Having recently read - or, shd I say, re-read - a couple of bios about former boxing great Jack Dempsey (born William Harrison Dempsey in 1895, fought professionally 1914-27, heavywgt champ 1919-26, d. 1983, hgt 6' 1", wgt in prime 180 lbs), I found myself disappointed when I recalled that I had long ago lost my copy of Randy Roberts' JACK DEMPSEY: THE MANASSA MAULER (first published in 1979) and rued the fact that I had only "breezed" thru it, intending to thoroughly (re-)read it later. Well, more than ten (15?) years later, I finally got myself another copy (a used paperback) and, unfortunately, discovered that the book wasn't as good as I had "remembered".
NOT to say that it's a bad bio - just the opposite: it's rather good - but there were some things about it that I had forgotten, the main one being that the author made some unaccountable omissions. For ex, Roberts has little to relate about boxing immortal Harry Greb and simply refers to him in passing six times, which is strange considering that: 1) despite being a middlewgt - albeit likely the greatest 160 lber in boxing history - the "Human Windmill" was one of the leading light heavywgt (max 175 lbs) and hvywgt contenders thruout Dempsey's championship reign and, indeed, whipped, among others, Billy Miske, "KO" Bill Brennan, Tommy Gibbons, and Gene Tunney, each of whom Dempsey wd later grant title shots; 2) Greb had been publically calling out the Manassa Mauler since before the latter beat Jess Willard for the title in 1919 (the smaller man wd also needle the champ privately whenever they met); 3) Greb had easily gotten the better of the much taller and heavier champ during two sets of three public sparring sessions in July and Sept, 1920 (pls see Bill Paxton's The Fearless Harry Greb: Biography of a Tragic Hero of Boxing); & 4) the "Pittsburgh Wildcat" was one of the very few boxers to publically assert that Tunney wd beat Dempsey before their 1926 title bout, refusing Dempsey's request to be one of his sparring partners for that match and telling the champ that the "Fighting Marine" wd beat him.
Another of many omissions are the hgt and wgt of Dempsey sparring partners "Big" Bill Tate and George "The Leiperville Shadow" Godfrey, both of whom towered over the champ. Perhaps, this oversight isn't all that important, but some readers may have found it interesting that the Manassa Mauler prepared himself for bouts by working with boxers of various strengths and sizes, incl the 6'6", 225 lb Tate and the 6'3", 240 lb Godfrey, both of whom, incidentally, were African-American (though Dempsey never defended his title against a black man, most of his sparring partners were black, such as the quick middlewgt "Panama" Joe Gans, light hvy brawler Jamaica Kid, and "Battling" Jim Johnson, who had drawn with then hvywgt champ Jack Johnson in 1913).
On the other hand, there were some instances of Roberts not relating something that is quite pertinent to the story of Jack Dempsey, such as his sole kayo loss - to the then "over-the-hill" "Fireman" Jim Flynn - likely being a "tank job". Aside from the eyewitness accounts of knowledgable boxing fans, the best (circumstantial) evidence are that Flynn never bragged about that feat and that, in the rematch held almost to the day a year later, Dempsey crushed the former Pueblo, Colorado fireman in one round (or was it two?).
Needless to say, I wdn't be pointing out these oversights if the aforementioned info had not already been public knowledge before Roberts published this book ('tho, b4 Paxton penned his excellent bio of Greb, it had generally been thought that he and Dempsey had only engaged in one set of sparring sessions held over 3 consecutive days).
There are also some factual errors in this book, such as the author's claim that Tunney suggested that an elimination bout be held betw he and longtime contender Harry Wills, a 6' 2 or 3", 215 lb African-American, in 1926 to "decide which of the two shd meet Dempsey" next. I found this statement interesting - and funny - since no one had said so before (at least not in any of the many boxing books and mags that I have read or the tv interviews that I have seen) and since a) the future hvywgt champ had never - and wd never - fight a black opponent and b) the 6' 1/2" Tunney's manner of fighting (standing straight up, holding his hands relatively low and firing his stabbing jab straight out from the chest, etc, etc) was best suited - if not designed - for battling opponents who fought out of a crouch &/or were shorter than him, neither of which applied to Wills.
Nonetheless, as I stated, this IS a good boxing bio. A history prof at Purdue, Roberts writes in a straightforward manner and provides plenty of info and anecdotes both boxing fans and "general" bio readers will enjoy. "Hardcore" boxing fans will especially appreciate the detail with which he imbues his descriptions of Dempsey's fights and the fact that Roberts seems to have a much better grasp of boxing technique (which, of course, helps in relating the action when covering fights) than most boxing biographers and writers. However, while the biographer includes many endnotes/citations, an excellent bibliography, and an index, the Manassa Mauler's (bout by bout) ring record and (body) measurements weren't provided.
As for how JACK DEMPSEY: THE MANASSA MAULER stacks up against the two other bios that I mentioned above ... the following presents each book's respective strengths:
Jack Cavanaugh's Tunney: Boxing's Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey (which is also more or less a bio of Dempsey - published 2006):
- well-researched with plenty of citations
- provides the ring records of both fighters
- contains sketches - or even profiles - of many of their contemporaries, incl Greb, Benny Leonard, and "Battling" Levinsky, plus, of course, a "full-scale" bio of Tunney
- provides descriptions of many of the contemporaries' fights (with opponents other than the subjects)
- includes Dempsey's opinion of the great Sam Langford and why he didn't want to fight him
- has a detailed index, but the only photos are small ones beside each chapter title page
Roger Kahn's A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s (1999) (pls see my review at http://www.amazon.com/review/R114KFSJCP61C7/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm):
- author was friendly with the Manassa Mauler and spoke with him many times (which prob explains why he is the least objective of the 3 biographers)
- writes in a "breezy", entertaining, and easy-to-follow style ('tho he frequently goes off on tangents)
- provides many "celebrity bio"-like anecdotes, incl salacious ones like Dempsey's and US President Warren G Harding's sexual piccadillos
- includes Tunney's "imagining" as to how a hypothetical Dempsey-Joe Louis fight wd have unfolded
- has an index and 16 pages of pictures
Roberts' JACK DEMPSEY (1979):
- well-researched with many citations ('tho, again, with some unaccountable omissions)
- author interviewed his subject once
- notable fights described in detail
- has the most info of the 3 books about Dempsey's early bouts
- author is the most knowledgable of the 3 in regard to boxing technique and tactics
- has an index and 20 pages of photos (btw, the first picture in the book's photo section - at least in my copy - is the one that led many to suspect that Dempsey was a "slacker" during WWI - unaccountably, Roberts uses a photo that has been cropped above the Manassa Mauler's ankles, thereby obscuring that he was wearing new patent leather shoes while supposedly working in a shipyard, which is what tipped off people that the photo had been staged! - the same photo, uncropped, appears in Kahn's book)