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Rocky Lockridge’s 20-Year Battle With Drugs Was Tougher Than Any 15-Round Fight

Bernard Fernandez

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“Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” is a 1950s mantra often, and wrongly, attributed to actor James Dean, star of Rebel Without a Cause and the iconic symbol of the era’s youthful angst. Regardless of the authorship of that fatalistic sentiment, Dean seemingly made it his own during a brief, turbulent life: he was speeding when, at 24, he crashed his car and succumbed to his injuries on Sept. 30, 1955, indeed leaving a good-looking corpse in the casket that was lowered into his grave. More than 63 years later, devotees of all ages continue to mourn the premature passing of the forever-cool Dean, who was spared the reality of growing old gracefully, or at all.

Boxing’s James Dean equivalent was WBC featherweight champion and Mexican national hero Salvador Sanchez (44-1-1, 32 KOs), who was 23 when, driving far too fast, he crashed his land rocket of a car and perished on Aug. 12, 1982. At the time of his death, Sanchez, the perpetually young and fresh embodiment of a magnificent  fighter whose career might have been even more celebrated had he lived longer, had a signed contract to fight Rocky Lockridge, another young, exciting and gifted practitioner of the pugilistic arts, in what would have been one of the most-anticipated matchups of the decade.

Perhaps, had he and Sanchez actually squared off, and particularly if Lockridge (44-9, 36 KOs) had come away with a victory that would have surpassed even his signature one-punch knockout of Roger “The Black Mamba” Mayweather, things would have turned out differently for the Tacoma, Wash., native who might also have achieved the legendary status that will forever cloak fans’ cherished memories of Sanchez. But there was an opponent, more insidious than any he ever faced or might have in the ring, that served to strip Rocky Lockridge of his wealth, pride and dignity during a 20-year descent into a nightmarish existence in which he got his ass kicked daily by the twin scourges of drug and alcohol addiction.

Live fast? Die young? Leave a good-looking corpse? None of the outcomes on James Dean’s figurative wish list happened for Lockridge, who, despite his finally being able to kick his drug habit in the last few years of his life, was mostly a broke and broken man when he passed away, at 60, on Feb. 7. At the time of his death, Lockridge – who had suffered a series of strokes that slurred his speech and limited his mobility – was a ward of the State of New Jersey, in hospice care. Despite the no-frills circumstances of his passing, it was nonetheless better than the two decades he spent trapped in the depths of despair.  During those lost years the onetime champion was a veritable shadow of his former self, scuffling along on some of the meaner streets of Camden,  N.J., and subsisting on whatever he was able to scrounge through charity, panhandling or theft (he was arrested several times for burglary).

“I’ve been down to the pits of hell. I ain’t going back, no way,” Lockridge said in October 2011, after he had gotten himself clean during two very public years as the subject of an A&E reality television show, Intervention, which profiles the struggles of addicts to find sobriety.  The ex-champ’s angels of mercy were Jacquie Richardson, executive director of the Retired Boxers Foundation, who put A&E in touch with Lockridge, and Candy Finnigan, the intervention specialist who handled his case for the television program.

But as far as he had fallen, and as disgraced as he felt for having made the poor choices that led to his tumble from grace, there was enough of the personable Lockridge to remind those who cared to remember that there was still a kind and decent human being existing in the hollowed-out shell of what he had become.

“When you’re a kid, everyone has a Superman,” Bobby Toney, who idolized Lockridge when he was on top and befriended him when he was homeless in Camden and most in need of assistance, said in 2009. “I feel like my Superman just went and sat himself down on a big block of kryptonite. He couldn’t get off of it himself. He just needs some people to lift him up.”

Lockridge was a phenom as an amateur, compiling a 210-8 record for the Tacoma Boys Club and winning two national AAU championships and one national Golden Gloves title.  Identified as a future professional standout by the Duva family, he and another hot prospect from Tacoma, Johnny Bumphus, came east to New Jersey to be headliners in the early rise of what would become the Main Events promotional dynasty, predating the then-fledgling operation’s signing of 1984 Olympic medalists Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland and Tyrell Biggs.

“Rocky was always a low-key person with an easygoing personality,” recalled Kathy Duva, now Main Events’ CEO but then a publicist and wife of the company founder, the now-deceased Dan Duva. “He was quiet, articulate … just a wonderful guy.”

