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What the Champ Meant to Us
By Aram Rocky Alkazoff
Dempsey. The heavyweight champ. Dempsey. The champ. Jack Dempsey. You couldn't hear that name without thinking about him being the champ. The heavyweight champ. Back in the days when it meant something. God, the President, and then the heavyweight champ.
See to us as kids, back in the fifties and sixties, heavyweight champ was something really special. I guess maybe its not the same today. No matter how many dollars Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis and such attract and are paid, I guess it's different. Too much competition, too many sports shows on television, too much overkill. But not back then. The heavyweight champ stood alone at the top of the hill. The heavyweight championship was a select club and to us Dempsey was the head of the gang.
Back in the days when I was young, there had been only thirteen or so heavyweight champions. There was hardly any sports on television, and when it was shown at all, it was a big deal. Baseball and boxing were the main street sports. The other sports were for certain particular people; Real big guys maybe liked football, and tall guys basketball, and so on and so forth. But on the streets of real neighborhoods, in the barber shops, in the pool halls, and school yards it was boxing and baseball. But baseball, for all its popularity was a game, while boxing was fighting. Boxing was fighting man to man, and to the kids on the streets back then fighting was everything.
You have to remember we were born from Fathers who fought the Second World War. We were raised on war propaganda, and we sat in movie houses where war movies showing American solders dying, sent women to handkerchiefs and men to fisted rage. On the other hand when the enemy got it from us, you'd hear cheers and applause in the movie house. Men were supposed to be brave, strong, heroic, and have hearts for the little helpless ones. What man better to fit into that suit of armor than the heavyweight champion of the world? Dempsey went into the service, so did Joe Louis, Tunney, Sharkey, Marciano, Charles and the rest.
We created that suit of armor, and put the heavyweight champ in it. In those days, you weren't saturated from so much ESPN coverage of sports and politically correct commentary. You'd have to see pictures, hear stories, and create images in your mind. You needed some imagination.
The heavyweight champions were only a dozen or so, and their names were like a roll call of the Gods. Each one was special, had a story and a nickname. Even a merely good fighter like James J. Braddock, who pulled off a upset to win the title, became a special story. He was the "Cinderella Man", and his story of coming off relief lines to win the title meant something to us. When he was announced before a fight by Johnny Addie, it wasn't a journeyman heavyweight who got lucky, it was a ex heavyweight champion. We'd stare with open eyes, and our Dads and the older guys would nod with appreciation.
Nobody would say anything bad about a heavyweight champion. That was automatic respect, and as high as respect could be attained in these experienced manly circles. The heavyweight champs got respect from those we looked up to in the neighborhood, and our homes. We noticed stuff like that then.
The heavyweight champ was a way to pave the integration of the United States too. If people weren't sure about integration or did much social race mixing back then, still the heavyweight champs who were black were welcome. Joe Louis. Just the name, gave you a good feeling. "The Brown Bomber" was special to us, and he was a colored guy that everyone had a good word and good feelings for. It was automatic to like Louis, Johnson, Walcott and Charles. They were the cream of the crop, and no one talked bad about them. They were champions, and Floyd Patterson the new champ was one of them now too. Their names were special to us, like the rest. To us there was no color to heavyweight champ.
When Patterson got defeated by Ingemar Johannson, even though Johannson was a White European, the neighborhood still rooted for Floyd in the return match. We wanted the heavyweight champ to be a American. It was our title, or so we felt. Americans held that title, and to us the title of heavyweight champ and the stars and stripes were together as one.
But to all of us in the "Hood", the name Jack Dempsey stood out over the rest. When they announced past champions at big fights, the last one would be Dempsey.
"Dempsey," my Uncle Sam would say, nodding with admiration.
"There's Dempsey Rocky," my Dad would say, with a look of longing, perhaps longing for his youth when Dempsey was champ.
See my Dad and my Uncle, and guys like them weren't exactly boxing fans, but they knew and admired Dempsey. It was part of being American to admire Dempsey, and they were immigrants who wanted to belong. My Father especially looked for ways to relate to me, his American son. All the immigrant fathers of American sons did the same. Over there, in the old country, all they knew was war. He couldn't explain that to his son. But Dempsey, he could explain. Dempsey, like baseball, was used by immigrant parents of native born sons to relate to their children as Americans. Loving Dempsey, as Joe DiMaggio, brought them closer to their sons in a difficult social situation.
"Was he good Dad?" I'd ask with big eyes, proud that my Dad knew such things.
"The best," he'd say, nodding, proud to be relating to me about something "American". "He was the best."
