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A Mismatch? A Fix? The Cynics Come Out Swinging

A Mismatch?

There was a lot of talk, especially after the fight, about whether Carpentier ever really had a chance, whether the fight was a deliberate mismatch or even a fix, some sort of elaborate hoax created to bilk a gullible public out of their hard-earned cash.  Opinions on this question were surprisingly sharply divided.

One school of thought emphasized that Carpentier had won all of his post-war fights by KO ( and, with only one exception, early-round KO’s at that); that he had beaten, by first-round KO, European heavyweight champ Joe Beckett and, by fourth-round KO, World Light Heavyweight champ Battling Levinsky.  Members of this camp point out that Levinsky had given Carpentier no more trouble than he had Dempsey (Carpentier took out Levinsky in four rounds in 1920, while it had taken Dempsey three in 1918). At the time of the Levinsky fight, Bob Edgren, one of the best known and most respected of boxing writers, said of Carpentier: “[He] really is the great champion we were told he was.  It wasn’t an inferior Levinsky he met and yet he beat him more decisively than Dempsey succeeded in doing.”[1]

After-the-fact proof that Carpentier and Dempsey were in the same league came from the fact that they both had hard-fought fights with Tommy Gibbons (Dempsey beat Gibbons in a 15-round decision in 1923, during which Gibbons gave considerable trouble; Carpentier and Gibbons fought to a draw the following year).  And both were beaten by Gene Tunney, in hard-fought contests (Carpentier lost to Tunney by TKO, after having hung in with him for 15 rounds; Dempsey of course lost Tunney in their two legendary bouts, both of which went the distance, in 1926 and 1927).  

Those who maintain that Carpentier-Dempsey was not a mismatch describe the Frenchman’s legendary speed, power, and scientific boxing skills.  They recall the fact that Carpentier had very significant ring experience, having fought as a professional since the age of fourteen. They also underscore the fact that he was, hands down, the best boxer in Europe.  

While none of the pro-Carpentier commentators deny the size difference between the two men, or minimize its significance, they maintain that skill can sometimes overcome size and that the right punch, with the right force, at the right place and the right moment, can erase even sixteen pounds’ difference.  Boxing history is full of such stories.  So aside from those who argued that Carpentier would win, there are those who argued that he could win and those who argued, after that fact, that he could have won.

In fact, most commentators state fairly clearly that Carpentier was a genuine contender and that, despite the odds, the fight might well have turned out differently:

In company with many others we held to the belief that Dempsey had attained the peak when he stopped Jess Willard, but the champion disproved that last Saturday.  He attained the top of his form, power and effectiveness against the Frenchman.

The American was far more clever and effective than he had been against Willard.  Let it be understood that Carpentier was a far more dangerous antagonist than Willard. (“Daniel,” New York Herald, July 4, emphasis mine)

An article by Charles F. Mathison in the same edition of the Herald makes the point that Carpentier truly gave Dempsey a run for his money; its headline reads:

Champion Clearly Proves Right to Title in Hardest Battle of Life/Victory is Clean Cut/Frenchman an Aggressor From Start Until Last Blow is Struck/Is Game in Defeat/Outgamed and Outpunched He Is Dangerous Foe At All Stages

In the body of his article, Mathison characterizes the fight as “four rounds of the most vicious fighting that ever has marked the contest for the chief honors […]” and “one of the hardest battles [Dempsey] has fought since acquiring the title.”  He praises Carpentier for having “made a surprisingly good fight from the tap of the gong for the first round till he was counted out […]” and says that the two rights he landed in Round 2 were among the “swiftest, most accurate right hand punches that were ever dealt by a pugilist.”

For his part, Edwin C. Hill, also writing in the July 4 Herald, emphasizes Carpentier’s virtuosity and ranks him as roughly the third best heavyweight in the world, behind Dempsey and Harry Wills.  High praise indeed for a light heavyweight:

The reports previous to the contest as to the dangerous character of Carpentier’s hard right hand blow were no exaggerated.  It is without doubt the swiftest, most accurate right punch of any heavyweight in the world, and if Carpentier had fifteen or twenty more pounds weight behind that punch he would undoubtedly cause havoc in the entire heavyweight division.

As the Frenchman stands today, he is doubtless the superior of all the heavyweights in the world, barring Dempsey and Harry Wills.  He lacks the weight to qualify him to meet those men in the ring, but can without doubt dispose of nearly all the others in the division.

Sportswriter Robert Edgren, writing in the New York World on July 3, is explicit about the fact that Carpentier fought a genuinely competitive fight:

[Dempsey] won as predicted.  But that doesn’t tell the story.  The American was forced to the limit of his skill.  Only Dempsey’s superior strength decided the outcome of the fight, and there were moments when he needed every ounce of strength he had when he was hard put to it to keep his bending knees straight and his feet under him.  There were times when Carpentier’s terrific punches wiped every bit of expression from Dempsey’s grim face—every expression but a fleeting shadow of bewilderment that any man could hit him so hard.

