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“The Battle of the Century” by Ring Lardner (1921)

Among the most famous of Ring Lardner’s famous short stories is a tale based on the Carpentier-Dempsey fight, “The Battle of the Century” (first published in The Saturday Evening Post, October 29, 1921).[1]  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 Lardner, newspaper coverage of Carpentier-Dempsey 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, a strategy that is guaranteed to be 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, this may well be a reasonable, if cynical, representation of the kind of commercial thinking that inspired Carpentier-Dempsey.

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.’”  Since 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 suggesting that Goulet is simply too small for Jim. The implication is that the very idea is preposterous. 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 buy tickets to a real fight. Moon frets about Goulet’s arrival, hoping he won’t have gotten seasick and lost weight (this is 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 buy 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 light heavyweight title 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 obdurate 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 designed exclusively to set up Carpentier-Dempsey 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 legitimate 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, however, there was never a reasonable chance. The fight took place anyway, simply because it 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.  Despite Dempsey’s size and strength advantage, it was unreasonable to believe that the right punch from Carpentier at the right moment, properly set up, could take him out.  Against a man like Carpentier, Dempsey’s boxing skills, both offensive and defensive, needed to be at their best, as did his conditioning. The idea that Dempsey would not have understood this and would not, consequently, have trained in earnest is improbable at best.

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 that 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 realism, 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 real 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 him 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.”  This is 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 idear 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 ignorance and gullibility.  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 not 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 fact that the hype Lardner describes was tailor-made to fit the mood of the country (and the world) at a particular historical moment 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 chooses 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 wise, world-weary insider, devoid of any illusions about the real workings of the fight game.  He insists on playing the role of the clear-eyed, clear-headed cynic in opposition to the army of the slack-jawed, muddle-headed newspaper readers.[2] 

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. (Flame of Pure Fire, 403)

I would argue that the version of Carpentier-Dempsey Lardner offers up in “The Battle of the Century” is something less than a considered judgment as well. 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 mean, 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 as dubious as those of the press machine.

Over-eager cynicism like Lardner’s is of course not only a reaction to actual scandals like that of the Chicago Black Sox. It is also a reaction to the sentimentalized excesses of the mainstream newspaper writing of the era.  The 1920’s were characterized by flowery rhetoric and all forms of sensationalism but also characterized by hard-boiled, self-congratulatory debunking.  The symbiotic relationship between the two postures 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).[3] With his characteristic sarcasm, Lardner points out his own superior insight: “Contrary to the general belief, they’s a good many American fight writers that knows more about fights and fighters than even Bernard Shaw.”[4]

[1] 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

[2] 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, Flame of Pure Fire, 402)

The scenario Lardner lays out here—Dempsey the champ who can’t make any money with his title, due to a complete absence of worthy challengers, 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 re: Dempsey-Tunney in 1926).  There is good reason to speculate that, in his eagerness not to be deluded, Lardner created some powerful delusions of his own. Return to text

[3] 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 fight fan in a crowd of dupes. Return to text

[4] 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