"Did you ever see him Dad?"
"When I was in France, as a student," he'd say. "We were in a big crowd on the streets, waiting for the news on the Carpentier fight. Hundreds of thousands of people. But we knew, no one could beat Dempsey. Dempsey was unbeatable."
My Dad would nod, and my Uncle Sam also, and they looked large and full of wisdom to me. I was awed that these two huge and powerful men that I loved, could respect Dempsey so much. He must have been something!
I'd love being in my Uncle Sam's tavern in the city's "skid row" section of town. I used to draw beers for the older, shabby dressed clientele of big hearted guys, called "bums". They used to pat me on the head with a smile, and were always gentle with me. Obviously they had heart for a little boy, despite their downtrodden condition, and I listened to their counsel. Something about these guys experiences and "live and let live" attitudes, made a small boy who didn't know what money meant, feel they were somehow the finest of men.
I used to sit on the tall bar stools, and watch the Friday Night Fights with the "bums". They were fight fans to a man, and I listened to their comments closely. But nothing made such a impression on me, like their crowding around the small Motorola black and white television, when Dempsey would get introduced from the crowd to take a bow, at a televised fight.
"Its Dempsey!," a bum would say staring wide eyed at the small set. "Look little Rock, Dempsey..."
"Take a bow Champ!" said another, tall, gaunt man.
"Boy oh boy, Dempsey!" said another. "He's still the champ in my book!" "You bet he is," another answered.
"Was he the best Harvey?" I'd ask Harvey, a red nosed, barrel chested Irishman who tended bar, wearing a white apron.
"I don't put nobody over Dempsey kid," Harvey would say, wiping the bar.
"Not Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano?" I'd ask.
"No one," said Harvey, belting down a shot of whiskey, without a change of expression. "No one."
"How come?" I'd ask.
"Too tough, little Rock," Harvey said, moving some glasses. "Times was real tough back then. Guys worked hard as hell. They swung sledge hammers and pick axes. Worked all day like mules. They was hungry. Dempsey come from that kind of life Rock. Guys was tougher back then. Used to fight for pennies. Dempsey come from that."
I'd get a picture in my mind then of the old guys in the neighborhood who worked so hard in the meat packing places and factories. I'd think about their hard, bulging forearms, earned on the job. I knew that the kids today came from a different world, and that other older, harder world was a imaginary place to us where men were really men. I sensed they were tougher all along, and Dempsey was supposed to be bred in that world. He had to be the toughest!
"Dempsey used to fight in bars for a sandwich," said Marty Tee, another rough faced, unshaven customer. "He was just a kid, but he'd throw out rough customers in bars in mining towns. He learned to fight that way. Guys had to be tough back then Rock, just to get enough to eat!" In my little mind, I saw another era. I saw a era where big, rough, hungry men walked with shovels, axes, and sledge hammers in their big hands looking for hard work.
"Dempsey come out of the wild west Rock," said Johnny Malloy, a old bent nosed fighter, who swept out the bar for my Uncle. "Times was tough. They didn't even have hardly any food. He'd hobo on trains. Ride on the bottoms of em on the rods!"
"On the bottoms of trains while they was moving?" I'd ask, with a picture in my mind of great daring and guts.
"He'd sit on the rods underneath the Pullman cars," said Johnny, looking into my little eyes with his great big bloodshot ones. "Then he'd hang on to the rods, while the train was moving until he got to where he was going! Maybe hundreds of miles."
"What if it was cold, and he lost his grip?" I asked.
"Then he'd get chopped up by the train," said Johnny. "Guys had to be hard back then Rock to survive."
"Hobo camps Rock," said Teddy Mahoney, another broken nosed, old ex railroad worker. "Dempsey grew up in hobo camps. Guys would hang together and find ways to get on trains and bum their way around. There'd be a big pot cooking and everyone would put something in it. A potato, a carrot, a bone, whatever. Then all the guys would eat. They'd fight over anything. A shoe, a shirt, a bowl of stew. A piece of bread. Anything. Barefisted, and if you lost you'd get left behind all bloody and beaten. You had to be mean to survive living that kind of life. That's what made Dempsey the fighter he was. Hobo camps."
I'd see rough, unshaved men, with work clothes, living near railroads, barely eating, fighting with bare fists, bloody, sweating, and swearing. I'd see muscles made from exhausting labor and from eating stew and hard bread. Then I'd see Dempsey coming out of these camps, with his scowl, thin lipped and mean looking. I'd see him walking into New York like this, big fisted, scared, broken nosed, full of a do or die attitude, just waiting to hurl his animal attack on the softer city fighters.