Eminent boxing historian and Dempsey biographer Nat Fleischer speaks of the “gallant stand that the Frenchman made when he took the offensive and for one complete round had the greatest boxer of his generation rocking and backing under the fury of his onslaught.”  He characterizes Carpentier’s performance as “a great effort by a man with a real fighting man’s heart.”[2]

The other side of the argument maintains that the difference in size and punching power meant that Carpentier never stood a chance. Some are willing give Carpentier something of an edge in terms of “science,” but recognize that technique will not counterbalance size and power; there was just no way even a highly skilled boxer built like Carpentier was going to beat a nearly equally skilled boxer built like Dempsey.  Esteemed sportswriter Grantland Rice, writing in the New York Tribune on July 4 had this to say:

The story of this fight, in spite of the wild protests of George Bernard Shaw, was told in advance.  Dempsey was entirely too big and too strong for his lighter, frailer opponent.

Carpentier’s speed and boxing skill were superior to the champion’s.  At long range he could hit almost as hard and with better effect. […]

It had been written in advance that Carpentier had an outside chance.  He proved the correctness of this statement by his volleys in the second round that would have dropped any ordinary mortal like a shot.  No one can say just how close to victory he came in that second round, but the fact remains that it was not quite close enough.  The physical disparity, both in power and durability, was entirely too great.

It is important to note, however, that while maintaining that Carpentier’s defeat was inevitable, due to the physical disparity between the two combatants, Rice never once suggests that the fight was a mismatch.  On the contrary, he says that now that the fight is over, “we can see […] for the first time wherein Carpentier’s superb confidence was partly justified.”  He says of Carpentier: “Unclinched he was Dempsey’s superior.” He speaks of his “better boxing skill” and “stunning force.” He says that “what might have happened” had Carpentier not injured his right hand in the second round is “an unfinished story that will never be told.”  

The history of the sport of boxing, more so than that of any other sport, is full of surprise upsets. When the underdog is as skilled as fast and as powerful as Carpentier, anything is possible. Rice says that Carpentier never had more than “an outside chance,” but underscores the fact that “that outside chance will always remain with a man who is as fast and who can hit as hard as he can.”

More cynical commentators are less respectful of Carpentier.  Harry van Raatle, writing in the New York World on July 3, not only dismisses the notion that Carpentier had Dempsey in trouble in Round 2 but lampoons Carpentier’s “refined” persona and his very Frenchness itself:

Once, in the second round, Georges landed a jolt on Dempsey’s furry chin and the crowd rose up on its hind legs expecting that Jack was going to forget what was trump.  Jack has a coarse nature and is totally incapable of understanding the […] refined feelings of a French boxer.

A more famous nay-sayer with respect to Carpentier’s chances was none other than H. L. Mencken.  Mencken, while far from an expert on boxing matters, did not hesitate to pontificate in no uncertain terms: “Dempsey was never in any more danger or being knocked out than I was […]” He goes on to state the idea that Carpentier almost won the fight in the second round was “apocryphal, bogus, hollow and null, imbecile, devoid of substance.”  In keeping with the role of lone truth-teller he relished, Mencken also opined, with his trademark tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, that no one on earth (“from remote missionaries on the Upper Amazon to lonely Socialists in the catacombs of Leavenworth, and from the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding on his alabaster throne to the meanest Slovak in the bowels of the earth”) would accept his unvarnished version of what took place in the ring.[3]

Some of the skepticism concerning the legitimacy of the bout was created by the fact that Carpentier chose to train in private.  While reporters and even the public were allowed (for a fee, of course) to watch Dempsey train in Atlantic City, Carpentier remained concealed behind the hedges of an estate in tony Manhasset, Long Island.  This bred a notion that something was fishy, that there had to be some reason the Frenchman didn’t want anyone to watch him train.  Ever vigilant to the slightest possibility of monkey business, observers of the cynical, world-weary sort had no trouble believing that some of the cards were not on the table.  Given the cynics’ preference that fighters look and act like conventional tough guys, the contrast between Dempsey’s working-class Atlantic City and Carpentier’s exclusive Manhasset didn’t help matters.

The line of thinking that posits that “secret” training necessarily signifies a fix might make more sense if in fact no boxing writer ever saw Carpentier work out.  But that is not the case.  It is true that Carpentier did most of his training in private, away from the distraction of the throngs of reporters who would have otherwise turned up, but it is also well recorded in the press of the time that his camp was opened up on occasion for a press day.  On those days, a small number of prominent sportswriters were allowed in to watch the Frenchman hit the bags and spar a few rounds.  While it is certainly true that the press didn’t see “much of him,” compared to the usual amount of access they had to a training camp, they did see more than enough of him to be able to assess his size in comparison to Dempsey’s.  They had also had ample time to ponder the specifics of his physique when he had fought Levinsky for the light heavyweight title the previous year.  He was, as was widely known, considerably smaller than Dempsey.  But not so much so as to make the fight a laughing matter.

