In my teens I... We went to New York now and again. I heard concerts at Carnegie Hall, and Billy Carrington and I went to theater matinees, but the high spot of that summer was the Dempsey-Firpo fight. Dad took me. The only other thing I have ever seen to compare with this fight in sheer dramatic impact was the celebrated mano a mano between Lorenzo Garza and Manolete, the greatest matador of my generation, in Mexico City some twenty-five years later.
Dad and I were not at ringside but in the first tier of elevated seats, with a very good view. Firpo was a massive figure in a brown bathrobe. He stood head and shoulders above everyone in the ring--a towering, immobile shape. Dempsey came into the ring wearing a white sweater, and he was moving all the time. There was an awesome difference in the sizes of the two men. Dempsey looked like a kid compared to Firpo.
The fighters were introduced. The opening bell rang. At the very first exchange Firpo went down, and the crowd rose as one and went wild. The little man sitting next to me couldn't see and climbed up onto a narrow guard railing. Firpo was up, then he was down again. I glanced toward my neighbor. He wasn't there anymore. He had fallen to the passageway below. I paid no further attention, and neither did anyone else. He was probably dead or dying, but nobody had any time for him. That gives you an idea of the pandemonium of the moment.
Firpo could hit. He wasn't the facade that Jess Willard had been. He knew how to fight, and he was throwing long, straight punches. Dempsey fought with a kind of desperation, as though for his life, weaving in and out with that crouch of his, throwing left and right hooks that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.
The rule that a fighter has to go to a neutral corner when his opponent has been knocked down was in effect, but it was ignored in this fight. Each time Firpo went to the canvas, Dempsey stood over him--waiting. As Firpo's hands and knees cleared the canvas and he attempted to rise, Dempsey would hit him again. Had Firpo been able to stand up for a moment and clear his head, it might well have been a different story. As I said, he could hit. Toward the end of the first round he connected and knocked Dempsey clear out of the ring. Everyone in the arena was on his feet yelling, and then I saw hands pushing Dempsey back through the ropes. Immediately Firpo charged. He got Dempsey into a corner, but in a blind desire to finish his man, he lost his head. He began throwing lefts and rights wildly. Had any one of those blows connected, that would have been the end of the fight. But here Dempsey showed himself to be a true champion. He could hardly hold his hands up, but he stood in that turner slipping and blocking punches as best he could, and weathered the storm until the end of the round. In the second round he came out and Put Firpo down for the count. Instantly fights broke out all over the Polo Grounds. There was a rush of mass emotion that defies description, and I still look back on the occasion with a sense of awe.
A year later, when Dad was playing The Easy Mark, he told me about hoodlums moving into the theatrical world. Now, in addition to dry cleaners, laundries and small businesses, they were asking payoffs from actors. A nightclub singer in Chicago had had his tongue slit. It was rumored that Al Jolson was paying protection money.
One night Dad came into his dressing room after the final curtain and stood with his back to the door, frowning.
"What's the matter, Dad?"
"It's trouble. There's a guy outside this door who thinks I need protection."
Full of myself, I jumped at the chance to let Dad see me in action. I said, "I'll take care of him." I pushed Dad aside, burst out the door and there stood Jack Dempsey, smiling at me. "Hello, John," Dempsey said, "your father's been telling me about you."