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Hemingway, Shaw and Other Heavy Hitters Weigh In

Carpentier arrived in New York for the second time on May 16, 1921, in advance of his fight with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, scheduled for July 2.  Along with all the other hype for the fight discussed below, there were numerous predictions printed about its outcome, from a wide range of sources.  The most famous, and controversial, of these sources was George Bernard Shaw, who had been a Carpentier fan since the Carpentier-Beckett fight in London, some two years before.  Writing in the New York American, Shaw declared unalloyed support for Carpentier, calling him “the most formidable boxer in the world” and touting his “brains, style and character.”  The playwright went so far as to put his own reputation on the line: “I stake upon Carpentier’s victory over Dempsey my reputation for knowing what I write about.”

Sportswriter Heywood Broun, writing in the Tribune with tongue only partially in cheek, expressed concern over predictions like Shaw’s:

Probably Mr. Shaw meant well in going on the record that Carpentier cannot lose.  But we wonder if he realized the fearful burden he has placed on the shoulders of Georges Carpentier.  Well-wishers to the challenger pointed out the advantage which came to him, back in the days before the Shaw article, from the fact that he had nothing to lose.  Dempsey would bring into the ring with him, they said, the whole weight of the heavyweight title.  Now that has become a feather.  Shaw has staked upon Carpentier “my reputation for knowing what I write about.”  In other words, if Carpentier falls, vegetarianism goes with him and so does Wagner’s music, the drama of Ibsen, the freedom of Ireland, Fabian socialism, disarmament, the superman and creative evolution itself.[1]

Broun, himself a Carpentier partisan, did not contradict Shaw’s assertion that Carpentier would win but fretted over the potentially damaging upping-of-the-stakes that statements like Shaw’s represent.[2]

Another pre-fight speculator was none other than Ernest Hemingway, connoisseur of boxing and journalist for the Toronto Star.  While he didn’t actually predict a Carpentier victory, he did assert that it would be foolish to believe that Carpentier did not have a chance.  In an editorial published in the Toronto Sun on June 25, 1921, “The Superman Myth,” Hemingway deconstructs in details the notion of an invincible Dempsey.  He begins by describing the myth, in which so many Americans fervently believe:

Jack Dempsey, a well-built, scowling, hard faced citizen of Utah, is regarded as a superman by several millions of people.

He has been pronounced the greatest fighter of all time, the hardest hitter, and the fastest heavyweight that ever climbed through the ropes.  Many people fear for the safety of Georges Carpentier’s life, when he shuts himself into the ring with this tremendous primitive force.

Hemingway goes on to set the record straight.  He does not, however, discuss the fact that the widespread belief in Dempsey’s invincibility is not the result, for the most part, of hero worship. The odd fact is that Superman was decidedly unpopular.  Hemingway’s goal was rather to argue that Dempsey, popular or not, is no Superman.  To do this, he sets out his version of the story of how Dempsey came to be in possession of the world title in the first place.  Jess Willard, the champ from whom Dempsey won the title, “hated fighting” and was “very fond of drinking.” Hemingway says that Willard’s own acquisition of the title, from the legendary Jack Johnson (on the run from US authorities at the time of the bout, held in Havana), was “in bad odor with every one acquainted with the back-stage workings of championship fighters.” Willard, he says, was chosen “by fate and [promoter] Jack Curley to be the man to defeat the renegade Johnson.” According to Hemingway, then, Willard won his title in a fixed fight (this was a belief shared by many and propagated for years by Johnson himself; it is now considered unlikely).  As champion, Willard defended his title once, against “mediocre opponent” Frank Moran before he “lapsed into more congenial pursuits.”

Willard, according to Hemingway, was in no shape to fight Dempsey when July 4, 1919 rolled around: “forty years old, heavily paunched, untrained and sodden and loggy with two years of steady drinking.” Hemingway accurately reports the fact that “the slim, sun-browned Dempsey slugged [Willard] to the canvas seven times” in Round 1.

What follows in the account, however, is considerably more questionable. Hemingway says that the end of Round 3 found Dempsey “tired from smashing the big bulk” and Willard seemingly “recuperating from the beating he had taken.” Willard, Hemingway says, “seemed the fresher of the two,” while Dempsey “was hanging on to him and occasionally socking in a tired manner.”  Clearly implying that Willard could have gone on, and perhaps even won the fight, Hemingway says that Willard’s corner threw in the towel at the start of Round 4: “Jess believed he had given the fans a run for their admission—and he didn’t need the championship any more—he had $150,000.”