Among the sportswriters miffed at not having been granted the chance to see Carpentier train was Ring Lardner:

Ring Lardner drove to [the estate where Carpentier trained] from Great Neck with his nine year-old son, John, and was turned back by the guard at the front gate.  “Mr. Carpentier is sleeping,” the guard said.  A second visit produced the same result and the same excuse.  Lardner drove home and wrote a line for the ages: “M. Carpentier is practicing ten-second naps.”  (Flame of Pure Fire, 238)

Lardner would become the most famous of the doubters with respect to the Carpentier-Dempsey affair. Known for both sharp wit and equally sharp cynicism, he immortalized the idea that Carpentier-Dempsey was nothing more than an elaborate publicity hoax carefully orchestrated and masterfully foisted off on an all-too-gullible public in his famous short story, “The Battle of the Century” (first published in The Saturday Evening Post, October 29, 1921).[4] 

Roger Kahn identifies Lardner as the most enduring and influential (though not, it must be specified, original) purveyor of the notion that Carpentier-Dempsey was at best a mismatch and at worst an actual hoax:

Ring Lardner mocked Dempsey-Carpentier in a short story called “The Battle of the Century,” […] a lively portrait of the Dempsey-Carpentier promotion and probably the greatest launching pad for that flight of fancy, Carpentier never had a chance. (And it is a flight of fancy, as a study of the old newsreel footage makes surpassingly clear.) (223-224; emphasis in original)

The object of Lardner’s mordant satire was the greedy, unscrupulous partnership between shady boxing promoters and managers and the newspapermen eager to collaborate with them.  According to this version, newspaper coverage was knowingly calculated in order to accomplish two goals: to generate interest in a fight that was never intended as a genuine contest at all and, of course, to sell newspapers.

The story begins with the champion “Jim” and his manager “Larry Moon,” thinly disguised fictional versions of Jack Dempsey and his manager Jack Kearns. Jim has won the championship by defeating “Big Wheeler” (Jess Willard) but has yet to see the big money he had anticipated.  Reduced to performing in a circus and a movie in order to make ends meet, he and Moon are eager to find a way to make his championship pay off.  The problem is that there’s no one for him to fight; all opponents would be so clearly outclassed that no one would buy a ticket. As the tough-talking Moon puts it:

They ain’t a man living or dead that’s got a chance in God’s world to even make this baby perspire and the worst of it is that everybody knows it.  Here I got a champion at a time when everything’s big money and he should ought to be worth a million fish to me and himself, and he ain’t worth a dime.  And he won’t be worth a dime, neither, unless I can build something up. (135)

Moon goes on, detailing the one scenario that might save him and his champ from their current plight:

There’s just one chance for us […] and that’s to have some young fella spring up from nowheres and knock five or six of these “contenders” for a gool; then we’ll have to stall a w’ile and pretend like we’re scared of him till we’ve got the bugs thinking that maybe he has a look-in. (135)

There is money to be made, Moon opines, because of the fact that people like to see a champ given a run for his money, all the more so when the champ in question is an unpopular one:

The one thing in our favor is that people loves to see a champion get socked, especially my champion, who ain’t no matinee idol.  So if they think they’s a man capable of socking him, they’ll pay to see it come off.  Believe me, if we do get a break like that, I’ll demand a purse that’ll knock their eye out.  Because fights is going to be few and far between for my little ward.  His trouble is that he’s too good.  He’d be better if he was worse. (135)

All hopes are thus pinned on an unknown, a “hero” appearing “from nowheres”:

Right now, they’s no man in sight that it wouldn’t be a joke to match him with.  So, as I say, all we can do is watch and pray and hope that some hero pops up before the heavyweight champion of the world dies of starvation.  Him and his manager both. (135)

As if on cue, Moon picks up the paper one day and sees a story about a French boxer KO’ing a English opponent in the first round, in London.  Predictably, this starts the wheels in motion.  Since the Frenchman (“Goulet,” a thinly veiled version of Carpentier) is the hero of boxing in Europe and especially in England, the bout could be hyped as a Europe vs. America contest and would not doubt prove lucrative.  The fact that Goulet is a war hero won’t hurt, either:

Here’s the champion of England and the champion of France, the only two countries over there that has boxing.  Well, the champion of France stops this Englishman with a punch and that makes him the champion of Europe.  And it makes him look pretty good to the English because they was all stuck on this Bradford.  And what looks good to the English looks good to a lot of people here.  The way the papers play it up, you can see they figure there’s a good deal of interest in it.  Further and more, this guy Goulet is a war hero.  He’s the idol of Europe and the champion of Europe, and if he was built up right he’d be a great card over here.  That’s what I’m talking about, a match between their champ and our champ for the championship of the world. (136)

There is some factual inaccuracy or perhaps literary license here (Carpentier was not champion of France and in fact was already champion of Europe at the time of his first fight with Joe Beckett, the model for the fictional Goulet-Bradford match), on either Lardner’s or Moon’s part. Nonetheless, Lardner’s version of things may well be a reasonable, if cynical, representation of the kind of commercial thinking that inspired Carpentier-Dempsey.  It is interesting to note that, at least according to Lardner, rather than the promoters or managers who start the process by going to the press to tell them to hype the upcoming bout, the bout is itself inspired by the hype that already surrounds the Frenchman.  Because he is already being hyped, Moon sees the potential for even further hype. The seeds for a publicity campaign are planted by the newspapers themselves.

