Famous Ring Wars: Dempsey vs. Firpo

By John F. McKenna - 02/14/2024 - Comments

It has been eighty eight years since ring great heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and challenger Luis Angel Firpo clashed in their historic and memorable fight. The fight took place before 80,000 paying customers at the Polo Grounds in New York City on September 14, 1923.

Dempsey had achieved the impossible dream when he destroyed the “Pottawatomie Giant” Jess Willard in the 3rd round in Toledo, Ohio on July 4, 1919. Willard was 6’6”, weighed 245 pounds and was thought to be unbeatable. Willard’s main claim to fame was that he was “The Great White Hope” who finally ended the title reign of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Willard wore Johnson down with his great strength and KO’d “Lil Artha” in the 26th round.

Dempsey’s total destruction of Willard to this day is considered to be the most brutal beating ever administered in a boxing ring since the end of the bare knuckle era. Dempsey fought during what was referred to as “The Golden Age of Sports”. Boxing was very popular in the United States in the 1920’s and the “Manassa Mauler” as we was known to boxing fans, was even more popular than his good buddy Babe Ruth. It was said of Dempsey that he “put the roar in the roaring 20’s”.

Luis Angel Firpo “El Toro Del Las Pampas” (Wild Bull of the Pampas) at 6’3” and 216 pounds was a real bear of a man and enormously strong. He hailed from Argentina and in fact was the first Argentinean to challenge for the heavyweight championship of the world. He took the match with Dempsey seriously and in his heart thought he would win.

Firpo was known to be a tremendous puncher and intended to use his great strength to overwhelm his foe.

In training, just as today, fighters during the 1920’s would tailor their regimen to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. Firpo knew that Dempsey was not only a KO puncher without equal, but that he was lithe as he moved around the ring like a panther ready to pounce on his prey. He also understood that Dempsey threw punches with explosive speed and power from all angles. For those reasons, Firpo worked with sparring partners who best replicated Dempsey’s style. Firpo also worked at improving his speed in preparation for Dempsey.

Jack Dempsey on the other hand worked on the heavy bag almost exclusively knowing ahead of time that Firpo would make the contest a war of attrition. Dempsey prepared for the fight of his life as the match with Firpo turned out to be.

When the bell sounded for the first round Firpo wasted no time nailing Dempsey with a powerful right hand which dropped Dempsey to his knee. Jack, always known for his quick recuperative power, immediately got up and went on the attack, knocking Firpo down seven times before the end of the first round. Towards the end of the round Firpo forced Dempsey into the ropes and began raining punches on him. He caught Dempsey with a thunderous right hand which drove him out of the ring, his feet sticking up in the air. Dempsey landed on the typewriter of a ringside reporter. From that point on Dempsey fought on instinct alone. He was shoved back into the ring by reporters in one of the more controversial moments in boxing history. In fairness to Firpo there was little chance that Dempsey would have beaten the fateful “10” count without the assistance of reporters.

What happened next, gained Dempsey fistic immortality. Although out on his feet he continued to fight on. It was later revealed that after Firpo’s monster right hand knocked him out of the ring Dempsey had no recollection of the remainder of the fight. At one point, thinking he had lost Dempsey asked his handlers what round he had been knocked out in.

In the second round despite still being out on his feet Dempsey went on the attack again.
Dempsey floored Firpo two more times, finally knocking him out at the fifty seven second mark of the second round. When the referee counted Firpo out, Jack ran across the ring and literally picked him up off the canvas.

In the aftermath of their historic brawl, both Dempsey and Firpo became icons. Firpo was revered not only in Argentina, but all throughout Latin Amerca. Streets were named after Firpo and a football team in El Salvador was named after him.

Dempsey’s popularity continued to the end of his life in 1983 and beyond. After his retirement Jack opened the hugely popular restaurant in New York City bearing his name.

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