Twice losing bids for the WBA featherweight championship, both defeats coming on points to future Hall of Famer Eusebio Pedroza, Lockridge’s third attempt for a world title proved the charm when he journeyed to Beaumont, Texas, to challenge favored WBA super featherweight ruler Roger Mayweather, who would later gain acclaim as the trainer of his nephew, Floyd Mayweather Jr., on Feb. 26, 1984.  Only 25 and 32-3, Lockridge announced himself as not only a star of the moment, but maybe one for years to come, when he required only 91 seconds to starch the “Black Mamba,” the putaway coming on as emphatic a single shot as it ever gets inside the ropes.

“In a stunner, Rocky Lockridge has knocked out Roger Mayweather in round one!” blow-by-blow announcer Marv Albert excitedly informed television viewers.

Many years later, the $3 million fortune he had accrued through boxing long since vanished to his addiction and the sponging of hangers-on who partied with him for however long he could pay for the kind of good times that never last, Lockridge and a friend watched a TV replay of his victory over a Mayweather. It was if Lockridge was reliving a magical moment he wished could have forever been frozen in time.

“You see that man right there, Roger Mayweather?” Lockridge inquired of his guest. “You know who knocked him out? Rocky Lockridge!”

After starching Mayweather, Lockridge retained his title with defenses against Tae Jin Moon and Kamel Bou-Ali before being dethroned on a 15-round majority decision by another future Hall of Famer, Wilfredo Gomez, on May 19, 1985, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Lockridge reportedly earned a career-high $275,000 for that bout, on whose outcome hinged the kind of fat paydays that would have helped certify him as the great fighter his handlers believed he was on the verge of becoming.

“There are some good purses out there for him,” Lockridge’s manager, Lou Duva, said of what awaited had his guy gotten past Gomez. “All those years are now wrapped up in one night’s battle. Everything is wrapped up in the Gomez fight.”

Not that there wouldn’t be more good times and commendable victories for Lockridge, but already shadows were beginning to shade what should have been a bright and extended run at the top. He received $200,000, his second-highest purse, for an Aug. 3, 1986, shot at WBC super featherweight champ Julio Cesar Chavez, but he came up just short, losing a 12-round majority decision. He rebounded to lift Barry Michael’s IBF super feather belt on an eighth-round stoppage on Aug. 9, 1987, and held it with victories over Johnny De La Rosa and Harold Knight, but lost a 12-round unanimous decision, and his title, to Tony “The Tiger” Lopez on July 23, 1988, in Lopez’s hometown of Sacramento, Calif. That barnburner of a scrap went on to be named Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine. But the exciting setback to Lopez was the beginning of a career-ending  downward spiral in which Lockridge lost four of his final five bouts.

When did Lockridge begin to cede portions of his life and talent to the ravages of crack and booze? Even the man himself was uncertain of an exact date, but he knew he was still an active fighter when he began to celebrate victories, or to console himself in defeat, by partying. Fix by fix, drunken stupor by drunken stupor, he lost himself in a befuddled haze that ultimately left him without his wife, who divorced him, and his three sons, one of whom he fathered with a different woman.

“I’m bitter, I’m very bitter,” Lockridge once said of his personal dissolution. “I made some mistakes, a whole lot of mistakes, but they were beyond my imagination. The blow that was put upon me was harder to take than the blows, or any blow, for that matter, that I received in the fight game.”

But there are those, despite Lockridge’s many travails, who believe his career still is worthy of consideration for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He fought nine current, former or future world champions, almost always holding his own and in more than a few instances prevailing.

George Benton, Lockridge’s trainer and a pretty fair middleweight in his own right who was inducted into the IBHOF, as a trainer, in 2001, always said that the best of Rocky was a marvel to behold.

“He’s beautiful to watch,” said Benton, who was 78 when he passed away on Sept. 19, 2011. “He’s the type of fighter who holds your interest. You know when you go to see him you can’t get up out of your seat to go to the rest room. If you do, it might be all over when you get back.”