It is Jim the champ himself who has the final word in the second section of the story: “’You’re my matchmaker and I fight who you pick out. But I don’t see how you come to overlook Benny Leonard.’”  Benny Leonard was the lightweight champion at the time.  Comparing a match with Goulet to a match with Leonard is Jim’s, and Lardner’s, sly way of stating what is to them the obvious: Goulet is simply too small for Jim. The very idea is preposterous. The use of a reference to a real fighter, mixed in with the (supposedly) fictional characters, provides yet another wink.

The notion of Goulet’s “frailness” is emphasized when Moon finally gets a look at him in the flesh (just like Carpentier, Goulet comes to the US because he has been offered good money to appear in a film).  Moon is concerned about how thin Goulet is, not because he cares about whether or not the match will be a real contest, but because of public perception.  Fans will only but tickets to a real fight. Moon frets about Goulet’s arrival, hoping he won’t have gotten seasick and lost weight (exactly what did happen, as Lardner no doubt knew, during Carpentier’s first crossing in March 1920):

“’All I hope, said Moon, “is that he won’t get seasick.  Judging from his pictures, he ain’t no side-show fat man at best and we don’t want him to look no skinnier than usual or our match will be all wet.’” (137)

The narrator of the story, an unidentified fight-game crony of Moon’s, describes his first impression of Goulet:

Well, I don’t know if he’d been seasick or not, but he certainly was a brittle-looking bird.  The first time I seen him, up to one of the roof shows, I thought the guy that pointed him out must be mistaken.  But it really was him—a pale, frail boy that if he’d went to college, the football coaches would of rushed him for cheerleader.  As for him standing up in a box fight with the man that had sprinkled Big Wheeler all over Ohio, well, it was just a laugh.

“You may as well forget it,” I said when I seen Moon.  “Your show’s a flop and you won’t get no backer.”

“Watch me,” he says.  “Give me time and a fair break in the luck!” (137)

Lardner’s interpretation of Carpentier-Dempsey is thus unambiguous: Dempsey and Kearns wanted to make some money, they identified Carpentier’s potential as a crowd favorite, and, knowing he was far too small for there to be a real contest, set up a match nonetheless.  This was only possible, as Lardner’s story makes clear, through slow and careful preparation.  Every step along the way had to be carefully orchestrated, in order to convince a gullible public that Goulet posed a genuine threat to Jim.  

Moon explains his plan to Goulet’s manager, “La Chance”:

“Now, in the first place, don’t get the idear in your head that this is going to be a quick clean-up.  It’ll take time—maybe a year.  What are you fellas going to do when you’ve finished your picture?”

“Well,” said La Chance, “we thought maybe we’d stay over here and have a few fights.”

“No!” says Larry.  “You go right back home and don’t fight nobody!  You stay there till you here from me.  I think it’d be a good idear for you to have one bout in this country, to show that your man can knock somebody besides that English tumbler.  But I’ll pick out the man for you to fight and I’ll let you know when I’ve got him.  He’ll be somebody that you can’t help licking, not by no possible chance.  You won’t get much money for it, but it’ll be advertising.  Is that all right with you?”

“Oui, oui,” says La Chance.  “What else?”

“Nothing else,” said Moon. (138-139)

The fight Moon refers to, the fictional equivalent of Carpentier’s bout with Battling Levinsky, is with “old Tommy Fogel,” who “manages to stand up for three rounds without his crutches.”  Seeing Goulet’s speed, fight fans think (erroneously, according to Lardner) that he might be “just the kind of fighter that could give Jim Dugan trouble.”  

This is where one sees Lardner’s cynicism begin to twist reality. There is no reason to believe that Carpentier’s 1920 fight with Levinsky was a set-up or that the result was in any way a foregone conclusion.  At twenty-nine, Levinsky was only two and a half years older than Carpentier-- while no youngster by boxing standards, he was still the best light heavyweight in America and the holder of the world light heavyweight crown.  In 1922, a year and three months after losing his title to Carpentier, he lost the title of US light heavyweight champ to none other than Gene Tunney, but only after having lasted twelve hard-fought rounds with him.  So the notion that the Carpentier-Levinsky fight was some sort of hoax is pure fiction being passed off as fictionalized fact.  Carpentier legitimately beat Levinsky, the legitimate light heavyweight champion of the world, in a legitimate fight.  This made him, in spite of the size disparity and the long odds it created, a reasonable opponent for Dempsey.  As always, a good big man was probably going to beat a good small(er) man, but the good smaller man stood a reasonable chance.

In Lardner’s version, there was never a reasonable chance, but the fight took place anyway, simply because it was a match that would sell tickets.  As the consistently cynical (and consistently inelegant) Moon puts it: “[…] if the public demands the match, what do we care if the two men stacks up together like a pimple and a goiter?”

