If boxing did nothing else in the 1920s, it made Jack Dempsey a household name and a nearly mythical figure. Admirers and doubters alike made certain that Dempsey ruled the decade’s boxing news, and he embraced the prestige.
Dempsey wasn’t always a celebrity, though, and in his early 20s he was just another heavyweight hopeful in Jack Johnson’s wake. The first black heavyweight champion upended the division by making the impossible possible, but on a hot Havana day in 1915 Jess Willard ended Johnson’s reign with a long right hand in the 26th round.
Even if he did what much of white America hoped by ousting the first black champion, Willard wasn’t especially popular. Even vaudeville star and famed magician Harry Houdini taunted Willard at one of his own stage shows in Los Angeles about six months after Willard seized the title.
Willard, known as the “Pottawatomie Giant,” defended the title only once in four years. He was the champion, but there was still a vacuum of power in the heavyweight division because he wasn’t fighting and that meant if contenders were actually fighting one another, one would rise to the top eventually.
With the help of manager “Doc” Kearns and a very hectic schedule, Dempsey began to draw crowds and a considerable amount of newspaper ink in 1918. The previous year wasn’t an easy one as Dempsey suffered a knockout loss to Fireman Jim Flynn and a points loss to Willie Meehan in fewer than six weeks. He avenged both but still had to rebuild his reputation, so 1918 was his answer to the criticism.
It was clear that light heavyweight champion Barney Lebrowitz, also known as “Battling Levinsky,” wanted a crack at Dempsey, who went 14-0 before running into Meehan again.
From August to September of 1918 various newspaper reported that Dempsey and Levinsky were supposed to meet up for a six-round go — first in New York, then in Philadelphia. The former was supposed to have been held on August 10 at Ebbets Field among a star-studded fight card benefiting the Knights of Columbus organization. Benny Leonard, Jack Britton and Dempsey were all supposed to fight and reportedly fell ill, though the New York Times said Dempsey claimed he never agreed to fight Levinsky.
Dempsey eventually sparred a few rounds with light heavyweight contender Clay Turner that night after catching on to the discontent being voiced by the crowd of 20,000.
The potential Philadelphia bout was finally canceled by promoter Jimmy Dougherty in September. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Dempsey’s loss to Meehan two weeks earlier hurt his popularity and demand for a Levinsky bout dissipated. But it apparently hadn’t disappeared entirely, as reports of negotiations continued.
In early October of 1918, however, something happened that would stick with Dempsey for much of his career.
The loss to Meehan in their fifth encounter — which was Dempsey’s second points loss to the San Francisco fighter — took place on a card whose profits went toward the Army and Navy Athletic Fund. Sore about the loss, Dempsey complained to press that he was robbed and didn’t make much for the fight. Eddie Graney, a Bay Area manager and promoter who refereed the bout, spoke up through the press on behalf of Meehan, who had enlisted in the Navy during World War I. Graney called Dempsey a “slacker,” or draft-dodger, and Dempsey would be called that many more times in the years that followed.
“The Manassa Mauler,” already accused of ducking Levinsky, now had to deal an entirely new public relations issue, even if it took a while to develop into a real problem.
In the meantime there was still the issue of stepping into the ring with Levinsky. The fight seemed snakebit from the start and an actual outbreak of influenza — one of the worst ever — postponed matters before disputes erupted between the venue and the fighters’ handlers. But at last a contract was drawn up and agreed upon that the two men would fight six rounds on November 6 at the Olympia Athletic Club in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Dempsey was having trouble finding sparring partners. Usually that kind of media story would be dismissed, but with Dempsey it was believable; he nearly always went full bore even during sparring. The fighters that had been already hired to spar him no longer wanted the work.
A “flu ban” was put into place, which meant business slowed down everywhere and the public was encouraged not to gather anywhere in large numbers. Drawing crowds for boxing wasn’t an option, but cities across the U.S. began lifting the ban in early November. At long last the fight could take place.
Though his ideal weight was only about 185 pounds, Dempsey still had size on Levinsky, who was a true light heavyweight and a shorter than Dempsey by a few inches. And stylistically he was at a disadvantage from the outset.
Following a slower-than-expected opening round Dempsey tore at Levinsky in typical fashion, forcing the smaller man to clinch or retreat to the ropes. Right hands to the body moved Levinsky about the ring and Dempsey stabbed with his jab more than expected. It wasn’t much of a contest.
“In the first two rounds Dempsey followed his opponent all over the ring to try and connect with one of his sleep producers,” said the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Levinsky, however, used the ring at every opportunity, but even at that he had to take a lacing, for every time that Dempsey landed with one of his short rights or lefts they seemed to shake Levinsky from stem to stern.”
A left hand to the body had Levinsky taking a nine count before rising late in round two and he never fully recovered. Nevertheless Levinsky attacked in round 3, but it only led him to trouble. Dempsey froze Levinsky with body shots and all the smaller man could do was hold on. After the referee separated the two, Dempsey sailed home a right hand that put Levinsky out for the count, and then some.
The Boston Herald reported, “It was useless for the referee to count the necessary 10 seconds for Levinsky was dead to the world.”
There was no shame in losing to a version of Dempsey that hadn’t yet been softened by stardom. To be fair, Levinsky would have lost the light heavyweight title more than a few times had different rules been in place. Further, it was likely better to get a shot at Dempsey on the rise, before he was big enough to swallow towns whole.
Levinsky fought for 12 more years, but crossing paths with Dempsey became a sort of claim to fame over the years. Levinsky lost the title in 1920 to Georges Carpentier, who also felt the wrath of Dempsey.
For Dempsey, the Levinsky fight was just one rung on his ladder to the heavyweight title.