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Thousands Screamed in Delight: Crowd Reactions

In contrast to numerous other commentators, Gaston Bénac, one of four French journalists at ringside, reports that the great cheers of the American crowd for Carpentier only began after Round 1 was underway and were an expression of the fans’ surprise and delight that the Frenchman was fighting an aggressive fight.  According to Bénac, the crowd had not been on Carpentier’s side before the fight began but was quickly won over by his performance in the ring:

The American crowd, who had expected a dancer, found themselves watching a boxer, a fearless boxer who was taking the fight to a man who weighed sixteen pounds more than he.

They cheered for Carpentier, they were already calculating the possibility of a surprise upset.  In the space of three minutes, Georges had completely reversed the sympathies of the crowd.[1]

Most accounts of the fight itself emphasize the vocal support of the crowd for Carpentier throughout.  Paul O’Neill, in one of the most colorful accounts of the match, writes in the New York World on July 3:

With each flash of that lightning-like right hand of his that landed upon Dempsey, the thousands had screamed in delight.  And there were plentiful opportunities for the screams, for Georges’s shots were as accurate as they were bullet-like.  And when in the second round he had whipped that fast-going fist over from the shoulder two or three times and had brought it up again from his knees once or twice, those high notes—those voices, half of triumph, half of desire for triumph dominated.

O’Neill’s account continues to emphasize the fervent desire of the crowd to see Carpentier prevail, especially at the famous dramatic moment in Round 2 when it looked as if Carpentier just might be able to knock Dempsey out:

For then it looked as though as though one or more of them, just another single punch, would bring down the dark-skinned half-dazed champion of the world, who was up against the ropes and apparently glad of their support.

Just one more! One forward or upward flash.  As some spectator close to the ring phrased it: “Carpentier was within a single wallop of the championship of the world.”

Other accounts of Round Two echo this description of a crowd eager to see Carpentier win:

The crowd, quick to realize the challenger’s advantage, encouraged Carpentier.  A roar welled up in the great arena.  Everybody seemed to sense a critical situation, akin to a climax.  Carpentier followed his left hook with a crushing right, which landed cleanly on the champion’s jaw.  Dempsey was shaken from head to heel.  His eyes were glazed.  He was wide open for assault in the dizziness resulting from the blows.  He had not the faculty for throwing up a guard.  The sight of the titleholder staggering and dazed, glassy-eyes, before his lithe, agile, dangerous rival, threw the crowd into a frenzy. A cheer which re-echoed through the neighborhood urged Carpentier on to finish the job he had started.  There were visions of the title changing hands.  Carpentier was popular.  The crowd wanted him to win. (New York Times, July 3)

Then something happened.  Carpentier’s left hand shot out in a brown streak and hit Dempsey’s face—not very hard, it seemed, but hard enough to throw the champion off his guard for the fraction of a second.  In that flash Carpentier’s long right had struck in and caught Dempsey on the jaw.  The champion’s head went back sharply and there was a roar of joy from the crowd. (New York Times, July 3)

Writing in the New York World the day after the fight, referee Harry Ertle himself includes the cheering in Round Two in his version of events:

The big surprise of the day came in the next round.  The great big little man made a surprising comeback.  Shortly after the men had started work in this round, Carpentier caught Dempsey with a terrific right flush on the chin.  The champion looked to me to be badly shaken up, but not without full possession of his senses.  I could fairly feel the roar that greeted this […]  

The crowd’s reaction to Carpentier’s performance in the second round is recorded in the history books as well as the newspapers of the day:

The Frenchman took the offensive at the clang of the gong in the second round after Jack had easily won the opening one, and for one complete round had the greatest boxer of recent years rocking back under the fury of the onslaught.  A swooping overhand punch was responsible.

Then came the run of the battle.  With 80,000 cheering the Orchid Kid as he came out for the third round […] [the caption to a ring photo of Carpentier-Dempsey, on the same page reads: “The end of a gallant challenger came in the fourth round when the heavier, stronger Dempsey knocked Carpentier out, but not until after the “Orchid Kid” had supplied a real thrill for the onlookers by staggering the champion in the second round.”][2]

For his part, H. L. Mencken argues that the crowd reaction to Carpentier’s performance in Round Two is a naïve one, reflecting romantic partisanship and wishful thinking rather than objective pugilistic assessment:

In the second round, of course, there was a moment when Carpentier appeared to be returning to the fight.  The crowd, eager to reward his heroic struggle, got to its legs and gave him a cheer.  He waded into Jack, pushed him around a bit, and now and then gave him a taste of that graceful right.  But there was no left to keep it company and behind it there was not enough amperage to make it burn.  Dempsey took it, shook it off, and went on.

[…] In the space of half a minute Carpentier stopped twenty-five sickening blows, most of them short, and all of them cruelly hard. […] Because he stood up to it gamely and even forced the fighting, the crowd was for him, and called it his round.  But this view was largely that of amateurs […] Observed more scientifically the round was Jack’s.  When it closed he was as good as new and Carpentier was beginning to go pale. (New York World, July 3)

Various accounts of the fight also emphasize the crowd response when Dempsey knocked Carpentier out, in the middle of the fourth round. Multiple writers agree that the prevalent feeling is one of admiration for Carpentier and disappointment at his loss, rather than jubilation at Dempsey’s victory:

Carpentier fell face forward as the mighty blow toppled him to the floor of the ring.  The crowd was hushed.  Their idol was on the verge of defeat.  An American regarded as one of the greatest champions known to the ring was administering defeat to a foreigner, but this fact made no difference with the crowd.  Carpentier the idol of France, decorated war hero and remarkably popular here, was the favorite with the crowd.  They wanted to see him win. (New York Times, July 3)

A kind of depression settled down over this great crowd after Carpentier crumpled to the floor the last time.

Dempsey’s victory was not followed by such scenes of wild or feverish delight as often have greeted the triumph of a champion.  He had his partisans, very many of them, but […] there was more quietness than applause.  (Edwin C. Hill, New York Herald, July 3)

In the Tribune, the same day, Heywood Broun wrote that both Carpentier and Dempsey were cheered as they left the ring, “but again Carpentier had the majority of the crowd.” The Police Gazette’s version of the fight, published July 23, 1921, says of the end of the fight: “Again there was but a faint cheer for the victor.”[3]

Carpentier himself says that it was in the fourth round, when he was knocked down, that he realized that the crowd was on his side:

With one knee on the canvas I sought to regain my breath.  I could see Descamps’s face screwed up and dripping with sweat that might have been mistaken for tears.  There was no shouting now-- unlike that second round when I had landed with my right.  At that moment I knew that the majority of those Americans sitting out there wanted to see me win.  (Carpentier by himself, 152; translation revised)

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[1] Bénac, Champions dans les coulisses (Toulouse: Editions de l’Actualité Sportive, 1944): 57. Return to text

[2] Sam André and Nat Fleischer, A Pictorial History of Boxing (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1987): 101-102. Return to text

[3] Interestingly, in contrast to the multiple accounts of American observers and that of Carpentier himself, French journalist Gaston Bénac saw and heard things quite differently.  He describes the crowd as engaging in a sort of nationalistic frenzy at the victory of their homegrown champion.  The crowd greets the victory of its champion with an immense clamor.  Hats are thrown in the air. American flags are unfurled, the band plays the national anthem. (L’Intransigeant, July 4) Return to text