Once the promotion is a done deal, the two fighters begin training.  Goulet, like Carpentier, trains “in secret,” while Dugan has to train as publicly as possible, in order to show that he is taking the fight seriously.  It is precisely because “the Frenchman” doesn’t stand a chance that Dugan has to train in such earnest, Moon explains to the narrator:

“Here’s a guy that may be the greatest man in the world for his size.  But look at his size!  And yet Jim’s got to go ahead and work like he done for Wheeler.  Even harder, because they’s a lot more interest in this and people’ll be watching us close.  Jim could get ready in week to knock this bird cold.  But he’s got to go through with five or six weeks of the toughest kind of work, which he knows ain’t necessary.  I’ve tried to convince him that they might be an upset.  But he knows it’s the bunk.” (146)

Dugan confirms that he knows that his rigorous training for a fight that he can’t possibly lose is “the bunk” but understands that the charade is necessary for the sake of the sportswriters: “I’ve got to show the boys I’m working so they won’t think it’s a farce.  Like it wasn’t a farce already!”  Dugan tells the narrator: “’Don’t call it a fight, […] not when you and I are alone.’”

Here again, Lardner’s excessively cynical view of the proceedings leads to some distortion.  While it was true that Dempsey was quite a bit bigger than Carpentier, and that he was thus likely to win the fight, Carpentier was clearly a clever boxer, a powerful puncher and a very fast fighter.  For all of Dempsey’s size and strength advantage, the right punch at the right moment, properly set up, could well have taken him out.  The idea that Dempsey would not have understood this and would not, consequently, have trained in earnest is improbable at best.  Against a man like Carpentier, Dempsey’s boxing skills, both offensive and defensive, need to be at their best, as did his conditioning.  It is far-fetched indeed to argue that he trained merely for the benefit of the press.

Much more true-to-life, perhaps, is Dugan’s bitterness over the fact that the American public is rooting for a foreigner to beat their own home-grown champion:

I’ve got the low-down on the whole works.  Here I am, an American that’s supposed to be fighting to keep the title in this country, and I doubt if they’s a dozen Americans that ain’t pulling for me to get knocked for a corpse.  Sometimes I almost feel like I ought to let myself get licked.  It would be doing everybody such a big favor and make them all happy. (147)

The narrator of the story doesn’t give an account of the fight itself other than to wonder whether Dugan dispensed with Goulet as quickly as possible or carried him a few rounds to make things look legitimate.  By contrast, he goes on at length about the buzz surrounding the event, in the press and on the street.  Lardner is clearly implying by this narrative choice that the bout is of no interest but its reception constituted, as his narrator puts it, “a course in human nature.”  To be more specific, the event is, for Lardner and his narrator, an object-lesson in naïveté.  The most cynical view possible of the gullibility of the public is confirmed in the days just before and just after the Dugan-Goulet match:

You know what Barnum said.  Well, he didn’t go far enough.  They like to be bunked, but what they like most of all is to do bunk themselves.

Well, I was in New York for three days prior to the “big fight,” and four or five days afterwards, and anybody that was there had to take a course in human nature.  I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t suspected before, but whatever doubts I may have had was removed once and for all. (148)

A simple case of romanticism winning out over reality, explains the narrator.  The public believes what it wants to believe:  

The plain facts was this: a good big man was going to fight a little man that nobody knew if he was good or not, and the good big man was bound to win and win easy unless he had a sunstroke.

But the little man was a war hero, which the big man certainly wasn’t.  And the little man was romantic, besides being one of the most likeable guys you’d want to meet—even if he did have a Greek profile and long eyelashes.

So they was only one logical answer, namely that Goulet, the little man, would just about kill Dugan, the big man, maybe by a sudden display of superhuman stren’th which he had been holding back all his life for this one fight, but more likely by some mysterious trick which no other fighter had ever though of before, because in order to think of it you had to have a French brain and long eyelashes.  If Goulet wasn’t going to win, what did him and his manager mean by smiling so much and looking so happy?  Of course the two hundred thousand fish had nothing to do with it.  (149)

The romantic notion that Goulet had a chance of winning persisted, according to Lardner, despite the fact that almost all of the sportswriters, the people who actually knew something about the sport, gave Goulet little to no chance.  The public, eager to maintain its illusions, rewarded this expertise with “a hat full of letters calling them every name that could get through the mails.”  Further confirmation of Lardner’s view that what people like more than anything else is “to bunk themselves.”

The last few sentences of the story are an ironic little coda, underscoring a final time the naïveté of the man on the street.  It is only after the fight is over that what has been painfully obvious to knowledgeable observers from the start becomes obvious to the uninitiated:

That’s all, except a little incidence of a man that set beside me coming back in the tube.

“A great fight!” he says.

“Yes, it was,” said I.

“The Frenchman showed up pretty good,” he says, “though I had a kind of an idea that he’d win.  I see now where I was foolish.”

“How’s that?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “the way I’ve got it figured out, he wasn’t big enough.”

