One hundred years ago this past July 2, big-time sports was born. Tex Rickard, shrewd and shady, a “sport” as Damon Runyon called him, promoted boxing’s first “Million Dollar Gate,” a match between Jack Dempsey, the undisputed world heavyweight champion, and Georges Carpentier, the French light-heavyweight. Interest in the fight was so great that no standing venue, not even the Polo Grounds, where John McGraw’s New York Giants dominated the baseball world, was big enough. Rickard had a huge, rickety grandstand built from two million feet of lumber and sixty tons of nails at a farm near Jersey City called Boyle’s Thirty Acres. (The New York State Boxing Commission wouldn’t sanction any Rickard fight — i.e. Rickard didn’t want to spend the money to grease the right palms — thus the move across the Hudson River.)
William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey, “The Manassa Mauler,” of Manassas, Colorado, was cast as the villain. A former mining hand and hobo, Dempsey, who could boast of Irish, Scottish, Native American, and Jewish ancestry, had been labeled as a “slacker” because he had avoided military service in the First World War. Lean and lethal with steel-hard back and shoulder muscles developed by years swinging a pickax, Jack cultivated an image of ferocity, entering the ring with a sunburned red-brown torso, a two-day growth in his face, and a side-shaven Peaky Blinders haircut.
Carpentier, dubbed “The Orchid Man” for his debonair public image, had served in the Great War and mustered out with a gaudy war record in the French Air Force. He was handsome, personable, and, at least by the standards of the fight game, refined. A young boxing enthusiast, Vladimir Nabokov, writing for a Russian émigré newspaper, was enamored with the Frenchman, calling him “the wonderful Carpentier,” a “modest, fair-haired young man.”
Unfortunately, the fight was not competitive. Nabokov wrote, “They say that after his fierce-some fight with Dempsey he sobbed like a girl.” Dempsey, the bigger man and by far the harder puncher, battered Carpentier into submission in Round 4. Both American and European fans were disappointed with the outcome, but the era of the blockbuster sporting event had begun.
Fast forward 100 years as Deontay Wilder, “The Bronze Bomber” of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, prepares for his third fight with Tyson “The Gypsy King” Fury, born in Manchester, England. The two will battle for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, a rarity in our era of what the late great fight historian Bert Randolph Sugar dismissed as an “alphabet soup” of self-appointed governing bodies — the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Association (WBA), the International Boxing Organization (WBO) and the International Boxing Federation (IBF) — that all claim to rule the fight game.
One hundred years ago there was only one entity that determined who were legitimate champions and challengers, and that was The Ring magazine — “The Bible of Boxing,” as it was called. The Ring’s authority would last roughly into the 1970s until it was undermined by promoter Don King, who paid Ring editors to inflate the rankings and records of his fighters. It has taken The Ring nearly another half century to get its reputation back.
For the time being at least, Fury has been able to satisfy the demands of all the boxing organizations, giving him a clean lineage back to Muhammad Ali and his undisputed triumphs in the 1960s and 70s.
A comparison of Dempsey-Carpentier with Fury-Wilder III is a virtual compendium of the changes in professional boxing in the last century:
¶ The first Million Dollar Gate took in around $1.7 million from 90,000 customers. Compared to the 1921 fight, only 20,000 (or 37%) live spectators will watch Fury-Wilder III, but the ringside seats alone, which are going for $10,000, will generate as much revenue as all the tickets sold for Dempsey-Carpentier. (You can also get decent seats tonight for $2005, but that doesn’t include “order and delivery fees.”) An estimated 300,000 more will be watching on PPV at an estimated $80 a pop. That’s at least $24 mil. (There is no clear estimate of how many millions will be following the fight round-by-round online, but they aren’t contributing any revenue.)
There was a limited radio broadcast for Dempsey-Carpentier, although the announcer was two-and-a-half miles away at the Hoboken train station receiving updates via telegraph line; there were also thousands gathered in Times Square for round-by-round results on the wraparound marquee. There were similar crowds in London, Paris, and other western European cities. Dempsey’s cut was $300,000, Carpentier’s $200,000 (roughly $4.028 million and $2.685 million in today’s currency, staggering sums at a time when bread was a nickel a loaf and there was no federal income tax).
Today, according to DraftKings, Fury might make over $30 million; Wilder’s cut could exceed $20 million.
¶ Dempsey weighed in at about 182 pounds, Carpentier tilted the scales slightly over 175, for a total of not quite 360 pounds. Fury and Wilder will step into the ring at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the canvas will be supporting more than 500 pounds of boxing beef. This will be the greatest combined weight of two men for the heavyweight title in boxing history; Tyson Fury alone weighed 277 at the weigh-in yesterday. At 238, Wilder will step into the ring 39 pounds lighter than his opponent.
¶ Dempsey was 6′ 1″ and Carpentier about 5′ 11″. Today, they wouldn’t even get jobs as sparring partners for the 6′ 9″ Fury or the 6′ 7″ Wilder.
¶ Dempsey was a 3-to-1 betting favorite. Betting is a little more complicated today, but Fury is also roughly 3-to-1.
Some things about boxing, though, haven’t changed. The two men will fight in a roped-off square called a ring, before the first bell they will be told by the referee to “defend themselves at all times,” and for nearly half the fans who watch the fight or follow it, the wrong man will win.
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