Dempsey, Jack (‘The Nonpareil’) (1862–95), world middleweight boxing champion, was born John Edward Kelly on 15 December 1862, near Clane, Co. Kildare, son of Martin Kelly and Alicia Kelly (née Lennon). In 1867, aged four, he emigrated with his family to America, where he attended public school in Brooklyn, NY. His father died while he was still a child, and his mother married Patrick Dempsey, whose surname he assumed. On leaving school he worked as a cooper, and earned money on the side as a professional wrestler, enjoying considerable success. He fought his first professional boxing match against the Irish-born Ed McDonald, whom he knocked out in twenty-one rounds in a dilapidated hall on Staten Island, NY (7 April 1883). For most of his career he boxed under the rules of the London prize ring, based on fighting bare-knuckled (or latterly, in skin-tight gloves), in rounds that lasted until one of the men was knocked to the ground. Such fights were illegal in many jurisdictions, yet often widely reported in the newspapers. The contestants fought for stake money supplied by backers, by the small crowds that attended the fights, and by gamblers.
Dempsey defeated Jack Boylan, the Irish lightweight champion, in twenty-three rounds in Flushing, NY (14 August 1883). Several of his early fights were interrupted by the arrival of police (and consequently scored as ‘no contests’), including his match against the highly experienced Harry Force, whom he was beating well after eleven rounds, in a rough area of Coney Island, NY (3 September 1883); Force failed to appear for a rematch set by the referee. Amid a run of impressive results – he scored knockouts in eight of his first fourteen bouts – Dempsey decisively defeated Billy Dacey for the lightweight championship of New York (6 March 1884), and briefly claimed the world title. He soon abandoned the lightweight class, however, to his friend and protégé, the Cork-born Jack McAuliffe (qv), and competed in the middleweight division. Accepting the challenge of George Fulljames, the Canadian champion, who offered to fight any claimant for the vacant world title, Dempsey scored a knockout victory in the twenty-second round in Great Kills, NY (30 July 1884). Though boxing historians date his world middleweight championship from this victory (1884–91), his claim was disputed until 1886, when he successively vanquished two highly regarded rival claimants, Jack Fogarty and George LaBlanche, thereby securing universal recognition.
Throughout the 1880s Dempsey was the second most famous athlete in America, behind only heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan. Handsome, personable, and well mannered, despite being a heavy drinker Dempsey enjoyed a respectability denied to the rough-hewn Sullivan. This lent force to efforts to legalise the sport, and attracted many women to his legion of admirers. Five-feet-eight-inches (1.73 m) in height, he weighed several pounds over ten stone (63.5 kg), placing him within the welterweight limit. By fighting in the middleweight division (the limit of which was raised in 1889 from 11 st. to 11 st. 4 lb. (71.7 kg)), he routinely fought heavier opponents. Skilful, quick, clever, and agile, he had a sharp left jab and a potent stiff-armed right. He was expert at feinting an opponent to create openings, and land his accurate, perfectly timed punches. Cool under pressure, normally he relied on outboxing his foe, but could stand his ground and out-slug a man when necessary. His nickname, ‘The Nonpareil’, meaning ‘unique’ or ‘unequalled’, signified his absolute dominance, and was derived from the agnomen of Jack Randall, a London-based middleweight of the 1820s.
Through his four prime years (1884–7), Dempsey was unbeaten in fifty-two fights, none of his non-title contests lasting longer than ten rounds. The period culminated in his most famous fight, a titanic struggle against Johnny Reagan at two separate outdoor seaside locations on Long Island, NY (13 December 1887). When, after eight rounds, the ring was engulfed by the rising ocean tide, the contestants and their attendants travelled twenty-five miles by tugboat to a second site on higher ground. Early in the fight, Reagan's sharply spiked shoes opened a four-inch gash in Dempsey's shin (Reagan had been observed paring the spikes before the fight). After the resumption Dempsey took command, Reagan repeatedly saving himself by going to ground intentionally. With another interruption looming amid a blinding snowstorm, Dempsey concluded proceedings with a knockout blow to the jaw in the forty-fifth round. His rematch against George LaBlanche (27 August 1889) was declared a non-title fight when the challenger weighed in over the limit. In the thirty-second round, LaBlanche, struggling desperately and nearing defeat, suddenly knocked Dempsey unconscious by pivoting on his heel, and sweeping his stiffened right arm in an arc to land a backhand blow with the knuckles on the champion's jaw. Though the ‘pivot blow’ (also called the ‘LaBlanche swing’) was widely decried as unethical, and soon was officially outlawed, the referee refused to call a foul, and Dempsey, while retaining his title, lost his unbeaten record.
Dempsey defeated Australian Billy McCarthy over twenty-eight rounds in San Francisco in the first world middleweight title fight contested under marquis of Queensberry rules, with padded gloves and three-minute rounds (18 February 1890). Competing for a record purse of $12,000, he lost his title to the Cornish-born, New Zealand-reared Bob Fitzsimmons in New Orleans (14 January 1891). Though a two-to-one favourite, Dempsey was comprehensively outmastered, unable to fathom Fitzsimmons's unorthodox style. Knocked out in the thirteenth round, he lamented that he would be less troubled to have lost the title to an Irishman or an American, ‘but to an Englishman, that's what kills me’ (quoted in Myler, 54). His fitness rapidly declining, suffering the early stages of tuberculosis, he fought only three more times. In his last fight he was beaten in three rounds by Tommy Ryan for the world welterweight title (18 January 1895).
Over a twelve-year professional career, Dempsey was defeated only three times in sixty-eight contests; his forty-eight victories included twenty-five knockouts. Bridging the transition between the London prize ring and the Queensberry rules, he is listed as the first modern world middleweight champion. Probably the greatest Irish-born boxer in any class, he is widely regarded as one of the best ever ‘pound-for-pound’ fighters. Boxing historian Tracy G. Callis (of the International Boxing Research Organisation) ranks him third in this regard, behind only Fitzsimmons and Sugar Ray Robinson. He was elected to the Ring hall of fame in 1954, and to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. The even more famous eponymous heavyweight champion of the 1920s – born William Harrison Dempsey in Manassa, Colorado – boxed as Jack Dempsey in tribute to the Nonpareil.
Dempsey married (27 July 1886) Margaret Brady, of Portland, Oregon, whom he met while touring the west coast in 1885; they had two daughters. He made his home in Portland, where he died 2 November 1895.