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Boxing Becomes Big Business, Big News, Big Everything

The Carpentier –Dempsey fight represents, among other things, a crucial moment in the breakthrough of boxing as big business. Capitalizing on the burgeoning interest in the sport in the wake of World War I, Carpentier-Dempsey created a truly international and truly mainstream interest in the sport, a level of interest that had never been seen before.

There are a number of ways to gauge the commercial and cultural impact of the fight. The number of journalists present at ringside, for example, is indicative of the extent to which it had become a full-blown international media event. Nat Fleischer reports that Ike Dorgan, who was in charge of the press on the day of the fight, declared that the number of writers in attendance represented a world’s record.  At a time when long-distance travel was no small matter, writers had come not only from far-flung but expected locales such as California, England and France but from much less probable places like Denmark, Japan, Australia and South America. They came in surprising numbers as well: Fleischer lists the number of writers from various countries as follows: England (15); France (7); Canada (6); Cuba (4); Argentina (2); Denmark (2); Australia (2); and Japan (1). One Carpentier biographer gives the total number of journalists reporting on the fight as 570.[1] A record number of 7 wires were used by the AP for the occasion and 4 each by United Press and the Universal Service; there were more than 100 direct wires to “all corners of the earth.”[2] 

It must not be overlooked that the million-dollar era in boxing, ushered in by Carpentier-Dempsey, was also the golden age of the daily newspaper.  Readership of daily papers in the US went through the roof in the 1920-1925 period (by one count, there were 28,000,000 daily newspaper readers in 1920, and 34,000, 000 in 1925). According to polls, “men and women of all ages preferred reading the newspaper […] beyond any other leisure activity.”[3]  Newspapers created, in this period, a truly national daily conversation, as local and regional newspapers were gathered into chains with a centralized administration.  A central office provided elements such as editorials, comic strips, columnists and extensive sports coverage to its various organs around the country.  This made it possible as never before for a small number of newspaper writers to have significant influence over a huge number of readers and for those readers, despite their geographical and socio-economic diversity, to participate, simultaneously, in one mass culture: “the words hammered out by a reporter at Jack Dempsey’s training-camp were devoured with one accord by real-estate men in Florida and riveters in Seattle.”  

The inevitable consequence was voluminous newspaper writing that aimed above all to divert and amuse the largest numbers of people possible and, in so doing, sell as many newspapers as possible.  The volume was radically turned up on what should have been “fluff” pieces, stories of interest but of little real consequence.  Fredrick Lewis Allen eloquently describes the phenomenon eloquently in Only Yesterday:

The national mind became as never before an instrument upon which a few men could play.  And those men were learning […] to play upon it in a new way—to concentrate upon one thing at a time […] They discovered […] that the public tended to become excited about one thing at a time. […] the insignificant Gray-Snyder murder trial got a bigger “play” in the press than the sinking of the Titanic; Lindbergh’s flight, than the Armistice and the overthrow of the German Empire. […] when something happened which promised to appeal to the popular mind, one had it hurled at one in huge headlines, waded through page after page of syndicated discussion of it, heard about it on the radio […] and (unless one was a perverse individualist) enjoyed the sensation of vibrating to the same chord which thrilled a vast populace.

The country had bread, but it wanted circuses—and now it could go to them a hundred million strong.[4]

No circus lent itself more perfectly to this treatment than boxing.  It is by no means a coincidence that Allen chooses Dempsey’s training camp as an example of the kind of news that bonded people from coast to coast and across the demographic spectrum. The very first of the big boxing circuses, the one that set the gold standard for newspaper hype, was Carpentier-Dempsey.

A serial narrative of boxing, with Carpentier and Dempsey as its main characters, was consumed widely and with great enthusiasm.  Boxing sold papers, which in turn generated further interest in boxing.  Because newspaper readers came from across a broad socio-economic spectrum, newspapers’ coverage of boxing created interest in the sport in middle-class homes; newspapers helped create a new middle-class taste for prize-fighting. The very fact that an upstanding organ of the middle classes such as the New York Times devoted as much space to the after-fight coverage as did its more sports-minded, less middle-brow counterparts is testimony to the powerful nexus of pugilism and journalism. The role of Carpentier, at once the photogenic darling of the journalists and the clean-cut idol of women and the middle classes, cannot be underestimated in an analysis of this phenomenon; indeed, it is hard to imagine things having unfolded as they did without him.

The excessive press coverage of every little detail, both real and imagined, relating to the two boxers was a new phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic in 1921.  Newspaper readers had never seen anything quite like it: Carpentier-Dempsey was genuinely the starting point for a whole new kind of publicity and the cult of personality it created. Paul Gallico is eloquent in describing the kind of identification with the boxers such coverage inspired in the US in the 1920’s. Although he doesn’t specify it, the Carpentier-Dempsey coverage was both the beginning and the apogee of the phenomenon he defines.  For the first time, the sports pages cover fighters not only when they are fighting or in training for a fight, but at all times and in all aspects of their lives, as people (or, it might be argued, as semi-fictional characters in an ongoing serial).  The consequences with respect to the way fighters and fights are perceived by the public were enormous:

The result was that the prizefighters of the million-dollar era were better known to the readers of newspapers than members of the reader’s own family.  They knew all there was to know about them.  If they had not seen them personally, they had seen them in moving pictures or newsreels or in still pictures.  These men had become a part of the daily life, literally, of millions upon millions of people.  