Dempsey, the natural bred fighter with the killer instinct. How could the fighters today cope with that? How could guys with nice boxing trunks, fancy robes, and plenty to eat, cope with a guy who learned how to fight in hobo camps, mining towns, rough worker bars and such?
"Dempsey didn't need no frills," said Mickey Downey, the bum who passed out religious messages on LaSalle street. "No socks, no robe, no fancy trunks, no headgear or anything. He'd just come in the ring unshaven and go for the kill like a wildman! He could kill you with either hand with a six inch punch. He knocked out giants! Knocked their teeth out!" "Their teeth?" I'd ask.
"He knocked out the giant Jess Willard's teeth," said Mickey. "He broke his cheekbone, his ribs, his jaw, and he cut his face all up. He left him like a butchered cow. Worse beating a man ever got Rock. Dempsey did that! Knocked him down seven times! Attacked him like a wildman! Believe me son, no one could have stood up to that Dempsey! No one!" Now the fact that Dempsey was a man eater was one thing, but we heard other things about him, that gave him the little extra that we as kids were looking for.
"Dempseys the best guy you'd ever want to meet Rock," said Joey Marlowe, a older kid, who boxed golden gloves, and lived down the block. "All he does all day long is sit in his restaurant on Broadway and give bums handouts."
"No kidding?" I said.
"Sure," Joey said. "He's been poor. He knows what its all about. He's been a hobo. He knows what its like to be on the bum. Well now that he's got money, all he does is hang out on the streets. If any poor guy touches him up for a dollar, Jack never says no. He's got a five spot for any bum. That's a real champ!"
Jeez! What could be better than that? You became a champ and beat everyone, then you hung out and helped bums all day! The toughest guy in the world on one hand, with a heart big enough to help out all the bums who came along. Man!
See kids back then longed to be like that. That was the ultimate. To be a champ with the respect like Dempsey. To come from the pit of poverty, and then make all the money and help out all the bums. To never forget where you came from. To have a big heart to match your toughness. That was a real guy! That was Dempsey to us.
"Dempsey saved Boys Town Rock," said Joey Fiarello, a guy who sold hot dogs in a moveable stand in the Hood. "He saved those homeless boys. The place was going down. It was broke. But Dempsey saved it. He been a homeless boy, and he remembered. He helped Father Flanagen. Dempsey knew what a poor kid had to go through, and he remembered. That's a real guy!"
As kids we'd seen "Boys Town" with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. We were city, street kids and we knew what it was like to have no money, no Christmas toys, and no food in the house. Dempsey knew too, and he helped. Iron fisted with a heart of gold. Thats the way we saw the "Manassa Mauler".
"Shoot, Dempsey never forgets his buddies," said Angie Salerno, a old trainer, at the Midwest Gym. "The two old colored guys who used to spar with him. Godfrey and Tate. Dempsey looked out for them after they was through and broke. Give em his old suits, and helped them out with money. They tell me any old fighter can hit him up for a buck. You know why Rock?"
"How come Ange?" I asked.
"Cause Dempseys a real guy Rock. A real stand up guy."
I remember being eleven years old, in the streets of Manhattan with my Dad. We were walking around, and he was showing me the city he had lived in first when he came to America. It was nostalgia for him, as he probably remembered himself, young, scared, nervous and broke. He was remembering how he sweated to make it. But for me there was only one thing to see here in New York. I wanted to see Madison Square Garden, Ring Magazine offices, and Jack Dempsey's restaurant. I wanted to just see where the champs fought, where the Ring magazine was made, and where Dempsey hung around.
When we got to that block, my smile was bursting out of my mouth as my Dad pointed out, the Ring sign on the window, and the big Madison Square Garden sign, and of course, Jack Dempsey's name on the corner restaurant. As we walked closer, my knees were knocking. It was enough for me just to see the words "Jack Dempsey" in lights, but to actually see the "champ"! Well that was too much.
"Lets go in and see if Dempsey is in there," my Dad said.
"That's okay Dad," I said, nervous as hell. "He probably don't want to talk to people off the street."
"Comon lets go see," he said confidently. "Don't worry Dempsey is a good man. You'll see."
We walked into the restaurant, and it was fairly crowded. I had never been in a expensive restaurant like this, with everyone wearing suits and I was a little ashamed. My Dad was a big, handsome man, but both of us had on older street clothes. We looked out of place. I looked around further and was awed by the fight pictures painted on the walls. I saw Dempsey charging Willard, and paintings of the rest of Dempsey's famous opponents.