The 1980s, and the decade’s alarming legacy of rampant drug use, passed into history nearly 30 years ago. There were fatalities among the world-class athletes and entertainers who did not survive long enough to make it to middle age, and others, like Lockridge, who might have wished for the eternal peace that dying young would have meant. Additional names, like that of Johnny Bumphus, now 58, Lockridge’s Main Events stablemate and a onetime WBA super lightweight champion, are likely to remain on the future casualty list until they aren’t.

“This is as low as I’ve ever been,” Bumphus said in May 1990 of the loss of his sense of self that mirrored his friend and fellow Tacoma native Lockridge. “I’m a drug addict. I’m out of money. I don’t have a job or a house or a car. I had it all and then I smoked it all up, or gave it all away to cocaine.

“I want to apologize to all my fans, all my friends and family, anybody who ever saw me box, anybody I’ve ever known. I made them all proud of me, and now I’ve done this.”

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 126: Viva Puerto Rico, Claressa Shields, Canelo and More

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 126: Viva Puerto Rico, Claressa Shields, Canelo and More

In the age of Covid-19 fights get canceled and re-arranged and that’s found here in this second attempt to stage Serhii Bohachuk versus Brandon Adams in a super welterweight showdown.

This pairing was first talked about back when the Dodgers and Lakers both won world championships last October. Finally, it’s ready to cast off.

Beautiful Puerto Rico will be the locale for Bohachuk (18-0, 18 KOs) when he meets Adams (22-3, 14 KOs) on Thursday March 4, at Felix Pintor Gym in Guaynabo. NBC Sports Network will televise the Ring City USA fight card.

“Flaco” Bohachuk has rampaged through the super welterweight division like a ravenous Ukrainian version of Pacman. Who can stop him?

Adams has fought the better competition including a world title match against Jermall Charlo that he lost by decision less than two years ago.

Other factors exist.

Bohachuk was formally trained by Abel Sanchez in Big Bear Mountain but now works with Manny Robles at sea level. Will it make a difference when he trades blows against the smaller but seemingly stronger Adams?

“We’re taking this fight seriously against Adams,” said Robles who has trained numerous world champions including Oscar Valdez and Andy Ruiz. “Adams is a very strong fighter.”

Bohachuk last fought deep in the heart of Mexico and emerged with a stoppage that saw him scrap with little-known but tough-as-nails Alejandro Davila. Both landed serious stuff but Bohachuk just had more firepower.

Adams says he has seen firepower like Bohachuk’s before. He went toe-to-toe with Charlo for the WBC middleweight title and never touched the canvas. He’s smaller but more muscular and has fought taller guys most of his career.

This is one of those fights that used to be held at the Olympic Auditorium back in the day. Ironically, there is a documentary that has just been released about those days before it was closed to boxing in 2005.

Added note: Fernando Vargas Jr. will also engage on the fight card. The son of “El Feroz,” Fernando Vargas Jr. fights out of Las Vegas and will be in his second pro fight as a super middleweight.

Women’s pay-per-view

An all-women fight card led by Claressa Shields takes place on Friday March 5. It will be streamed by FITE.tv beginning at 6 p.m. PT. Price is $29.99.

Shields (10-0) faces her toughest foe yet when she steps in the boxing ring against Canada’s undefeated Marie Eve Dicaire (17-0) for the undisputed super welterweight world championship.

Dicaire is a tall southpaw with speed and agility who has defeated several world champions.

Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former undisputed middleweight world champion and super middleweight titlist who dropped down two weight divisions to pursue this venture.

Also, just added is Marlen Esparza, a USA Olympic bronze medalist, and current flyweight contender.

Esparza (8-1) agreed to fight on the pay-per-view card and meets Shelly Barnett (4-3-2) in a six-round bout set for the super flyweight division. Her last fight took place in October and she handed talented Sulem Urbina her first loss as a pro.

Barnett is a Canadian veteran of nine pro fights including an eight-round battle with Florida’s Rosalinda Rodriguez.

Rumor has it that Esparza is getting prepared for a showdown with Mexico’s Ibeth “La Roca” Zamora for the WBC flyweight world title later in the spring.

It’s a pretty good pay-per-view card that also features Danielle Perkins, Logan Holler and Jamie Mitchell in competitive fights. If you haven’t seen women fights, take a look. Shields alone can astonish with her fighting skills.