“By gosh!” I said. “I believe you’ve hit the nail right on the head!”

What Lardner is lampooning here is not only the man’s self-congratulatory after-the-fact recognition of the obvious but also his ongoing naïveté about the quality of the fight itself.  In the context of the story, in which Dugan has told the narrator not to even call it a fight, when they’re alone, and the narrator has made it plain through the absence of any detail concerning the bout that no real fight did take place, the anonymous man-in-the-tube’s calling it “a great fight” is a sign of the public’s ongoing naïveté.  Realizing that the general public will never understand what they actually witnessed, the narrator does not bother to correct his seatmate.  The event will continue, Lardner implies, to live on in the popular imagination as a “great fight” when the reality is quite different. Hence perhaps Lardner’s inspiration for writing the story.  Knowing that the public will never accept the less-than-romantic truth about the Carpentier-Dempsey bout, he nonetheless wants to give it to them, albeit in fictionalized form.

In addition to the distortions discussed above, there are a few things Lardner’s story fails to recount or soft-pedals.  There is, for example, only one fleeting and somewhat oblique reference to the fact that Dempsey was widely considered to be a draft-dodger and that, more than anything else, this was what earned him the enmity of the American public.  References to Carpentier/Goulet’s status as a war hero are more frequent, but in a story about the construction of a romantic hero, it is given sufficient importance.  Yes, as Barnum said, the public is gullible and always eager to buy into romantic stories, but at the particular historical moment at which Carpentier-Dempsey took place, they were especially eager to embrace war-hero stories.  The hype Lardner describes was tailor-made to fit the mood of the country (and the world), which does not come through as clearly as it could in “The Battle of the Century.” Nor does Lardner even mention the wildly excessive encomia to Carpentier in the press following the fight.  The man-in-the-tube’s reference to the “great fight” clearly implies that the historical record will be distorted and romanticized but Lardner chose not to comment on the great outpouring of purple-prose hero worship of the defeated French boxer following the bout.  This is a curious omission on the part of a writer whose primary goal was to prick a hole in the over-inflated balloon of hype.

More important than these details, however, is an understanding of Lardner’s basic stance.  The role he is playing, via the intermediary of his narrator, is that of the informed insider, wise, world-weary, devoid of any illusions about the real workings of the fight game.  A clear-eyed cynic in opposition to all the slack-jawed, muddle-headed newspaper readers.  This was a position, it seems, that Lardner took quite seriously. In fact, Lardner’s insistence on being the insider cynic who knew better than the naïve man on the street led him to some fairly wild conspiracy theories. For example, he truly believed, quite wrongly, that the first Dempsey-Tunney bout was a fixed fight, an actual “fake,” as he said in a letter to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald:

Tunney couldn’t lick David [Lardner’s seven year-old son] if David was trying.  The thing was a very well done fake, which lots of us would like to say in print, but you know what newspapers are where possible libel suits are concerned…The championship wasn’t worth a dime to Jack; there was nobody else for him to fight and he had made all the money to be made (by him) out of vaudeville and pictures. (quoted in Kahn, 402)

It is important to note that the scenario about Dempsey-Tunney Lardner lays out here—Dempsey the champ who can’t make any money with his title, due to a complete absence of worthy challengers, and who agrees to a hyped, fixed fight in order to cash in on his fame—is remarkably similar to the one he proposed as the “truth” of the Carpentier-Dempsey bout several years earlier (“The Battle of the Century” was written in 1922, the letter to Scott and Zelda in 1926).  Lardner’s hard-boiled cynicism may in fact have crossed the line into fantasy.  In his eagerness not to be deluded, he seems to have created some delusions of his own.

Roger Kahn provides an excellent analysis of Lardner’s excessively jaded perspective, suggesting that Lardner’s cynicism was the result of his experience writing about the 1919 Chicago White Sox (the infamous “Black Sox,” the team that threw the World Series).  After that, everything looked like a fix to Lardner:

“After the White Sox went crooked,” someone said, “all Ring really cared about in sport was the Notre Dame football team and Jack Dempsey.  In Philadelphia he lost Dempsey and that bastard Rothstein [Arnold Rothstein, the gambler who had master-minded the Black Sox swindle] was sitting right there.  When Ring yelled ‘fake,’ it was not a considered judgment, but a cry of pain. (Kahn, 403)

Still smarting from the Black Sox scandal and comforting himself with the notion of Dempsey as invincible, he fell quite easily into the trap of assuming that all the hype surrounding Carpentier-Dempsey masked a scandal.  Excessive hype in order to create a sensation and sell tickets does not, however, that a fight will not be on the level.  Nor does the kind of size disparity between Carpentier and Dempsey necessarily mean that the bout is a blatant mismatch.  Lardner, desperate never to be hoodwinked again, jumped to conclusions that are deeply questionable.