"Look Dad, Sharkey," I said, knowing Sharkey had been champ too. But my Dad was looking around other places and had different ideas. "Is the Champ here?" my Dad asked a waiter.
"Right over there Sir," said the waiter, pointing to a corner table by the window.
We both looked and it was him, it was Dempsey himself! You couldn't miss him! The large Dempsey head stuck out of the rest, as Jack was seated with a group of suited men with glasses in front of them. "Look Rocky, its Dempsey," said my Dad with a excited proud smile. All I could do was stare. I was suddenly nervous and scared to be here. Who were we to be at this place with Dempsey and all these men with suits on? I was conscious of being poor, and coming from people barely making it. My stomach was feeling sick.
"Comon lets go meet him," said my Dad, with a sudden confident move, pulling my arm. But I was frozen with fear.
"Comon" he said, pulling gently at my arm. But I wouldn't move. "No Dad..."I said, stiff and uncomfortable.
My Dad, tired of coaxing me, just walked over by himself to the Dempsey table. My heart was beating like crazy. I never was so scared. But my Dad got there okay, and suddenly was talking to Dempsey! Nobody was throwing him out, and he was actually talking to Dempsey! They were smiling! Dempsey was smiling! He wasn't mad!
The next thing I knew was my Dad was turning around and waving me over. Dempsey was waving me over!
Well I took a big swallow, and stiffly walked over like I was walking the plank. Every step was in unsure waters, and I couldn't even feel my legs.
When I got to the table, my eyes were on only Dempsey. I wanted to look at him and just keep looking at him. His big head looked like the head of a lion. It was massive, and his most alert eyes darted all over the room and at me at the same time. I sensed a animal instinct of awareness in him right away. I knew it was different then other men. Supernatural.
"Hiyah Rocky," said Dempsey in a squeaky voice. "Hiyah sonny boy..." Dempsey put out his massive hand for me to shake. I did so, and my hand disappeared in his, like two little fingers. His fists were as wide as big cans. My hand in his charged my whole being; Like I had touched something special.
I tried to stare at Dempsey's face, seeing the high bones over his eyebrows, his strong jaw, and his heavy cheekbones. I thought that this was the face that had taken the best of Sharkey, Willard, Tunney, the "Wild Bull", and the rest. This was the face that fought his way out of rough bars, pool halls, hobo and mining camps. It was a confident face, a great face.
"Well kiddo, you sure look like a "Rocky"..." said the Champ, and the other men at the table nodded good naturedly.
"Champ, my son would do anything for a autograph," said my Dad in his accented English.
"Why sure Greg," said Dempsey, calling my Dad by his first name. Jeez I felt proud. Dempsey was acting like he knew my Dad!
Dempsey reached in his suit pocket, and pulling out a card, started writing. Man, I was getting Jack Dempsey's autograph!
"Listen kid, I got something better than that," said Dempsey, handing me the card. The champ then wrote something on a napkin.
"Your Dad says you like to fight," said Dempsey looking right into my eyes!
I just smiled shyly.
"Well Rocky if you keep the fighting in the ring and do good in school, I got a gift for you. Do we got a deal?"
I looked at my Dad, and he was as happy as I ever seen him. I nodded.
"You go up to Madison Square Garden offices," said Dempsey, handing me the folded napkin with the writing. "Give this to Duke Stefano. He'll know what to do. Say its from me. Okay?"
"Okay then, you're a good boy," said Dempsey. "Don't forget your Dad is a veteran. Don't forget that kiddo."
My Dad shook Dempsey's hand again, nodding at the other men at the table.
"Okay Greg, okay...." said Dempsey, as we were walking away, as if he had known my Dad all his life.
As we left the place, it was if I was walking on air. I never loved or was more proud of my Dad then there at their moment. Dempsey did that.
"See," my Father said. "He's a nice guy. A real good guy."
Well to make a long story short, we went straight to Madison Square Garden offices with Dempsey's note. I was more confident now, as I asked for Duke Stefano. When a bald, tough looking Italian looking man with sad eyes came out, I knew it was Duke. He looked like a "Duke".
"Can I help you?" he said, and when I handed him Dempsey's note, I said, "Jack Dempsey asked me to give this to you Sir."
Duke read the note, winked at my Dad, and disappeared for a minute. Then he returned with a big cardboard poster for me.
"The champ says this is for you kid, from him, as a gift."
It was a poster of a upcoming fight, in color, that said, "Florentino Fernandez vs Emile Griffith."
