He started as the “Manassa Mauler” and became the Heavyweight Champion of the World- but for a little while, in the mid 1920s, Los Angles could claim Jack Dempsey as one of its own. Local fight fan gathered around their radios listened in disbelief on September 23, 1926 when the Champ lost his title to Gene Tunney in Philadelphia.
Jack Dempsey started as a “road kid,” traveling from town to town near his home in Manassa, Colorado to fight all comers in saloons and mining camps. He won the world heavyweight championship on the 4th of July, 1919 from Jess Willard, now retired from boxing and settled in Los Angeles. In early 1924, after his decisive victory over Luis Firpo, Jack started spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, making a series of short films for Universal Pictures in Hollywood. He and his colorful manager Jack “Doc” Kearns invested in LA real estate, buying the Barbra Hotel near Westlake Park and the Wilshire Apartments at 671 S. Coronado St.
Critics began to say Dempsey had “gone Hollywood” and thought he should spend more time in the ring and less time having his bunged up nose beautified by a Hollywood plastic surgeon and running around with stars like Clara Bow and Lupe Velez. But Los Angeles liked the amiable Champ and rallied around him. Jack ignored the jibes. He’d fallen for actress Estelle Taylor, and they were married in San Diego in February 1925.
The couple returned from a European honeymoon and settled down in a Tudor mansion at 5254 Los Feliz Blvd. on an acre, with its own golf course, pool and three car garage. Jack wasn’t doing much fighting. That summer the newlyweds attended the opening of the Olympic Auditorium. Then he and Estelle made a forgettable movie (bankrolled by Jack) called Manhattan Madness.
Jack was also on hand when his brother Barney opened a training gym at 534½ S. Spring St. in quarters that had once been home to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and called it the Manhattan Gym after the Taylor-Dempsey film. Most people just called it “Dempsey’s.”
Finally, Jack agreed to a sixth title defense. He would meet Tunney in September 1926, almost two years since the Firpo battle. He worked with the great trainer Gus Wilson in Los Angeles then went east to New Jersey to set up camp.
Those who couldn’t afford a radio set could hear the returns broadcast via wire from the Loew’s State Theater at Seventh & Broadway.
The fight started at 6:45pm Los Angeles time. It went ten rounds. Jack fought well but took a beating at the hands of the younger Tunney. The crowd was stunned. Jack had been the champ for so long. Now, suddenly he wasn’t. His tongue-in-cheek comment to Estelle after the fight, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” became a catch phrase for a while.
The defeated champ returned to LA in late fall 1926 and soon started training for his rematch with Tunney in September 1927, the one that culminated in the controversial “long count” and another Tunney win. L.A still loved Jack. But with no more movie offers coming in and his marriage to Estelle breaking up (they divorced in 1931) he didn’t have much reason to stay in town and began pulling up stakes for New York, where he opened his successful restaurant in 1935. He died in 1983.