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Round Two: Many Tales of a Single Punch

There is no such thing as truly objective reporting, perhaps least of all from ringside of a high-profile, high-stakes prizefight.  Various texts adopt various tones and modes when relating what happened in the ring in Jersey City on July 2, 1921. In fact, the pugilistic facts themselves are subject to a wide variety of differing interpretations.  Even the fighters, speaking at various moments in their later lives, are liable to provide various accounts. A particularly clear-cut example of this phenomenon is in the spectrum of accounts of the punch that may (or may not) have nearly KO’d Dempsey in the second round of the Carpentier fight.

Round Two is typically narrated-- except by the hard-core cynics who maintain a near-fanatical insistence that Carpentier never at any moment stood the slightest chance of winning-- as the moment in the fight when Carpentier might have won, when he came “within a single wallop of the championship of the world.”  Particularly in the more theatrically inclined of the accounts, this moment is recounted with considerable dramatic flourish:

Dempsey can thank his steel jaw for saving the title.  He battered the French boy to the floor in one minute and sixteen seconds of the fourth round, after coming as close to defeat as he ever will, perhaps, while the crown of clout rests on his black curls.

Carpentier was flayed until he actually collapsed finally, but for just one moment of the greatest of all international bouts he had the priceless title within his grasp.  He had the champion punched out on his feet in the second round as a result of a right crack to the jaw. […] Dempsey [was] teetering on the brink of oblivion […] (Hype Igoe, New York World, July 3)

Carpentier’s lightning shots to the jaw jarred the champion from head to heels.  His knees buckled under him for a second or two and it looked as though he would fall.  For the first time he backed away and covered up.

It was at that point that the fortune of war favored Dempsey and went against Carpentier.  When Dempsey staggered, Carpentier put everything he had behind a final right hander.  The world title and all it meant to him was in sight for the Frenchman when he launched that blow.  Had it landed Dempsey must have gone down, but it missed by the scantest of margins and a clinch ended the rally.  A little luck on Carpentier’s part and the result might have been entirely different. (Fred Keats, New York Sun, July 5, p. 20)  

Some writers argue that it was Dempsey’s terrific ability to take a punch, his “steel jaw,” that prevented him from going down when Carpentier landed his formidably powerful right hand:

Bang goes the punch and the title and the champion totters.  It is a blow that would have dropped any man in the world save Dempsey.  The champion is frightfully groggy. (New York World, July  3)

 The trouble was that Dempsey was able to take the kick.  A pound more power in the right would have startled and shook Dempsey and he would have sat down on the ring floor.  Two more pounds and he would have laid down for probably a nine count.  Two pounds and a half and all the little birdies of Jersey City would have been singing sweet nothings in Jack’s ears.  (Sparrow McGann, Louisville Courier-Journal, January 8, 1922)

Carpentier attacks again and, in the clinches, lands hard punches on the American champion, who sways lightly, stumbles and has to cover up because he is seriously threatened at this point.  But his ability to take a punch and his powers of recuperation are remarkable […] (Gaston Bénac, L’Intransigeant, July 4)

Others point out, accurately, that Carpentier’s famous right did not in fact land on Dempsey’s chin, as was widely reported, but on his cheekbone:

Carpentier opened the second round wearing a slight smile.  Then he went forth and almost won the championship.

About a minute into the round, with Dempsey pressing and Carpentier circling and slipping punches, the Frenchman delivered his full straight right hand from an unusual angle.  This was the punch that had finished Joe Beckett, Bombardier Billy Wells, and Battling Levinsky.  It crashed flush against Dempsey’s left cheekbone.  The champion spun back.  It was almost a stumble.  His knees sagged.  But this was not Bombardier Billy Wells.  Jack Dempsey shook his head and stayed on his feet.  The great punch, the French piston, had missed the chin. (Kahn, Flame of Pure Fire, 265)

Carpentier’s famous second-round right, which might have won him the fight, in fact assured that he would lose it.  The Frenchman broke his right hand on Dempsey’s cheekbone and was forced to fight the remaining two rounds with only one good hand:

The great punch, the French piston, had missed the chin.  Worse yet for Carpentier, the impact of his own glove against Dempsey’s face was so fierce that it strained his wrist and fractured his thumb in two places.  After that, Carpentier had to fight with a damaged right hand.  After that, in point of fact, the fight was over. (Kahn, 265)

Naturally, one can imagine a thousand different versions of this incident.  It is absolutely clear on the film that, paralyzed by pain, Carpentier did not follow up his punch like he ordinarily would have.  At the very moment he managed to shake Dempsey up, Carpentier was handicapped; without his wound, without the painful fracture of his thumb, what might have happened? (Philonenko, Histoire de la boxe, 254)

Carpentier, in an account published in the Daily Mail (London) on July 2, corroborated this version of events and described his feelings at the fateful moment:

I will never forget how my heart leapt with the joy of combat when I saw that the great mass in front of me staggered and shaken.  For a moment, I was overcome with joy at the thought of victory and the honor it would bring to France.  The next second, I realized that I had just experienced the worst possible piece of luck.  An acute, shooting pain went through my right hand and I knew that my thumb was broken.