The facts of the Dempsey-Willard fight diverge substantially from Hemingway’s version. According to nearly all other descriptions of the bout, many of which were eye-witness accounts, Dempsey delivered a brutal, totally one-sided beating to Willard.  It is visible, even in still pictures, that Willard’s face was badly damaged, far beyond the normal damage sustained in the ring.  In fact, Willard was in such bad shape by the end of the third round that it was widely speculated (and, decades later, falsely “corroborated” by former Dempsey manager Jack Kearns) that Dempsey’s gloves had been illegally “loaded.” The only thing that kept Willard up was his sheer bulk. Willard was not a skilled boxer and one might well argue, as indeed has been done, that he was never genuinely world champion material.  Beating him may therefore be considered a less-than-impressive accomplishment.  Nonetheless, it is impossible to argue plausibly that Dempsey did not beat him fairly, soundly and beyond the shadow of a doubt on July 4, 1919.

After having put in question the legitimacy of Dempsey’s title, Hemingway goes on to attack his record of defending it.  The first title defense was against a sick Billy Miske, a close personal friend of Dempsey’s whom he charitably agreed to fight so that Miske could earn some much-needed money to pay his doctor bills. Friendship or not, Dempsey knocked him out but this was no genuine title defense, given Miske’s condition.  Nonetheless, Hemingway informs his readers, “[e]xperts all over the country hailed the victory as a Dempsey superman triumph.”

The second defense was against Bill Brennan, a “cumbersome, slow-moving, but awkwardly-hardhitting” opponent.  According to Hemingway, Dempsey “had been doing his training on Broadway” and had let himself go soft. He climbed through the ropes for the Brennan fight, Hemingway says, “trembling like a scared school girl.” He was a changed man since the Willard fight: “His nerves were gone and his face, according to ringsiders, was a ghastly green color.” In spite of Brennan’s supposedly obvious lack of skill, Dempsey “had all he could do to stay in the ring” with him for twelve rounds, before finally knocking him out. The knockout punch, Hemingway points out, was a rabbit punch, “a blow that is barred as a foul everywhere but in the United States.” Yet another unimpressive performance on Dempsey’s part, according to Hemingway: “Nearly every fight writer present said that if anyone but Brennan had been fighting Dempsey, the title would have changed hands. The superman myth seemed to be exploded.”

With the hype for the Carpentier fight in full swing, however, the Dempsey-as-superman myth had been revived in full force, much to Hemingway’s chagrin. The Toronto Sun editorialist’s position is clear: Dempsey’s defeat of Willard was no great feat and he had done nothing of note since; furthermore, high living had taken its toll on the man’s ability to perform in the ring. The conclusion to which this leads is logical, if one accepts this description of Dempsey:

Jack Dempsey is not the man today that he was at Toledo [site of the Willard fight].  Two years of championship life coupled with whatever effects there might be from his wild years as a bum and tramp fighter have made a change in him.  The public are rarely told of these things.


Georges Carpentier has a chance on July 2nd that is the envy of half a dozen fighters.

Harry Greb […] said the other day: “The Frenchman is lucky—any good fast man, which can hit, will take Jack Dempsey.  I envy Carpentier his chance.”

That is an outside opinion on the fight.[3]   

Hemingway posits himself as an insider with both more knowledge and greater lucidity than the man on the street who swallows unquestioningly everything he reads in the newspaper (the ironic fact that this higher knowledge is also being imparted via newspaper remains unaddressed.) He makes a point of informing us that the newspaper accounts have served not to inform but to generate a myth and obscure the facts of Dempsey’s career: “Experts all over the country hailed the victory as a Dempsey superman triumph and only a few came out with the statement of Miske’s true condition.” Dempsey is “not the man today that he was at Toledo,” but, “[T]he public are rarely told of these things.” He implies that this myth-making has a history in the sport, citing the example of Jim Corbett, who said the day before Jeffries fought Johnson that it was “an outrage” to let Jeffries fight Johnson, because he was “a wreck from high living.” Of Corbett’s statement, he asks: “But what papers published the statement till after the battle?”

Literary types and journalists were of course not the only people whose opinions on the upcoming bout appeared in print.  Boxers themselves were consulted.  Battling Levinksy, the only man to have fought both Carpentier and Dempsey, declined to make a prediction, opining that “Carpentier can hit as hard as Dempsey and he carries a knockout punch in both hands,” that he is “equally fast as the champion and although he is not as rugged and strong as Dempsey, his better boxing ability offsets the point […]”  For Levinsky, the odds are even; he concludes that “the one who gets across the first wallop will win.”[4] 

