By the third round, Dempsey regarded Willard as an object of pity. Willard’s corner threw in the towel before the start of the fourth. “The right side of Willard’s face was a pulp,” Runyon wrote. “At the feet of the gargantuan pugilist was a dark spot which was slowly widening on the brown canvas as it was replenished by the drip-drip-drip of blood from the man’s wounds.” A day earlier, Runyon had likened Willard to Goliath. Now he spoke of Dempsey as a “mountain lion in human form.”

The gate turned out to be $452,224, not the million Rickard hoped for, but still a handsome sum and a longtime record for a fight in Ohio. The arena, with 1.75 million feet of lumber—enough to stretch from New York to Chicago, Rickard boasted—was sold for $25,000 to a company that used it to build a factory in Toledo. Rickard paid the city $30,000, and he ended up with a profit on paper, but didn’t get the windfall he’d hoped for. But the publicity he got promoting the fight—and the star that Dempsey became—would soon make him one of the richest men in America.

The knockout blow. Willard was unable to answer the bell for the fourth.
The knockout blow. Willard was unable to answer the bell for the fourth.
Photo: Library of Congress

A year after the Dempsey-Willard fight, Rickard got the promotional contract for Madison Square Garden, thanks to the backing of John Ringling, who wanted his circus at the Garden—and everyone else’s out. The venerable arena was already a sporting landmark, but had been unable to turn a profit for decades. Of course, by the time Rickard was the venue’s promoter, boxing was legal again in New York, thanks to Jimmy Walker, who would go on to be elected mayor of New York City, resign in disgrace amid a corruption scandal, and then be played by Bob Hope in the movie Beau James.

With Rickard’s acumen, a new Madison Square Garden was built in 1925. Among the tenants was a National Hockey League team, the Americans. They proved so successful that Rickard wanted his own team at the Garden. His began play the following season, and were quickly nicknamed “Tex’s Rangers.” The Americans were relegated to second-class status and were blinked out of existence during World War II. The Rangers remain a part of the NHL and a fixture at Madison Square Garden to this day.

Tex Rickard in 1924.
Tex Rickard in 1924.
Photo: Library of Congress

In 1921, Dempsey fought Georges Carpentier. Though the Walker Bill legalizing boxing in New York was signed into law by Gov. Al Smith, his successor, Nathan L. Miller, took a dim view of boxing and refused to sanction a fight between the two of them at the Polo Grounds. So Rickard found a plot of land called Boyle’s 30 Acres across the river in Jersey City and erected another octagonal wooden stadium to accommodate the fight. This time, everything he thought would happen in Toledo came to pass, as more than 80,000 people came, and Rickard finally got his million-dollar gate.

Dempsey and Doc Kearns parted ways acrimoniously, as the champ found himself caught between his manager and his new fiancée, Estelle Taylor (and between Kearns and Rickard, too). Rickard wanted to see the champ fight Gene Tunney. The two met Sept. 23, 1926, at Philadelphia’s new Sesquicentennial Stadium (later renamed for John F. Kennedy, and probably best known as the regular site for Army-Navy football games), where Tunney beat Dempsey in a 10-round decision—the first time the heavyweight crown had changed hands on points. “Honey, I just forgot to duck,” Dempsey told Estelle, a line recycled by Ronald Reagan after he was wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981.

The rematch between Dempsey and Tunney was 364 days later, at Soldier Field in Chicago. Boxing had finally entered the mainstream. The million-dollar fight earlier in the decade seemed almost quaint. The total gate for this fight was $2.658 million, with $990,000 going to Tunney and $450,000 to Dempsey. Nearly 105,000 people packed the stadium on the Lake Michigan shore. It was the place to see and be seen. “Kid, if the earth came up and the sky came down and wiped out my first ten rows, it would be the end of everything because I’ve got in those ten rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent,” Rickard boasted to sportswriter Hype Igoe before the fight. “Just in them 10 rows, kid, and you and me have never seen anything like it.”

Tunney was outpointing Dempsey for the first six rounds, but in the seventh, Dempsey knocked the champ down. But because Dempsey hadn’t retreated to a neutral corner, the count against Tunney—known forever after as “The Long Count”—didn’t start immediately, giving him enough time to recover and ultimately win, again in a 10-round decision. “In defeat, he gained more stature,” Shirley Povich wrote of Dempsey. “He was the loser in the battle of the long count, yet the hero.”

