'Pure Fire': Roger Kahn on Jack Dempsey

October 17, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

"A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring 20s," by Roger Kahn. Harcourt Brace & Co. 496 pages. $28.

It was a decade of peace after a great war, and of prosperity before the Depression.

Charles Lindbergh hopped the Atlantic, and Babe Ruth belted his way into immortality. Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald redefined American literature. Hollywood invented the talkie. Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan debated the origin of man. President Harding perpetrated high crimes and Al Capone, low.

And Jack Dempsey lorded over the ring.

Whether Dempsey is, as author Roger Kahn contends, the logical emblem for the 1920s, rather than being merely emblematic of the decade, is far from certain. As a protagonist, Dempsey visits only selected corners of the cultural tableau.

But neither is adopting that premise necessary to enjoy a work of splendid research and grand storytelling.

Kahn, a sportswriter whose 1972 classic "The Boys of Summer" recounts the golden age of the Brooklyn Dodgers, here lets the '20s roar across 500 pages and Dempsey's tumultuous seven-year reign as heavyweight champ.

Even if he lacks the sturdiness to shoulder history, Dempsey is a bona fide icon, a singular popularizer of a sport worthy of mention alongside Ruth, Red Grange or Michael Jordan. When Dempsey pummeled the title out of Jess Willard in Toledo, some 20,000 fans were in attendance in a temporary arena built of wood. At his final fight, at Chicago's Soldier Field, 135,000 watched him fall.

He was the first fighter to attract a $1 million gate and, later, a $2 million one. Ringside seats became coveted by the glitterati. He earned $1 million in endorsements.

Dempsey's climb from the American frontier to the top of his sport is a fascinating story of determination and grit. He was born in Manassa, Colo., when the state was just 19. He chose at an early age to become the world's heavyweight champion and pursued that goal with Homeric single-mindedness. To toughen his face, he splashed it with brine. Hearing that it would harden them, he soaked his hands in horse urine.

As he grew, he slugged his way through mining camps across the West. He rode the rails by day and cuffed all comers by night in the saloons.

Dempsey's ring reputation became that of a savvy mauler -- a smart, disciplined fighter with the carnivorous instincts of a tiger shark. He was known to hit after the bell, and sometimes low. When an opponent ran, Dempsey charged. When a fighter got too close, Dempsey punished him with stinging punches to the back of the neck that jostled vertebrae and brought on darkness. Boxing writer John Lardner -- one of many great sportswriters who appear in the book -- called him "a flame of pure fire in the ring."

When Kahn is at his best, he is skillful with the language and lets Dempsey and his times act out their own colorful scenes. Too often, however, Kahn distracts with cliche. Or worse. He often injects himself into the story. In one section we hear Dempsey explain the tactical value of an early knockout ("the sooner the safer," the Champ liked to say). This is followed by Kahn relaying the pugilistic lessons the author received as a 10-year-old at summer camp.

Kahn also engages in unvarnished hero worship. He and Dempsey were acquaintances, even friends. The reader profits with fresh insight into Dempsey. But Kahn goes to length to excuse Dempsey's failure to defend his title against a black challenger and to diminish the evidence that Dempsey may have dodged the draft and broken his wife's jaw.

But it is a book that moves quickly through its many pages and reveals much of a complicated man and his time. In this it achieves its objectives nicely, though by decision, not knockout.

Jon Morgan covers the news and business of sports for The Sun. He is the author of "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL" and "Gaining a Yard: the Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium."

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