Predictions from other boxers, both active and retired, representing a range of weight classes, were more clear-cut.  Bill Brennan, Willie Meehan, Frank Klaus, Jack Johnson, Freddy Welch, Tommy Gibbons, Joe Lynch, Jack McAuliffe all weighed in unambiguously for a Dempsey victory.  Willie Lewis and Joe Jeanette, however, stated their belief that Carpentier would win.  Bantamweight Johnny Coulon, saying that Carpentier “has more science than any living fighter […] [and] a terrific punch that knocks out any living man if he lands it,” gave Carpentier a very good chance. Former Carpentier opponent Joe Beckett predicted a win by the Frenchman, “if [he] is as fast as he is said to be.”[5] For his part, Bombardier Billy Wells hedged his bets somewhat, suggesting that Dempsey would win if the fight ended early but that Carpentier’s greater ring experience would give him the advantage in a longer fight.  His desire, he makes clear, is to see his friend Carpentier come out on top:

Although I believe that Dempsey will win, don’t take that as a sign that I have an unfavorable opinion of Carpentier.  On the contrary, the loyal boxer, the true sportsman that my compatriots have often praised in me wishes with all my heart to see the French gentleman boxer win.  I have retained from my relations with Carpentier, as a boxer and as a man, only the fondest of memories.

My thought is that Dempsey is stronger; my desire is that Carpentier come back to Europe soon as the world champion.[6]

For many observers, the business of predicting the fight was a simple matter: the disparity in size between the two men  told the entire story in advance.  Dempsey was simply too big and strong for Carpentier, whose status as a heavyweight (as opposed to light heavyweight) was always something of an exaggeration.  The contrast in their measurements at the time of the fight spoke volumes, at least to the partisans of the size-trumps-all theory:

Height: Carpentier: 5’11”        Dempsey: 6’1”

Weight: Carpentier: 172        Dempsey: 188

Reach: Carpentier: 76”        Dempsey: 78”

Neck: Carpentier: 15.5”        Dempsey: 16.5”

Chest: Carpentier: 40”                Dempsey: 42”

Chest (expanded):Carpentier: 44”        Dempsey: 46”

Biceps: Carpentier: 15.75”        Dempsey: 16.25”

Forearm: Carpentier: 13”        Dempsey: 14.25”

Wrist: Carpentier: 8.75”        Dempsey: 9.25”

Waist: Carpentier: 29”        Dempsey: 32”

Given this significant disadvantage in size, Carpentier would have had to have an equally significant advantage in speed or skill or power in order to win the fight.  Unfortunately for him, and in contrast to some erroneous pre-fight descriptions, Dempsey was neither a plodding ox nor an unskilled brawler.  In addition to the ferocious punching style and formidable power for which he was best known, Dempsey was also a supremely skilled defensive boxer, who had made a veritable art of the bob-and-weave.  His defensive skills canceled out Carpentier’s impressive speed.  And his granite chin canceled out Carpentier’s legendary power.

Not surprisingly, man-in-the-street predictions fell out along very clear nationalistic lines.  Of 52,000 Frenchmen interviewed, 49,000 said that Carpentier would win.  This rate of 95%, according to the article that reports it, is the exact inverse of the same poll taken on the street in New York.[7]  Americans had quickly learned to love Carpentier but few actually expected to see him win-- which is no contradiction: they loved him, in large part, as an underdog. The minority of Americans who actually thought Carpentier would win tended to be people who knew little about boxing.  In France, however, even long-time observers of the sport announced their belief that their countryman would prevail. Tristan Bernard, the playwright and long-time boxing aficionado (sometime referee), said in the sporting magazine L’Auto: “Our confidence [in Carpentier] is not based on desire but rather on experience and reason.” One French boxing historian reports that “In France, there was no question, for a single instant, of imagining the defeat of the idol.”[8] 

[1] Both Shaw and Broun are quoted in Kahn, 259-260. Return to text

[2] Shaw specified, in the London Daily News, that Carpentier’s size was not a problem: To his eye, the Frenchman had a perfect fighter’s build and required no extra bulk in order to take care of Dempsey.  Cited in Benamou, Les Grands, 118. Return to text

[3] This and all preceding quotes from Hemingway are from his editorial “The Superman Myth,” which appeared in the Toronto Sun, July 25, 1921 and was reprinted in that same paper on March 1, 1992, p. F3. Return to text

[4] Quoted in Henry L. Farrell, “First Wallop Will Decide the Dempsey Carpentier Battle,” Beloit Daily News (May 13, 1921) [wire story]. Return to text

[5] These predictions are reported in various articles, many of them installments in an ongoing wire service series called “Who Will Win?,” in the weeks leading up to the fight, from the Beloit Daily News and included in the Antiquities of the Prize Ring archives. Return to text

[6] The article that recounts Wells’ comments quoted here appeared in the French newspaper Excelsior on June 22, 1921; it is the translation of an article by Edmond O’Brian, the dateline of which is June 21.  The original place of publication is not specified. Return to text

[7] The poll was commissioned by, and reported in, Le Miroir des Sports. See Haÿ, 132 (who includes no specific information about the New York poll alluded to). Return to text

[8] Both quotes are from Benamou, Les Grands, 118. Return to text