Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler by Randy Roberts

While I’m an avid reader of sports biographies, rarely do I enjoy biographies that try to incorporate political and social issues into the narrative. The efforts usually come off heavy-handed, espousing a predictable left-of-center point-of-view that disregards alternative lessons that are just as (if not more) truthful. Every now and then, however, I’ll come across an author who does a superb job weaving politics and social issues into a story.

Such is the case with an older book I just finished, Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler by Randy Roberts. Dempsey’s heavyweight title reign raised issues that are grappled with in today’s America: patriotism during wartime, race, income inequality, the so-called declination of America’s moral values, and the legal status of combat sports.

Take patriotism during wartime. During his title reign, Dempsey was dogged with accusations of unpatriotism, due to his draft deferment from WWI. For his part, as Roberts ably documents, Dempsey participated in numerous efforts to help “the war effort” as proceeds from a number of fights went directly to war-related charities. But Roberts also brings up an important point: had Dempsey fought in WWI, his presence “would have meant no more than the weak clerks and near-sighted boys he might have fought alongside.” Is there any morality in risking your life in a conflict America had no business to be involved in? Pat Tillman’s involvement in the military didn’t turn the tide of war-instead his death from friendly fire was deplorably used by the government as a PR stunt. Instead of questioning Dempsey’s moral standing, his critics would have accomplished more questioning the moral standing of drafting Americans into an unnecessary conflict.

Race was also a point of contention during Dempsey’s reign. During most of Jack’s time on top, the number one contender for the heavyweight title was a black fighter named Harry Wills. For his part, Dempsey had contradictory stances. After winning the belt, he claimed support for enforcing the heavyweight division’s color barrier. Later during his reign, he reversed positions. Whatever his true feelings (he had fought black fighters in the past, so it would appear he was willing), nothing ever came of it. Promoters and boxing commissioners prevented the fight from coming to fruition.

Roberts also does an excellent job documenting the moral crusaders’ war on boxing, as they used their pulpits to decry boxing’s commericialism and impact on our culture. The moralists were offended that athletes like Dempsey could make so much money pursuing gross violence. And, much like in today’s world, they fought a losing battle. At the end of the day, if the public is willing to pay vast sums of money for entertainment, there is nothing wrong with those entertainers being able to profit from plying their trade. As for the “national degeneracy” that boxing created during Dempsey’s reign, this was another battle the moralists lost. By the end of his life, instead of representing degeneracy, Dempsey was regarded as a national institution, earning praise from President Reagan as a champion “in the hearts of the American people.”

If the political/social context doesn’t interest the reader, the book does an exemplary job of giving blow-by-blow details of Dempsey’s title fights, business dealings during the ’20s, and colorful portraits of the people in Dempsey’s life. The only disappointment was the little attention given to Dempsey’s life after boxing.

Highly recommended.

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