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The Reality in the Ring

Carpentier the Boxer

Carpentier’s pugilistic accomplishments were real and they were considerable, a fact that can get lost in accounts of his career that tend to emphasize his loss to Dempsey, in which he is typically said to have displayed great courage but not necessarily great skill. To define Carpentier’s entire career by his most famous defeat is both inaccurate and unfair. It must be remembered that Carpentier’s overall career was remarkable. He fought young, even by the standards of the era, and he fought often. He did a lot of winning, in a number of cases spectacularly. Indeed, Carpentier accomplished feats, accumulated titles and set records that continue to amaze:

--Carpentier fought professionally in eight different weight classes, flyweight to heavyweight and every division in between. It is important to note that this was in an era when there were many fewer weight divisions, before the proliferation of the numerous subdivisions that exist today (“super-“ and “junior-“ divisions) and that make boxing in many different weight classes a more usual and less significant phenomenon;

--He was the first Frenchman to hold a European boxing title (welterweight champ, in a win over Englishman Young Joseph in 1911), going on to win a second European championship a mere four months later (middleweight, defeating Jim Sullivan by knockout in the second round), a third a year after that (light-heavyweight, with another second-round knockout, this one of “Bandsman” Dick Rice) and a fourth four months after that (his celebrated first-round knockout of “Bombardier” Billy Wells in June 1913). All of these titles were won while Carpentier was literally still a teenager;

--When he won the title of welterweight champion of Europe in 1911, he was the youngest European professional champ ever (a record that still stands);

--He was the first Frenchman and in fact the first non-native speaker of English to hold a world title in boxing (light-heavyweight champion, won by his fourth-round KO of Battling Levinsky in Jersey City in 1920);

--He was the first Frenchman and first non-native speaker of English to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world (the second would not come along for another sixty-two years, when Moroccan-born Parisian Lucien Rodriguez challenged champion Larry Holmes in March 1983);

--He was the first reigning light-heavyweight champion of the world to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world (there will be other attempts, none successful until 1985, with Michael Spinks’ defeat of Larry Holmes);

--He is one of only three boxers in the history of the sport to have both refereed a world heavyweight championship bout (Jack Johnson-Frank Moran, 1914, in Paris) and fought in one (Carpentier-Dempsey, 1921) (the others were Jim Jeffries and, much later, Joe Walcott);

-- He nearly single-handedly brought about the successful importation of the previously English-language sport of boxing to France and, by extension, the rest of continental Europe and beyond;

--He played a pivotal role in the successful marketing of boxing to previously untapped markets not only in France but in England and the United States as well (women, the middle classes, intellectuals, even royalty);

--A number of Carpentier’s fights broke standing records for attendance and/or purse and/or gate receipts (Carpentier/Papke in 1912 broke the French gate record; Carpentier’s purse in his 1914 fight against Joe Jeannette broke the French record for purse; the 1922 Carpentier-Lewis fight broke the British attendance and gate records; and of course the 1921 “fight of the century” between Carpentier and Dempsey, the first million-dollar gate, smashed records of all kinds, including (but not limited to) attendance, gate and purse. It also smashed all previous records in terms of press coverage (more than 2,000,000 words published in US newspapers alone, nearly as many in France and massive coverage all over the world; thirteen pages, including a banner headline and five of the six columns on the front page, in the New York Times the day after the fight, etc.) and ushered in a new era of both sports and sports journalism as big businesses.