardom, as a phenomenon of mass media coverage and public interest, barely existed in recognizable form.

Then the bell rang in Toledo, and Jack Dempsey changed all that.