Dempsey hung up his gloves after the fight and became partners with Rickard. He accompanied Rickard to Miami in December 1928. The trip was ostensibly to promote a fight between Jack Sharkey and Young Stribling, but Dempsey recalled that Rickard had no end of opportunities.

He also had a stomachache, which a local doctor diagnosed as heartburn. A fever developed and on Jan. 2, Rickard’s 59th birthday, he was taken to the hospital. The stomachache was an inflamed appendix. Dempsey held Rickard’s hand as he died four days later.

Rickard’s body was taken by train back to New York. It was a frigid day when he returned to Grand Central Station, but thousands lined the streets to see his $15,000 bronze casket taken up Eighth Avenue to Madison Square Garden, where he would lie in state. Even in death, Tex Rickard could draw a crowd.

“New York is a town where people would not cross the street to see any man in his coffin,” Edwin C. Hill wrote in the New York Sun. “But they came, the people who had been waiting, and they were of every sort and degree … actresses in sable and ermine, little stenographers, women of society, servant maids, some of the six hundred millionaires that Tex liked to talk about so much, riffraff of the boxing game, bunkers, gunmen, owners of department stores and dope sellers, artists, playwrights, journalists, vagabonds, city officials, clerks, day laborers in their stained blue jeans. There were without doubt men wanted by the law in that heterogenous double line, but it seemed that they, like the men who keep the law, had that equal admiration and respect that Rickard seemed able to draw from all classes of the human animal.”

Rickard was not a religious man, but to make sure all the bases were covered, a Baptist preacher, an Episcopalian minister, a Catholic lawyer, and a Jewish judge commended his soul to the afterlife. “Some wags remarked that it didn’t matter whether Tex went to heaven or hell,” Dempsey said in his autobiography. “He’d probably wind up promoting a match with the other side anyway.”

Over the next six years, Dempsey followed a path that would become well-trod by boxers. He got divorced, and he ended up refereeing some boxing matches and participating in some exhibitions himself because he needed the money. He also invested money with a friend and former sparring partner, a Syrian bantamweight fighter named Bobby Joe Manziel, who went into oil wildcatting. (You might have heard of Bobby’s great-grandson Johnny.)

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and two years later, Dempsey opened a restaurant at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street—across the street from Madison Square Garden. Among his employees, briefly, was Jess Willard, of whom Dempsey diplomatically said, “In his own unique way, he tried.”

Dempsey commissioned a painting by James Montgomery Flagg of him fighting Willard and unveiled it in 1944. Willard was invited, but sent his regrets in a telegram, saying, “Sorry I can’t be there. But I saw enough of you 25 years ago to last me a lifetime.”

James Montgomery Flagg’s painting of the Dempsey-Willard fight.
James Montgomery Flagg’s painting of the Dempsey-Willard fight.
Image: Smithsonian

Dempsey even made his peace with Doc Kearns, or so he’d thought. Kearns died in 1963, but he had one last trick up his sleeve. His autobiography, Million-Dollar Purse, was excerpted posthumously in Sports Illustrated the following January, claiming he’d loaded Dempsey’s gloves with plaster of Paris. “I’m just glad that Kearns finally was man enough to admit it,” said Willard, reached at his home in California. “First time Dempsey hit me, I knew those gloves were loaded.”

Trainer Jimmy Deforest denied Kearns’s account, as did Dempsey, who sued Sports Illustrated. The parties settled out of court, and a year after Kearns’s article was published, an editor’s note in Sports Illustrated said Kearns’ story appeared completely unfounded. (This seems as good a place as any to mention that Kearns’ co-author on his autobiography was Oscar Fraley, a UPI sportswriter who’s probably best known for being the co-author of Eliot Ness’ memoir, The Untouchables, which, like Kearns’ memoir, was released posthumously and is of dubious veracity.)

Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant—it had moved to the Great White Way in 1947—closed in 1974, two years after it was immortalized in The Godfather as the location where Michael Corleone was picked up by the Turk and Capt. McCloskey before their fateful meeting. The painting of Dempsey beating Willard that hung in the restaurant was donated to the Smithsonian, where it remains on display today at the National Portrait Gallery.

Willard died in 1968 at the age of 86. At the time, he was the longest-lived former heavyweight champion. In 1983, Dempsey died—at the age of 87. He’d beaten Willard one last time.

Vince Guerrieri is an award-winning journalist and author in the Cleveland area. He likes Lake Erie perch sandwiches, Jim Traficant and long walks on the field at League Park. His website is, and you can follow him on Twitter @vinceguerrieri.