Just months before his death, as a old man, the Frenchman gave a similar version:

My punch made him sag, made him back up to the ropes; but he didn’t go down.  It was at that precise instant that I lost the fight.

If it weren’t for the pain in my right thumb which stopped me dead in my tracks and told me that I had broken something, I would no doubt have followed up with another right and taken advantage of the fact that I had wobbled the colossus standing in front of me.  (Mes 80 Rounds, 171)

Dempsey’s versions of the events of Round Two vary widely and are a saga unto themselves. Immediately following the fight, he claimed that he had not in fact been staggered by any of Carpentier’s punches, including the second-hand right that had appeared to so many observers to have had him in trouble. In the New York Times the day after the fight, in words that would be widely quoted (and reproduced verbatim three weeks later in the Police Gazette), the champion said:

I won just as I thought I would.  It was a good fight, and I think the public was satisfied.  They say Carpentier staggered me with a right-hand punch in the second round.  I don’t even remember having been hit hard enough to shake me up.  Perhaps he caught me off balance, and it looked as though I was staggering.

Dempsey’s post-fight account, it should be noted, was immediately and directly challenged. Fred Keats, writing in the New York Sun, on July 5, said:

Dempsey declares that he was not hurt at any time and he denies that he staggered although everyone at ringside saw his knees bend under him.  This indicates that Dempsey’s mind is in such condition when he is fighting that he is not fully aware of what is going on. […]

When the battle fury comes over Dempsey, he knows but one thing and that is to attack. He becomes so terribly excited that when a round is over it is impossible for him to tell what has happened during that period.

Keats’ hypothesis concerning Dempsey’s possibly inaccurate version of the second round of his fight with Carpentier may or may not itself be accurate. Whatever the case may be, some twenty years after the fact, in his 1940 autobiography, Dempsey is still telling a very similar version of the story:

All through that second round he carried the fight to me, and toward the close landed one of his best overhand swings on the side of my head.  It was a good blow, and he followed it up hard, landing a regular barrage of four or five more blows one after the other.  The excitement of the great crowd, with its intense enthusiasm for the Frenchman, brought out such a storm of sound as I had never heard before.  To Georges’ thousands of friends and admirers, it seemed that he was winning.

I had no such feeling myself and I don’t think Georges had.  I knew from experience that I could take even a number of knockdowns and still come through to win.  Carpentier’s best blows could do no such damage.

It just wasn’t in the cards for Carpentier to win.  (Round by Round, 211)

Twenty more years passed and Dempsey’s 1960 autobiography still gives virtually the same account, albeit with the addition of praise for Carpentier’s skill and power:

He hit me with a real good right in the second.  Jimmy Johnston, who saw them all, used to say that Carpentier had the best right hand of all.  I don’t know.  But it was a hell of a right.  It was sneaky, too, and he could deliver it after or during the midst of a lost of those funny springs and lunges that the European fighters go for.  It landed high on my left cheekbone.  If he had hit me on the chin there’s a good chance he would have knocked me down, and a fair chance he would have knocked me out.

It was a good punch, but it wasn’t in the right place.  He followed it up, like the pro that he was.  He bounced five in a row off my head before I could it him.  I busted him a right in the mouth and I knew I had him licked.  He hadn’t hurt me, and I could see he wouldn’t be able to take my punch.  (Dempsey: By the Man Himself, 137)

Interestingly, after almost twenty more years go by, Dempsey’s final autobiography (1977) reveals a significantly different perspective on Round Two of the Carpentier fight:

In the second round Carpentier took the offensive—his only real try for victory.  He threw a right that staggered me.  I looked at him with surprise. Could it be that he had been underrated?  But he didn’t follow through—he had broken his thumb.  (136)

This last account of Dempsey’s differs in two ways from the previous ones: first, he accurately says that Carpentier was unable to follow up on the terrific right to the cheekbone, as opposed to the earlier versions in which he erroneously describes a “barrage” of “four or five” more punches; and second, he says here that he was in fact “staggered” by Carpentier’s right, whereas in previous versions he specifically stated that he hadn’t been.