Canelo

That redhead from Mexico continues to decimate the competition whether its from England, Turkey or Russia. Line them up and let them fly.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez holds the WBA and WBC super middleweight world titles and was forced to fight the number one contender Avni Yildirim and promptly stomped him out like a bug on the rug.

Fans get upset. They don’t understand that ratings exist and with four or five sanctioning organizations all having different standings, a fighter like Alvarez who has two titles is forced to fight fighters ranked number one through 10. But it’s just a part of boxing that has to be done.

Alvarez had already skipped Yildirim before to fight Callum Smith for the WBA title which he won by unanimous decision. Now he will be meeting another Brit in Billy Joe Saunders who has the WBO version of the super middleweight title. It will take place on May 8, most likely in Las Vegas. That’s Cinco de Mayo weekend. Las Vegas needs the bank. Once again it depends on the Covid-19 situation.

Off topic, Canelo recently had an exchange with Claressa Shields who posted on social media that the Mexican redhead is one of her favorite fighters. She likes working on technique and posted one of her workouts where she is hitting a heavy bag with a combination that she saw Canelo use.

Canelo saw it and gave her a few tips. Champion to champion. That was kind of cool.

Farewell to L.A. Favorite

Featherweight contender Danny Valdez passed away on Sunday February 28 in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Valdez held the California Featherweight title when the state championship was not easy to gain. He also vied for the world title against Davey Moore in April 1961 in Los Angeles.

Many of his battles took place at the vaunted Olympic Auditorium where he fought the likes of Gil Cadilli and Sugar Ramos. Back in those days there was no better place to fight than the Olympic. But Valdez did engage in battles at Wrigley Field and the Hollywood Legion Stadium too.

Though Valdez fought up and down the West Coast in Oregon and California, he primarily battled at the Olympic Auditorium, a total of 24 times in all. If you ever watched a boxing card at the Olympic, it was a magical place.

Fights to Watch

(All Times are Pacific Time)

Thurs. 6 p.m. NBC Sports Network Serhii Bohachuk (18-0) vs Brandon Adams (22-3)

Fri. 6 p.m. FITE.tv.  Claressa Shields (10-0) vs Marie Eve Dicaire (17-0); Marlen Esparza (8-1) vs Shelly Barnett (4-3-2); Logan Holler (9-0-1) vs Schemelle Baldwin (3-1-2); Danielle Perkins (2-0) vs Monika Harrison (2-1-1); Jamie Mitchell (5-0-2) vs Noemi Bosques (12-15-3).

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Ramirez vs. Taylor Adds Luster to an Already Strong Boxing Slate in May

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing will heat up big-time in May. Canelo Alvarez will defend his WBC 168-pound title on May 8 against Billy Joe Saunders. Two weeks later, WBC/WBO 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez (26-0, 17 KOs) meets his IBF/WBA counterpart Josh Taylor (17-0, 13 KOs). Teofimo Lopez’s title defense against George Kambosos may transpire in May and now there’s talk that Manny Pacquiao will also return in May with Mikey Garcia in the opposite corner.

The Ramirez-Taylor fight was announced today (March 2). The match between the undefeated belt-holders, both former Olympians, will produce the fifth unified champion of the four-belt error. Middleweights Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor, junior welterweight Terence Crawford, and cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk are the only boxers to have held this distinction.

Ramirez vs. Taylor will be on ESPN. The fight appears headed to an MGM Grand property in Las Vegas. The T-Mobile Arena, the city’s largest indoor sports arena, is likely in the running. The arena houses the city’s professional hockey team, the Golden Knights, which played their first game in many moons with fans in attendance on Monday. Attendance was capped at 15 percent of capacity and the game was a “sellout” with all 2,605 available seats attracting occupants.

Josh Taylor, who made his pro debut in El Paso, of all places, will be making his second appearance in Las Vegas, assuming the fight transpires there. The Tartan Tornado appeared at the MGM Grand Garden on Jan. 28, 2017, on a card topped by the WBA featherweight title rematch between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz. Taylor and Frampton then shared the same trainer, Shane McGuigan.

In the words of Bob Arum, “Ramirez vs. Taylor is the best boxing has to offer, two elite fighters in the prime of their careers colliding in a legacy-defining matchup for the undisputed championship of the world. It’s a true 50-50 fight….”

