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A Flame of Pure Fire is an unabridged audio version of Roger Kahn's biography of Jack Dempsey and is narrated by Kevin Yon. Dempsey was the world heavyweight boxing champion for most of the 1920s and eventually became one of the most beloved sporting icons in American culture. There are a pantheon of heavyweight champions that are set slightly apart from the rest because they became mythic figures that seemed to encapsulate their age and (for better or for worse) made an emotional connection with the wider public beyond the boxing bubble. Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey. Rocky Marciano perhaps but not so much. Born in 1895 in Manassa (hence his nickname - The Manassa Mauler), Dempsey was from a poverty stricken background and worked hard labour intensive jobs when he was still a child. He rode freight trains as a hobo during the depression looking for work and competing in "toughman" contests in mining camps in Utah, Nevada and Colorado. Legend has it that Dempsey once walked thirty miles across the desert to earn $20 for a fight. He won most of them but took a few beatings too, remembering having to be carted out of one contest in wheelbarrel. It soon became apparent though that the incredibly strong and determined Dempsey had the makings of a boxer and that his true destiny was to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Dempsey was 6'1 and not especially big (he would be a cruiserweight or light-heavyweight rather than a heavyweight if he was boxing today I suppose) but he was magnificently proportioned with powerful shoulders and arms and absolutely ferocious in the ring, swarming all over his opponents and fighting every round as if it was the last. When the young Mike Tyson first emerged in the late eighties the fighter he was most compared to by boxing writers for his aggressive take no prisoners style was Jack Dempsey. Dempsey is generally regarded to be one of the hardest punching heavyweights of all time (he would soak his hands in brine to toughen them up and when he won the title from Jess Willard his punches seemed so destructive there were rumours he had his hands encased in plaster of paris under his gloves - rumours that were completely false of course)) and was involved in the first ever fight to generate a million dollar gate. He was married to a silent film star and seemed to be a living symbol of the Jazz age and America, proof that anything was possible no matter where you came from.
Dempsey had Jewish, Cherokee and Irish ancestry and writers like Ring Lardner following his every move and establishing his legend in print. He was one of the first athletes to be marketed in a fashion that resembles today's sporting world. He had endorsements, made a fortune from exhibitions and personal appearances, even had a Hollywood film contract at one point and would take part in publicity events like a photoshoot in the gym with Houdini (rather in the manner that the young Ali was once photographed clowning around with The Beatles). But despite his reputation as a great gentleman, star and popular man of the people (a real life Rocky Balboa if you will), Kahn tells us that it wasn't quite so straight forward as it appeared for Dempsey and - like Muhammad Ali - he had to work hard to gain the acceptance and love of the American public. This is a superior biography that I'm glad I listened to on a whim, my only real quibble the fact that it become rather dry at times when the story moves away from Dempsey the boxer and moves into detailed accounts of court cases and politics of the era. It's fun to hear about prohibition and the world of speakeasys and glittering nightclubs where the men and women are wonderfully glamorous but sometimes these tangents become too distracting and begin to weigh the book down somewhat. I believe this is nearly 500 hundred pages in its printed form and I would imagine the author could have easily edited that down without weakening the book in any way. One thing you do pick up though is what a fascinating decade the twenties was in American life. There seemed more writers than ever, it was a time of hedonism and style, gangsters, Al Capone, bootleggers, endless nightlife and bright lights. Demspey was a like a metaphor for the growing wealth and power of the United States and the background to this era is very interesting but maybe just a little exhaustive at times and I did drift in and out on occasion.
I'm very aware of Dempsey as a boxer but his personal life was always a little vague to me so it was nice to fill in some of the blanks here. The narration (which is generally fine, rather languid and effective) of Kahn's book begins with a very interesting prologue. It's 1960 and Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson (two boxers that Dempsey in his prime would have demolished) are engaged in what would become a see-saw trilogy of bouts for the heavyweight championship. The author visits Dempsey's famous restaurant on Broadway where the former champion is now a popular character as he holds court and shares his anecdotes and boxing memories with the many customers who go there just to say they saw the great Jack Dempsey in the flesh. Dempsey is 64 years-old but looks much younger. The author finds him to be a friendly and courteous man who is happy to talk about boxing and demonstrates how he would have licked the big Swede Johansson in his prime. We then go back to decades before and the grinding dustbowl poverty of Dempsey's youth. It's surprising how inactive Dempsey was at times. He only fought a handful of defences over several years. If a boxer did that today he'd be stripped of his title but in those days boxers and their promoters were bigger than boxing organisations. Dempsey was as much a celebrity as a boxer at times and he and his film star wife Estelle Taylor must have been rather like the American Posh and Beckham of their day one imagines. One thing we must remember and it's highlighted here of course is that Dempsey did not defend his title against black boxers (the talented Harry Wills was the most unfortunate victim of this colour bar). It wasn't because Dempsey was a racist or anything but just a very sad reflection of the times. His managers could make a fortune fighting white boxers and after the flamboyant black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson had provoked race riots and become public enemy number one in the previous decade, the boxing authorities were in no rush to have another black champion again so soon. Although he was destined to become a hero the strange thing is that it only really occurred late in his career when he lost to Gene Tunney.