One can only speculate as to this change of perspective. It is all the more surprising as the last version, written as the edges of the ex-champion’s memory of his fight with Carpentier were surely somewhat less sharp than they had been, is the one that seems to square best with the objective facts of the bout.  Perhaps Dempsey no longer felt that he had to maintain a stance of invulnerability?  Perhaps a different ghostwriter, this time his stepdaughter, had different ideas of what would and would not be appropriate or compelling in an account of the fight?  Perhaps Dempsey reviewed a film of the fight, thereby causing him to remember things somewhat differently?

In any case, even more interesting than this late-in-the-day change of perspective is the fact that Dempsey had in fact already gone on the record admitting that he had been staggered by Carpentier’s second-round right, not long after the fight.  Revealingly, he appears to have done so only in French publications, in statements whose existence were never made known to the audience of American boxing aficionados and chroniclers, eager consumers of just such information.  Clearly Dempsey, ever astute about image, tailored his account according to the nationality of the eventual readers.

For example, Gaston Bénac, a French journalist who was at ringside, reports that the day after the fight Dempsey was unsparing in his praise of Carpentier’s punching ability: “Never, in my entire career, have I been punched so crisply and precisely.”  Bénac also quotes Dempsey from a later conversation, in which he praised Carpentier’s masterful footwork: “He was dancing around me; I had never seen an opponent with such fast footwork.”  With respect to Round Two, Dempsey said, according to Bénac:

[…] The springy little devil landed a punch right on the tip of my chin.  The blow was thrown with terrific force.  I staggered…

I had let myself get caught. I felt my legs buckle.  Black spots danced in front of my eyes. […] Everything around me was buzzing… Was it the end for me? […]

The crowd was still roaring.  I heard Joe Benjamin yelling at me: “Get him in a clinch, Jack! For the love of God, get him in a clinch! […] Don’t lose the title, Jack!  Do you want to go back to being poor?

Furthermore, Bénac has Dempsey explicitly refuting the statements ascribed to him by the New York papers, in which he claims that Carpentier never hurt him:

So that’s the story of my fight with Carpentier.  I have told it in all sincerity.  In New York, they said that I said that I never felt any of Carpentier’s punches.  That is absolutely false.[1]

Ten months or so after the Carpentier fight, when Dempsey was vacationing in Paris, he told the French daily L’Excelsior (May 14, 1922):

Maybe you remember the punch Georges Carpentier landed on me before I knocked him out?  Well sir, if that staggering (so to speak) punch had landed a centimeter and a half lower, I would have been the one, not Georges, knocked out!  You seem to have a false idea of the worth of the French champion.  He is absolutely good enough to get in the ring with me, or with any of the best fighters in the world.


Carpentier is an absolutely amazing man.  I don’t think you could find a right as awesome as his anywhere in the world.

I repeat and I am speaking from experience here: Carpentier is capable of winning against any boxer, me or anyone else, at any time, after the appropriate training, of course.

In a book written in 1926 by French author and observer of boxing Jacques Romanet (writing under the pseudonym “Jacques Mortane”), L’Ame des poings, never translated into English, Dempsey tells the author that Carpentier came as close to winning in the second round as a man could come:

Georges Carpentier gave me the greatest fight of my life.  Never did a man come as close to winning the championship as Carpentier did in that glorious second round in Jersey City.  And isn’t that proof of a great fighter?  No one ever threw a better right, the speed, power and precision of which were amazing… If Carpentier had weighed a few pounds more, I would declare, without the slightest hesitation, that he would have taken his place among the best heavyweights the world has ever known.  Even at his weight, I doubt that there was ever a faster, more skilled, more brilliant boxer.  I have certainly never seen a more scientific boxer in the heavyweight division and I don’t think there ever was one.  No fighter could be more loyal or more chivalrous; he accepted his defeat as only a gallant man can.[2]

Elsewhere in the same book, Dempsey is even more explicit about the fact that Carpentier’s second-round right truly had him in trouble.  In fact, according to this account, he barely made it through the round:

In fact, I got caught on the jaw with terrific force and I stumbled.  I had let myself get caught.  I felt my legs buckle; black spots danced before my eyes.  The crowd was on its feet, yelling for Carpentier to “finish him off.” My guard was down.  It was over!  I was against the ropes, bent over.  And Carpentier, like a demon, was smashing my chin with rights and lefts.

The crowd was roaring.  Nonetheless, I heard only one voice—the voice of Joe Benjamin, my second—and it was giving me advice: “Get him in a clinch, Jack! For the love of Mike, get him in a clinch!”