Thus, when they were signed for a fight, it was just as though a personal friend or a close relative were suddenly involved in an unavoidable brawl with a neighbor down the block.  By Jove, you knew him too, and all about him; and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss being around for the squabble.

These prizefights, too, always managed somehow to point up the individual life-dramas of the men who were engaging in them, and climax real situations in their careers that were better than any stage play.[5] 

Not everyone had to be content to read about the fight in the newspaper; the were also unheard-of number of spectators physically present in Jersey City as well. As Roger Kahn says: “No fight on record had ever attracted more than twenty thousand spectators, but Dempsey and Carpentier and an enthusiastic press were creating a new world of boxing.” (232) The jump from 20,000 (the number estimated to have been present at the Dempsey-Willard fight in 1919) to the estimated 80,000-90,000 present at Carpentier-Dempsey is indeed, both numerically and culturally, a monumental leap.[6] The fight not only drew, by a factor of at least four, a larger crowd than had ever before been seen at a boxing match but the largest crowd at any sporting event.  

Gallico astutely points out that this kind of box-office draw feeds on itself: crowds draw crowds, large numbers of people turn out because large numbers of people are turning out.  In reference to Carpentier-Dempsey and the other $1,000,000 fights of the 1920’s, he says:

[…] curiously, the crowds themselves drew crowds. […] the crowd itself […] was a spectacle, and coming to see and admire itself, this monster fattened and grew larger and larger.  If a fight promised to draw the largest crowd in the history of pugilism, it was considered sufficient reason for rushing out to purchase a ticket, because whether the fight was any good or not, the gathering of one hundred and twenty thousand persons in one arena would be worth the trouble.  And it was, too.  Those million-dollar crowds were something to see. (104)

The gate receipts were famously record-breaking, due not only to the record-breaking number of tickets sold but also to the record-breaking per-ticket prices (as much as $50 for a ringside seat).

The July 3, 1921 edition of the New York Times gives the round number of $1,600,000 and compares it to the previous biggest gate in history (Dempsey-Willard, $452,522) and the one before that (Johnson-Jeffries, $270,775).  In Round by Round, Dempsey says the gate was $1,626,580 and says the figure is about four times more than Dempsey-Willard and nearly six times that of Johnson-Jeffries.  Historian Randy Roberts gives the figure $1,789,238 and says that it was “well over twice as much as any previous fight.”[7] Despite some discrepancy in dollar amounts, the point remains the same in all versions: the gate for Carpentier-Dempsey dwarfed previous dollar amounts taken in for a boxing match or any other athletic contest.

The boxers’ purses also reflect this new age of big money: according to Roberts (105), Dempsey was paid $300,000 and given 25% of the film rights, while Carpentier was paid $200,000 and also given 25% of the film rights.  These were of course astronomical sums at the time.  Roberts puts them into context, citing a New York Times editorial that informed readers that Dempsey’s $300,000 was more than the salary earned by the president of the United States over a four-year period in office, more than the vice president would make in twenty-five years in office and three times more than the annual salary of any of the ten Cabinet members (106). For better or, as the Times editorialist and others would have it, worse, new ground was being broken as athletes became, for the first time, super-stars with salaries to match. As Roger Kahn says: “If you want to select an exact date when it was proven publicly that American sports had become big business, July 2, 1921 certainly makes sense.” (231)

Carpentier-Dempsey represented in fact the beginning of a new era in sports in which everything would be bigger: crowds, money, interest, press coverage.  Obsessive mass interest in the serial narrative of the heavyweight division would become a mainstay of American culture.  Despite several dormant periods, that would remain the case through Muhammad Ali’s big fights of the 1970’s.  The exact end-point of that cultural phenomenon is perhaps debatable but its starting-point is absolutely clear: the Carpentier-Dempsey fight in 1921.

[1] Ginette Haÿ, 141; the formulation of Haÿ’s sentence does not make clear whether this figure represents the number of journalists present at ringside or those who wrote about the event (some of whom may not necessarily have been present). Nor does she give a source for he number. Return to text

[2] Fleischer, Idol of Fistiana, 195. Return to text

[3] Both this quote and the statistics on newspaper readership come from Evensen, 50 and 52. Return to text

[4] Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties (New York: Harper, 1957): 189-190. Return to text

[5] Paul Gallico, Farewell to Sport (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938): 103. Return to text

[6] An exact number of Carpentier-Dempsey attendees is unavailable.  In Round by Round, 205, Dempsey gives the number 91, 162 but doesn’t say where it comes from.  Kahn says the official number is 80, 183 but reports that Dempsey told him that it had to have been at least 90,000, speculating that Rickard may have low-balled the figure in order to save on his taxes. Return to text

[7] Dempsey, Round by Round, 205; Roberts, 120. Return to text