The local legend of Jack Dempsey

Posted 7/12/10

Danny Summers For most of his 89 years, boxing legend Jack Dempsey was known the world over as the “Manassa Mauler.” But around Victor and …

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The local legend of Jack Dempsey


Danny Summers

For most of his 89 years, boxing legend Jack Dempsey was known the world over as the “Manassa Mauler.”

But around Victor and Cripple Creek in the early part of the 20th century, he was simply “Kid Blackie.”

“We know that he had at least one fight at the Gold Hill Coin Club in Victor,” said William Baetok, archivist for the Cripple Creek District Museum. “Records are sketchy, but it’s pretty clear he fought a lot in this area.”

Several years before he would win the Heavyweight boxing title in 1919, Dempsey worked as a miner in Gold Camp. He had jobs at the Portland Mine in Victor and Mollie Kathleen in Cripple Creek, while training for his boxing career.

Born William Harrison Dempsey on June 24, 1895, in Manassa to Hyrum and Mary Dempsey, the future champion was the ninth of 11 children. One story about the start of Dempsey’s career centers on his alleged brother, John, who first appears as a miner in Cripple Creek in 1902. The District Museum states that this brother was Bernie Dempsey.

Sometime between 1907 and 1913, William Henry arrived from Telluride to work in the mines alongside his brother. His first job was at the Mollie Kathleen. Bernie was working at the Golden Cycle Mine at the time.

Dempsey “attended” school through the eighth grade, but by the time he was 16 had already worked as a miner and boxed dozens of matches under the pseudonym “Kid Blackie.”

In December of 1907, the Cripple Creek Times reported that “Kid Blacky (not Blackie)” would be fighting J.W. “Kid” Thomas on Christmas night in Victor.

But Dempsey would have been only 12 at the time — unlikely even as tough as William Henry was.

The beginning of Jack

According to legend, the most rembered “Kid Blackie” became Jack Dempsey on May 13, 1913, at the Lyric Opera House in Cripple Creek. That was the night Bernie — who was “pushing 40” asked his brother to step in his place and fight George Copelin. Bernie registered his brother as Jack Dempsey — the same name as a deceased middleweight champion.

The first officially recorded professional fight on Dempsey’s record was Aug. 17, 1914. His opponent was Young Herman, who Dempsey defeated in a six-round decision. The fight took place in Ramona — a stone’s throw from Old Colorado City, just northwest of Manitou Springs.

Dempsey’s only “official” professional fight in Gold Camp occurred Nov. 19, 1915, in Cripple Creek, when he knocked out Copelin in the sixth round in his old stomping grounds.

Dempsey’s early years were hard. His family was forced to keep on the move to look for work. By the age of 8, young Dempsey had shined shoes, sold newspapers, picked apples, and done off jobs for farmers. At age 11, he was working in the Gold Camp mines. He left home at 16 to concentrate on a career as a professional boxer.

“I guess I had a hundred fights between 1911 and 1916,” Dempsey recalled.

He also fought for meals in dozens of Colorado Wild West saloons, and rode rails across the state as a “hobo.”

“I can’t sing. I can’t dance. But I’ll lick anyone in the house,” Dempsey was reported to have said.

The height of his career

For a period of time in the 1920s, Jack Dempsey was one of the most recognizable figures in the world.

He rivaled Babe Ruth in both newspaper headlines on the sports pages and in popularity. He ran with the Hollywood crowd and was considered part of its royalty. The “Manassa Mauler,” drew huge crowds wherever he went. In all of his travels, however, Dempsey never forgot his Colorado roots.

Dempsey’s road to stardom was not always glamorous, however.

According to the Cripple Creek District Museum, the fighter’s early days ran the gambit from a well-liked fellow to a not-so-savory character. His time in Victor brought mixed reviews, and the stories that have been passed down about him from generation to generation are the stuff of legend.

He was arrested more than a time or two after “causing trouble in a local bar and fighting with other miners,” as it was reported in papers of the day. And he was locked up many times in a “one-man jail cell with three other guys” at City Hall.

Ironically, the building that housed the jail, City Hall and the fire station also held the room that Dempsey used to train in. It was a small room on the second floor with a fire pole off to one corner.

The majority of Dempsey’s time was spent at the Portland Mine and City Hall training for fights.

He turned professional in 1914 and fought his “last” professional fight in 1927. After a career launched in Colorado, his late in-state fight occurred May 29, 1918, in Denver as he knocked out Arthur Pelkey in the first round.

Champion of the world

Dempsey (6-foot-1 and ranging from 165 to 205 pounds) was known for his devastating punches and quick footwork. He became good friends with Spencer Penrose (of Broadmoor fame), who churned out a fortune in Victor and Cripple Creek before and after the turn of the 20th century.

It is not known whether Penrose and Dempsey knew each other personally while Dempsey worked in Gold Camp, but they certainly were chums by the late teens once Dempsey became a famous fighter.

Dempsey captured the Heavyweight title on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, after knocking down the much larger champion Jess Willard seven times in the first round. That was the night he became the “Manassa Mauler” — a name given to him by Pueblo Chieftain famed sports-writer Damon Runyon. He held the heavyweight title for the next seven years.

Perhaps the greatest fight of Dempsey’s career occurred on Sept. 14, 1923, when he knocked out Luis Angel Firpo in three minutes, 57 seconds. It is referred to as “the most sensational four minutes in boxing history.”

Dempsey’s purse for the victory was $509,000 — a far cry from his hungry youth when he fought for a dollar, a beer, or a meal in the saloons of Gold Camp.

Meanwhile, Penrose expanded his sphere of influence in Colorado Springs with the establishment of his lavish Broadmoor Hotel, which opened in 1918. Dempsey was a frequent guest of “Spec” — as Penrose was known to his friends — in the 1920s and supplied the hotel with free publicity as he trained for his fights.

Dempsey stayed at The Broadmoor in 1926 and trained at nearby Turkey Creek Ranch (owned by Penrose) for his first fight with Gene Tunney. But Dempsey was so barraged by reporters and fans he had to leave Colorado Springs to finish his training.

He then lost his title to Tunney on Sept. 23 in Philadelphia when Tunney received his well-documented “long count” to help aid his claiming of the title.

Dempsey had just two more professional fights after that. On July 21, 1927, he knocked out Jack Sharkey in the 7th round in the Bronx, New York. And then on Sept. 22 of that same year he lost his rematch to Tunney in 10 rounds in Chicago before hanging up his gloves.


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