When Dempsey was twenty years-old he married a piano player and former prostitute fifteen years his senior named Maxine Cates. When their relationship went sour, Cates claimed Dempsey had dodged the draft in World War I and he suddenly became very unpopular. Despite his genuinely poor background, Dempsey was also (rather strangely) seen as something of a fraud by the public because much was made of the freight train riding hobo who had become champ and yet he always seemed to be the epitome of wealth and glamour with his sharp suits and chiselled features. Dempsey was tried in a Federal court and cleared of all the draft dodging charges, indeed later serving in the coast guard during World War 2. Two fascinating characters here are Doc Kearns, a shrewd hustler who Dempsey throws his lot in when he can't get fights and moves to San Francisco, and Tex Rickard, the manager of Madison Square Garden (who staged most of Dempsey's big fights). Both were larger than life characters who could only have existed in the Jazz age. Rickard turned the arena into an entertainment centre and would keep writers and journalists sweet with free tickets and booze. As far as public relations went he was way ahead of his time. It's the boxing sections though that are the most compelling and the book is very centred on the twenties when he was champion. The famous title winning effort against Jess Willard that ushered in the Dempsey era. Willard was 6'6 and outweighed Demspey by over 50 pounds but he was ruthlessly chopped down in three rounds by his smaller but much more feral challenger. After all those toughman contests it made no odds to Dempsey how big his opponent was. He didn't care. The fight with Luis Firpo where Dempsey was knocked clean out of the ring and somehow managed to get back in and win the fight and - most famously I suppose - his two losing contests against Gene Tunney. Dempsey was 31 when he lost to Tunney and past his prime. Tunney was a scientific boxer with a good defense and he was simply too clever for Dempsey, winning a clear decision in Philadelphia in 1926 before an astonishing crowd of 135,000. But it seemed as if the public only appreciated what they had with Dempsey once Tunney was champion. Tunney was a scholar who didn't even like boxing much. He quoted Shakespeare and read Troilus and Cressida and listened to opera while in training camp. He seemed dull compared to Dempsey and so Dempsey was the sentimental favourite for the rematch at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The second fight was much like the first with Tunney outboxing Dempsey. But in the seventh round, Dempsey suddenly exploded and knocked Tunney down for the first time in his career. Tunney was dazed and groggy but the recipient of the famous "long count" because new rules stipulated boxers must go to a neutral corner when their opponent was down. Dempsey was used to standing over opponents and hitting them as soon as they got up and his lateness in remembering to go to a neutral corner gave Tunney precious extra time. It has been calculated that Tunney was therefore given fourteen seconds to recover by the referee. Kahn believes that the fight was not on the level and that the referee had been bribed by some of the financial (and rather dubious in terms of their mob connections) backers of Tunney but like all of these boxing conspiracy theories we'll never know the truth. Did Sonny Liston throw his fights with Muhammad Ali? I don't know because the killer evidence is never unearthed in these biographies I find and that's the case here again. Dempsey believes defeat was the making of him though and he became more popular than ever because of the sportsmanlike fashion in which he accepted it. Although he could barely walk after the fight he asked for assistance just so that he could go and shake Tunney's hand. The second fight generated a gate of $2.6 million - amazing figures for the era. All of these events, now part of boxing folklore, are enjoyably conveyed by A Flame of Pure Fire and it's certainly interesting to learn more about Dempsey's personal life. I think the book is too obstructed by background detail pertaining to the decade at times but the central biography is a solid and very engrossing one. I got this out of the library but I did look it up on Amazon and at the time of writing you can buy the unabridged audio version of this for under five pounds.