Dempsey - a king in a glorious age

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Jack Dempsey belonged to another time - a time that newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler referred to as the Era of Wonderful Nonsense. It was part of the Golden Age of Sports, and Dempsey was one of its kings: the heavyweight champion of the world.

The few foes who lasted long enough inside a ring with Dempsey to land some punches of their own invariably got back more than they gave. For Jack, in his prime, was the essence of quickness, stamina, and power.

Dempsey, who passed on this week in New York City, grew up in a poor family with 13 children. His early years were spent as a coal miner and migrant laborer. His first gym was a chicken coop, his sparring partners were often his brothers, and he sometimes ran wind sprints against a horse.

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''From the time I was small I realized what kind of people my parents were,'' Jack said in a book he wrote in collaboration with Barbara Piattelli Dempsey, his stepdaughter. ''My father was a dreamer. . .my mother, on the other hand, was a staunch realist. . .She loved us all fiercely and was prepared to stand by our sides at any cost, just so long as we didn't disgrace the family.''

For those who wonder why Dempsey lost so many fights early in his career, the explanation is that in those days he weighed only 165 pounds; his main meal often consisted of day-old doughnuts; and his opponents usually outweighed him by 25 to 50 pounds.

It is also fact and not fiction that Jack's first train trip through the Colorado Rockies was not what you read about in the travel folders. He saw that magnificent scenery while riding the rods under the train.

Jack had a brief movie career and for years owned a popular Broadway restaurant, but for those who grew up in that era, he'll always be recalled as the man who had no peer as heavyweight champion of the world.

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