This over-eagerness is of course a reaction to the sentimentalized excesses of mainstream newspaper writing of the era.  The 1920’s were characterized by flowery rhetoric and all forms of sensationalism but there were also characterized by hard-boiled, self-conscious cynicism.  The symbiotic relationship between the two attitudes is made clear in a later (1929) Lardner short story that mentions Carpentier-Dempsey, “Jersey City Gendarmerie, Je T’aime”:

In 1921, or maybe 1922, Dempsey and Carpentier “fought” at Boyle’s Thirty Acres. […]

With no assistance from ushers, I made my way to the seat my ticket called for.  It was a hard seat, and when I happened to catch sight of a girl by the name of McMein [Neysa McMein, a reporter well known for having waxed poetic over Carpentier’s physical charms] a few rows away, I thought I would rest myself and do her a favor by warning her that her hero and Bernard Shaw’s was about to get his block knocked off. […] poor Miss McMein remained unprepared for the massacre. (Some Champions, 84)

This passage recalls a passage in “The Battle of the Century” in which Lardner also uses Shaw to draw the line between those in-the-know (like himself) and ill-informed romantics (like Shaw).  (This is ironic when seen in the light of Shaw’s Great Fight, in which the playwright strikes precisely the same pose as Lardner does here, that of the only lucid, informed fight fan in a crowd of dupes.)  With his characteristic sarcasm, Lardner points out: “Contrary to the general belief, they’s a good many American fight writers that knows more about fights and fighters than even Bernard Shaw.”[5]

A Fix?

The most extreme examples of the mismatch tales border on conspiracy theories.  They assert not only that Tex Rickard knew from the outset that this was not a truly viable matchup but hint broadly, if not state outright, that the fight was fixed: Dempsey knowingly, and according to a pre-arranged plan, went easy on Carpentier rather than knocking him out in the first few seconds of the bout, as he supposedly could have done. Roger Kahn summarizes and contextualizes the logic of this myth:

One of boxing’s sturdiest myths has it that when Georges Carpentier stepped into the ring with Jack Dempsey, he never had a chance.  At 175 pounds, Carpentier was not a full-fledged heavyweight, this reasoning insists, and the from that so roused Neysa McMein and George Bernard Shaw was altogether too frail to match the champion […]

The actual fight, the myth continues, went on as long as it did only to give the newsreel company that bought film rights something more than a very short feature to offer movie houses.  In essence, Dempsey carried Carpentier until the newsreel producers had enough.  Then he put away the Frenchman in hot, though belated, haste. (223)

In spite of overwhelmingly convincing evidence to the contrary (not only eye-witness accounts but the film of the fight itself), rumors persisted that the fight was not entirely on the level.  Much of this suspicion was fueled by the excessive promotion of the fight.  Some observers just couldn’t believe that so much hype wasn’t hiding something, whether it was a mismatch undertaken in full knowledge or an actual fix.  Paul Gallico, for example, writing years after the bout, calls the hype for Carpentier-Dempsey “the oldest and most time-tried hokum—virtue against scallawaggery” and argues that this “hokum” was necessary in order to sell tickets, “because on the face of it, it was no match at all.”  Engaging in a bit of exaggeration himself, Gallico says that Carpentier was “hardly more than a heavy middleweight.”[6]

More recently, Joseph O’Brian, writing in American Heritage magazine, has perpetuated the myth that Carpentier-Dempsey was more or less a hoax.  O’Brian calls the fight “the greatest promotional coup in the history of sport,” which may well be true, but moves to shakier ground when he opines that all the hype covered up the fact that the affair was not a real contest.  According to this version, which rehashes Lardner (and others) there simply was no opposition for Dempsey; in order to make money off the champion, a “gimmick” was devised.  The “gimmick” was Carpentier.  Like so many of those who believe that the fight was a hoax, O’Brian discredits his account, at least somewhat, by his excessively cynical and utterly inaccurate characterization of Carpentier’s size, strength and skill, in erroneously describing him as a “third-rate European fighter” who was “really only a middleweight.”  The hype served above all to convince the public of the notion (utterly false, according to O’Brian and other nay-sayers) that “the frail-looking Carpentier had a chance to beat the fearsome Dempsey.”[7] 

Scholar Benjamin Rader paints the same picture, saying:

As Dempsey later confessed, Rickard “dug up” Carpentier, the light heavyweight champion of Europe, and set out to convince the public that the fragile Frenchman was a serious contender for the crown.

The inaccuracies of this characterization are obvious.  Carpentier was in fact both the current and former heavyweight champion of Europe, having won the title in June 1913 and held it, through three defenses, until the start of the war fourteen months later, then having regained it in July 1919 and defended it successfully against Beckett in December of that year.  He was also the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world at the time of his fight with Dempsey.  His name had been a household word in England and France  for a number of years and was very well known by American boxing fans as well, especially after his first visit to the US in the spring of 1920.  The idea that he was “dug up” is ridiculous. (For that matter, so is the idea that he was “fragile.”) Rader sums up his characterization of the Carpentier-Dempsey bout with a lapidary but grossly erroneous phrase: “As an athletic contest, the bout was a farce.”[8]

