It lasted only 237 seconds. There were 12 knockdowns. The two fighters were forever immortalized. One hundred years later, the Jack Dempsey-Luis Angel Firpo fight remains a classic.
On Sept. 14, 1923, at the Polo Grounds, Dempsey retained the heavyweight title by knocking out Firpo in the second round. Dempsey solidified his hold on the sporting public while Firpo was the first Latin American fighter to challenge for the heavyweight title.
New York has hosted its share of iconic fights — Joe Louis’ knockout of Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1938 and Joe Frazier’s triumph over Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1971. But Dempsey-Firpo was the first million-dollar gate in New York and its attendance of 88,247 remains a record for boxing in the state.
“I think this fight made New York the capital of boxing from 1920 all the way to the end of the 1970s, when the Las Vegas casinos came in and started subsidizing the sport,” boxing historian and longtime matchmaker Don Majeski said.
Dempsey already was one of the most popular sports figures in the world. His fights were perpetual action, with Dempsey pursuing and punching and overwhelming his opponents. He was the heavyweight champion of the world when that still was considered the greatest title in all of sports.
“Dempsey’s knockout power was to boxing what Babe Ruth’s home run power was to baseball,” Majeski said. “In terms of popularity, Dempsey was rivaled only by Ruth.”
Firpo was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and began to fight regularly in the United States at the start of 1923. Leading into the Dempsey fight, he scored eight consecutive wins, seven by knockout. While he stopped former champion Jess Willard in Jersey City and fought at the Garden, Yankee Stadium and Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, Firpo still was billed in the media as an exotic phenomenon, a mysterious giant from South America. His nickname — The Wild Bull of the Pampas — reinforced the mystique.
“Firpo was the first real-life hero for Latin American sports fans,” said Jose Corpas, boxing historian and author of two books on the sport. “He was larger than life. He influenced hundreds, maybe even thousands of young boxers. Not only in Argentina but in all of Latin America. He was to Latin America what Jack Dempsey was to the United States.”
The fight didn’t disappoint. Firpo was knocked down seven times in the first round and Dempsey was dropped twice. As the round drew to a close, a right hand from Firpo sent Dempsey tumbling through the ropes and out of the ring. Reporters at ringside helped him back into the ring, a violation of the rules.
It was Dempsey, though, who picked up the assault in Round 2. He dropped Firpo twice, and the Argentine was counted out just about a minute into the round. The excitement of the fight and the controversy would live on.
In 1967, while appearing on a British television talk show, Dempsey was asked about being helped back into the ring. He laughed and offered a self-deprecating explanation.
Said Dempsey, who was 24 days short of his 88th birthday when he died in 1983: “I don’t remember even getting back into the ring . . . If the public wants to do something, you can’t stop them. There’s no law that says you can’t help a man when he’s down. And believe me, I was down, and if it wasn’t for the public throwing me back in there, I would have never gotten back into the ring.”
At the time of the fight, The New York Times reported that news had falsely spread to Buenos Aires that Dempsey had been disqualified and they were celebrating in the streets.
“The feeling was that Firpo was robbed, that Dempsey was helped back into the ring,” Corpas said. “The majority of Latin Americans felt that he was denied the championship. They looked at him as the uncrowned champ.”
The fight generated a gate of $1.25 million. Dempsey’s share was $468,750 and Firpo took home $156,250. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Ruth earned $52,000 in 1923. The entire Yankees payroll was $214,650.
To commemorate the anniversary of the fight, on Nov. 1, the World Boxing Council and the New York City Housing Authority plan to unveil a plaque at the Polo Grounds Towers, a housing complex at the site of the old Polo Grounds.
“Thanks to Luis Angel Firpo, the first Latino to fight for a world title in any sport, doors were opened for all Latino athletes worldwide,” WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman said. “It is our privilege to donate a commemorative plaque and belt to honor the site where history was made. Dempsey-Firpo remains one of the most dramatic fights in boxing history.”
The fight inspired George Bellows’ painting, “Dempsey and Firpo,” one of the most recognizable pieces of sports artwork in history. In 1950, The Associated Press polled 374 sportswriters and radio sportscasters and they ranked Dempsey-Firpo as the most dramatic sports moment of the first half-century.
“His impact on Latin America was huge,” Corpas said of Firpo, who was 65 when he died in 1960. “They loved how he fought with such heart. How many boxers who lose their biggest fight still get streets named after them in four different countries?”
And come November, he’ll also have a plaque in Manhattan.