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The Days of “Kid Blackie”

March 5, 2004  By Jason Petock
It was the onset of World War I and Jack Dempsey was having a hell of a time of it. He was still a teenager, merely 19 years old when it all began that August back in 1914. He fought all over, in Nevada, Utah and Salt Lake City, taking matches in barren mining towns and dives. Places that didn’t offer much of anything, let alone comfort.

When he fought in Nevada he frequented Goldfield a lot, a desolate desert there that could take your life in an instant just for its unbearable heat. How a man could fight in such conditions is unimaginable these days, but was the norm back then. Dempsey went by “Kid Blackie” back then, mainly because of his black hair. He wouldn’t drop that name until his 20th birthday.

Dempsey fought in the intense heat because he needed the dough. “Even the cactus was struggling to survive the heat,” he said. “But I needed the purse. Twenty dollars.” He KO’d “One Punch” Hancock in a bout in Salt Lake 15 seconds into the fight. His promoter, not pleased with the outcome offered the crowd a challenge, “Kid Blackie here wants to know if anybody else would like to fight him?”

A big man emerged and yelled, “I sure would!” He pointed at Kid’s beaten opponent and revealed, “I’m his brother.” Dempsey made light work of Hancock’s brother in 20 seconds. His second wipeout earned him another sawbuck. Jack Dempsey may have been the precursor to the coming of “Iron” Mike Tyson. The similarities are endless.

To say that Jack was a man of all trades is an understatement. He worked as a miner, a dishwasher, a farmhand and a cowboy. He hustled in pool halls. Once he was even a porter at the Hotel Utah. Dempsey said fondly, “I didn’t mind the mines. I was the only guy I knew who actually enjoyed going down a shaft and knocking off ore from a wall. But what I lived for was the fights.”

He fought as soon as he could get a fight. Basically whenever, wherever and whoever. Many fighters began to take notice of the skinny black haired kid who hurt you when he hit you. They wanted no part of that action.

His early days were his toughest and there’s no doubt that’s what made him such a relentless force in boxing.

Many doubted that “Kid Blackie” could take Jess Willard. After all, Willard had KO’d Jack Johnson in Havana in 1915. A tragic figure and often forgotten legend, Johnson was never allowed to get near a championship ever again after that loss. The nation treated him shamefully and it wasn’t for 22 years after his reign that another black man was allowed a chance at the heavyweight crown. Had race relations been different maybe Dempsey would have faced Johnson? It’s not that far fetched, just sadly unfulfilled.

Harry Wills, a well known heavyweight of the times, also fell victim to the racism of that era. It’s this racism that blocked his path to Dempsey, and never gave either man the chance to realize their potential against one another. Harry once said, “I’ll take on Dempsey at any time in any street he wants to name. I’ll knock him out for nothing.”

Some have accused Jack Dempsey of not fighting African Americans during his reign out of personal choice. It was a poor sign of the times and many black fighters weren’t afforded the opportunities that should have been given to them. Promoters feared upsets and subsequent defeats, rioting and violence if their men faced off in the ring against someone other than their own race.

Dempsey used to ride the rods. He would go solo, opting for adventure and excitement – sans safety. If he ever lost his grip beneath a railroad car he would surely have fallen to his death. He possessed a solitary nature and took his chances in life much like he did in the ring.

Boxing has been said to be a lonely sport. There’s no team backing you. You are the team. No second or third string to pick up your slack. If you don’t commit and work hard you won’t succeed in boxing. No one will hold your hand in boxing; the end result is up to you. You come into it alone and leave it alone. And it is you “alone” who can rise victorious, or fall tragically – all within the same breath. Boxing requires greatness.

“Kid Blackie” had this greatness. He was the 1920’s. In a way he is 2004. He’s you and he’s me. He’s the old man with the cataracts that tells you about Joe Louis or Stanley Ketchel, and the newborn who’s never smelled leather. Let’s remember him for all of his successes and contributions to the sport. Those were glorious days with glorious men. Jack Dempsey was one of those men. Who are you today?.

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