As is so often the case, persistent rumor is eventually reported as fact.  And so it is that in a recent documentary film, produced under the auspices of the premier French nationalized television network, on the greatest boxers in history, the Carpentier-Dempsey fight is described as having been a set-up.  The voice-over commentary  describes Carpentier as a “brilliant boxer” and says that he fought Dempsey “courageously” but underscores the fact that he was a mere light heavyweight, all of which is true.  The shocking part comes when this same voice-over coolly states as fact that the fight was a fix:

Faced with the huge number of spectators and the enormity of the gate, Tex Rickard and Jack Kearns, the American champion’s manager, don’t want to kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs.  They ask Jack Dempsey to take it easy on the little “Frenchie” and to make the show last.[9]

Kahn points out how patently false the lingering myth that Dempsey “carried” Carpentier is, in his description of the first round:

From close quarters Dempsey sent a hook into Carpentier’s nose, and the Frenchman began to bleed.  As well he might.  His nose was broken.  Another myth died right here.  Some later said Dempsey carried Carpentier over the early rounds.  But when you carry a man, do you hook him so hard that you break his nose?

Dempsey punished Carpentier through the round, but the challenger kept his poise and sent a pretty fair right into Dempsey’s face just before the bell. (265)

The version of the story that maintains that Carpentier-Dempsey was more or less a hoax is just as canonical a category of the lore surrounding the fight as the purple-prose hero worship. While most busied themselves laying wreaths at Carpentier’s feet, both before and after the fight, others staked out the opposite identity position, as debunkers.  All the sentimentality and romanticism were so much nonsense, according to a few brave (by their own estimation) souls who appointed themselves the truth-tellers. In seeking to deconstruct myths, however, the cynics only succeed in creating a competing myth: “the real story” is in fact a subjective and flawed interpretation.  

As with so much that surrounds the Carpentier-Dempsey bout, the debate is ultimately a literary matter, a confrontation between romantics and realists, between two narratives that contrast in tone, style and content.  For all the quarreling over the actual pugilistic facts of the matter, controversy about the fight was at bottom a matter of sensibility, each side promoting the narrative that it found most compelling.

What must be kept in mind is that an excessive and orchestrated publicity campaign is not the same thing as a publicity stunt.  Hysterical rhetoric surrounding a fight, whether sincere or cynically designed to sell both tickets and newspapers, does not mean that the fight is not a real match.  Despite the sharp dichotomy created by the opposing factions of romantics and (would-be) realists, the fact is that a sporting event like a championship boxing match can be at once the source of preposterous ballyhoo and a legitimate and compelling athletic contest. The Carpentier-Dempsey fight, perhaps more clearly than any other in the history of the sport, proves that point.

It seems appropriate to let Dempsey himself have the last word on the matter.  In contradiction to some of the statements made to French interviewers over the years, the champ does not hesitate to call the fight a “mismatch” in his 1960 autobiography:

I’m leveling when I tell you it was probably the worst mismatch in the history of the heavyweight division. […] He wasn’t a heavyweight any more than I was King Tut.  That’s why Georges trained in secret.  If the boxing writers had seen him, fast and skillful as he was, they’d have laughed the match out of existence.  But none of them really saw much of him.  (Dempsey by the Man Himself, 132-134)

He is much more credible in his clear-cut assertion that the fight was nonetheless no fix: “No matter what has been written, I didn’t carry Carpentier for one second.  He went as soon as I could arrange it.” (136)

[1] Quoted in Carpentier by himself, 133 (original source not identified). Return to text

[2] Fleischer, Idol of Fistiana, 197; 199. Return to text

[3] Cited in Roberts, 125.  It is curious that Roberts, as a historian of boxing, would use Mencken as his only source for the “truth” about Round 2 of Carpentier-Dempsey.  Roberts minces no words whatsoever in lining up behind Mencken’s view, saying that the notion that Carpentier came close to winning in Round 2 is “entirely devoid of truth” and “one gigantic wish shared by most of the sportswriters in Jersey City.” Return to text

[4] The story has been reproduced in various anthologies of Lardner’s writing and writing on boxing.  The edition cited here is Ring Lardner, Some Champions: Sketches and Fiction (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976): 134-149. Return to text

[5] An interesting biographical note: Lardner’s next-door neighbor in Great Neck, NY was Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of The New York World.  In striking contrast to Lardner’s view, Swope wrote that Carpentier was “in all probability the most formidable boxer in the world except Dempsey” and suggested that “ there [would] always be speculation as to what would have happened had Carpentier not broken his hand in the second round.”  See Ring Lardner, Jr., The Lardners: My Family Remembered (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 147. Return to text

[6] Gallico, Farewell to Sport, 98. Return to text

[7] Joseph O’Brian, “The Business of Boxing,” American Heritage 42 (October 1991): 75-76. Return to text

[8] Benjamin Rader, “Compensatory Sports Heroes: Ruth, Grange and Dempsey,”  Journal of Popular Culture 16 (1983): 18-19. Return to text

[9] Les Rois du ring, dir. Jean-Christophe Rosé (Boulogne-Billancourt: TF 1 Enterprises, 1995). Return to text