It was a gift from Jack Dempsey, "The Manassa Mauler" to me, a nobody, a eleven year old kid from downtown Chicago, who had heard and dreamed of him a day before. I clutched it like it was gold.
See that made Dempsey stand out to us as kids. He was not only a jaw breaker, but he was a right guy. A stand up guy. He remembered the poor, the kids, the war veterans, and his old buddies. He'd been sad like us, with no money in his pocket. And like us, the first thing he wanted to do with his new found cash was help out the poor and the people he'd come up with. Dempsey was what kids like me, with no direction wanted to be. If not heavyweight champ, at least be a real guy like Dempsey was. Being like Dempsey was something to shoot for.
I wonder how many kids were like me, that had a thought of sharing in what Dempsey was, and used the memory to guide them through a tough time? How many kids doing roadwork in freezing weather, swinging sledge hammers and axes, walking for miles when they had no transportation, thought, "Jack Dempsey did this. This makes you tough!"
I wonder how many kids like me, hitchhiked across the country or hoboed on trains thinking,
"Dempsey did this. It made Dempsey what he was."
I wonder how many poor kids just like I was, with just the clothes on their back, wandered into new towns, cold, alone, hungry, with nothing but their strength and heart, and thought, "Jack Dempsey did this. He was just like this and he made it. He made it by sheer will. Dempsey did this."
I wonder how many kids like me fought and had busted hands, cut lips, or bloody noses, looked in the mirror and said, "Dempsey had the same cuts and bruises, but he didn't flinch. He didn't moan and groan. He just kept on going."
How many kids like me, made that first good score, and with a pocket with a few bucks in it for the first time, was approached by a poor bum or wino for a buck or two and thought to himself as he reached out with some money, "I've been down and out. Its no shame. Dempsey knew about being like that. He never refused a bum a handout." See that was Dempsey to us poor kids of that era. That was the heavyweight champ to us. He was next to us as we punched our way through the trials and tribulations of life, supporting us, showing us the way to be better men, stronger men, bigger hearted men. I can remember being in a holding cell, after receiving a huge unfair prison sentence for a bad fight I had with a policeman. My head was down, a young man who'd been told his next fifteen years or so would be in prison. I was worse then mad, I felt defeated, through, out of gas. But suddenly I thought to myself, "Dempsey wouldn't have whined or groaned. He wouldn't have cried. He'd have just gotten tougher and handled it! Just remember Dempsey. He walked through obstacles."
That was my attitude and I survived to live again.
In prison, ex contender Curtis "Hatchetman" Sheppard told me the story of a young black guy who was executed in the gas chamber for murder. While the gas was coming in the chamber and he was strapped in the chair, that frightened man was heard asking,
"Save me Joe Louis! Save me Joe Louis! Save me Joe Louis!"
In his fear, he reached to Joe Louis, the heavyweight champ for support. That's what the title meant back then. Never giving up, and fighting to the end with heart and courage.
When Muhammad Ali, surely a great fighter, was beaten by Larry Holmes, and his fight stopped with the pounded up ex champ sitting in his corner, the old timers we knew had their moment to let us know the difference. "Comon Pete," I said to old Pete Conley, who had fought in the twenties, when I saw him on the streets of the old Hood. "Ali was just taking it. He didn't have nothing left. No sense to go on. He's proved his heart a thousand times. Hes fought with a broken jaw."
"Ha," said Pete nodding. "Dempsey wouldn't have quit in no corner. No matter how tough he was taking it! The old champs don't quit like that no matter what. Joe Louis went out on his shield. So did Archie Moore, Braddock, Charles, and the other real ones. Champs don't quit in the corner. People thought Willard was a dog for quitting in the corner, and I think the same of Ali. He could never be Dempsey or Louis. Never...." Well those were old ideas, out of the minds of old men. Today its different, and we don't put demands like that on our heavyweight champs. Maybe today's kids don't need the character and image of the heavyweight champ to help them through life. Maybe they are smarter and more confident, more worldly than we were. But don't bet on that totally.
When Mike Tyson was on the canvas, struggling to put back in his mouthpiece and keep fighting, when he was obviously out of it and beaten against Buster Douglas, don't think some kid wasn't watching and saying to himself later when he was in a tough spot,
"Iron Mike didn't quit! He kept trying, and so am I gonna keep trying!" Come to think about it, maybe Iron Mike was thinking of Dempsey and Joe Louis when he was trying to get back up and keep fighting! I wouldn't be surprised, such is the power of the heavyweight champion.