Luckily, I had remained in complete control of my senses.  I managed to get away from him and then get him in a clinch.  I shook my head, I drew on all the strength I had in me, but I was forced to face up to the pitiful state I was in.  I was afraid the title was slipping through my fingers.

I threw two punches.  They missed.  Finally the bell rang.  And I realized that I had been saved by my iron jaw!  (124-125)

Talking to Mortane, Dempsey categorically denies the idea that he ever said that he didn’t feel any of Carpentier’s punches.  He wants to set the record straight:

So that’s the story of my fight with Carpentier.  I have told it in all sincerity, just as the events took place.  And I would like to kill the idea that I have too often heard bandied about, that Carpentier was like putty in my hands.

People have quoted me as saying that I never felt any of Carpentier’s punches during our fight.  Never have I uttered such an absurdity.

I would have been lying if I had made a statement like that.  I beat Carpentier definitively, but I can admit without hesitation that Carpentier gave me the greatest fight of my life. (126)

What is most striking here is that a number of the exact same words are attributed to Dempsey by both Bénac and Mortane, both of whom claim to have interviewed him (and no doubt did).  Mortane’s book was published in 1926, while Bénac’s did not appear until 1944.  On the other hand, Bénac reported on the fight from ringside and did, it appears, talk to Dempsey the very day after the fight.  Dempsey may have had a set-piece version of his tale, more or less tailored for French interviewers; if so, he may well have used some of the same words in two different interviews.  Even in that case, however, it remains curious that Dempsey’s words, even if identical in English, would have been translated into identical phrases in French.  Much more important then the chronology of who said what to whom and who borrowed whose words is the fact that, read together, Mortane and Bénac’s accounts of Dempsey’s narrative of the fight constitute a sort of official French version of the fight.  At least as early as 1926, French boxing aficionados were told that Dempsey was KO’d on his feet in Round 2 and that the man himself said so.  While many American commentators said this from the start, American fans did not hear it from Dempsey until 1977.

French accounts also report Dempsey admitting later in life, in each case to a Frenchman, to having been knocked out on his feet in the infamous second round.  In 1966, the information is presented as if it were a shocking revelation (the title of the article reads: “Dempsey Reveals: Carpentier KO’d Me 45 Years Ago!”), when in fact, as we have seen, Dempsey had already made similar statements a number of times over the years, going all the way back to 1921:

The fight of the century […] has always retained its mystery […]

Today, Jack Dempsey reveals that mystery.  He confided his secret to Carlo Nell, the husband of Franca Duval (the Folies Bergère star), at a gala given in New York by the magician, to benefit former boxers.

Dempsey said to him: “In the second round, I was knocked out on my feet, by a right, but no one but me knew it.  Carpentier, who hadn’t realized it, made the mistake of not doubling up on his hook: all he would have had to do was push me and I would have gone down.  I have to make sure he knows that before I die.  Tell him hello for me, because he’s my oldest and dearest friend.[3]

Several years later, Dempsey’s French version of events was trotted out again, this time while he was visiting Paris:

In 1970, sitting in Carpentier’s bar on the Place de la Madeleine, Dempsey explained: “In the second round, I was KO’d on my feet, but nobody but me knew it.  If Carpentier had so much as pushed me, I would have gone down.[4]

Dempsey may well have made, over a period of fifty years, these statements about Carpentier’s abilities and the legendary second round punch in order to please his French interviewers and their readers.  He may have wanted above all to flatter Carpentier—the two indeed became fast friends immediately after the bout and remained so for the rest of their lives.  There is no way of knowing.  What is of interest to historians and biographers is the fact that Dempsey’s versions of Round Two vary significantly, not only over time but according to the nationality of his interlocutor.

None of this confusion makes it any easier to arrive at a clear-cut answer to the most fundamental and controversial question surrounding the bout: was it in fact a genuinely competitive contest or was it a grotesque mismatch, carefully crafted so as to bilk as much money out of a gullible public as possible?

[1] Gaston Bénac, Champions dans la coulisse (Toulouse: Editions de l’Actualité Sportive, 1944), 60; 65; 66-67. Return to text

[2] Jacques Mortane (pseudonym of Jacques Romanet), L’Ame des poings (Paris: Editions de la Bonne Idée, 1926), 126-127. Return to text

[3] “Dempsey Révèle: Carpentier m’a mis K.-O. il y a 45 ans!”  Paris-Jour (23 March 1966) [no authorr given]; article included in Ro 17.768 of the Arts du spectacle collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale. This version is cited, albeit without attribution, in Merlin’s biography of Carpentier (149). Return to text

[4] Michel Chemin, La Boxe dans son siècle (Sèvres: La Sirène, 1991), 49. Return to text