In boxing, unlike other sports, anything under 2-to-1 is basically a “pick-’em” fight, so Arum isn’t far off the mark. For the record, however, the first betting lines to appear show the Scotsman the favorite in the 7-to-4 range, a price obviously based on the assumption that the fight will be held in Nevada, or at least anywhere other than Glasgow or Fresno.

Ramirez didn’t look sharp in his last outing when he scored a majority decision over Victor Postol at the MGM Bubble. Ramirez said he was burned-out after a long training camp – the fight was postponed twice – and said he thought the sterile atmosphere affected him; he was used to feeding off the energy of a crowd. Josh Taylor also had a tough time with Postol when they met in a 12-round bout at Glasgow on June 23, 2018 (the gritty Ukrainian is a tough nut to crack), but one would not have gleaned that from the scorecards which were soaked with hometown bias.

Josh Taylor’s last fight was at fan-less York Hall in London. The Scotch southpaw was entitled to a breather after his epic encounter with Regis Prograis and the IBF had just the ticket in mandatory challenger Apinun Khonsong. Taylor dismissed the overmatched Thai in the opening round with a body punch. This was Taylor’s first fight with new trainer Ben Davison.

The last time that Arum called an upcoming match a 50-50 fight, he was hyping the all-Mexican showdown between Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez. That was no 50-50 fight, Berchelt was a solid favorite, but as it turned out, the pricemakers had underestimated the underdog who delivered the goods in a wildly entertaining skirmish.

On paper, Ramirez vs. Taylor will also be a very entertaining affair.

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From the Desert, Jack Dempsey

Matt McGrain

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Jack Dempsey, who has been matched by Jack Goodfriend to fight at the Hippodrome Monday, May 31 is expected to arrive from Reno within a day or two.  The match will be a ten round contest and preceded by a couple of good preliminaries. (The Goldfield News, May 22nd, 1915.)

In May of 1915 Jack Dempsey found himself trapped in Nevada and between purses. Fifty miles from his payday with no rail to ride, he walked out of the desert and into Goldfield, stuck the bewildered promoter for an advance and hired a sparring partner, knocked the sparring partner out and hired another.

Walking in ninety-five-degree weather can be dangerous for even an experienced athlete, but it seemed to agree with Jack. He had marched into Goldfield to meet a light-heavyweight named Johnny Sudenberg, a game but limited battler who had for the first time strung a decent run of wins together, all of them fought in the desert Dempsey travailed on foot. Dempsey had scored a series of knockout wins in Salt Lake City, enough that his name was known and interest in his proposed match with the local man stoked.

“Jack Dempsey, the husky Pueblo middleweight, who will meet Johnny Sudenberg at the Hippodrome next Monday night in a ten round bout arrived in camp this morning,” reported regional press. “Several local men have seen Dempsey in action…and all [are] united in the prediction that Johnny had better be ‘right’ when he crawls through the ropes.”

It speaks of boxing’s burgeoning’s status in the United States that there were two gymnasiums in Goldfield capable of staging training. Dempsey worked out at the Unity Club, little more than a middleweight, perhaps not least because of his fifty-mile travail through the desert earlier that week. He boxed a local footnote named Dick Trounce and he may also have boxed some rounds with the world class bantamweight Roy Moore.

Sudenberg, stung by assertions that it was Dempsey, not he, who was the puncher in the fight, bristled and demanded of himself a knockout while training down the street in the Northern Gymnasium.

There is a divergence now between Dempsey’s recollection of the fight and the newspaper reporting of the day. Before the fight, although he may have shared a ring with Jack Dempsey, not known for his tender attentions of even much smaller sparring partners, Roy Moore advised his sparring partner to steer clear. “Don’t slug with Sudenberg.  He’s awful strong. Stay away from him.”

Dempsey claims to have dismissed this advice, telling Roger Kahn, author of A Flame of Pure Fire, that the match was a brutal slugfest from the first. Local press though reported on a fight that was marked by cautious sparring early, and that after “feeling each other out” for two rounds that Dempsey dominated, it was Sudenberg who changed the pattern and “owing to the greater height and reach” Dempsey possessed, brought the fight to the inside. A fine battle resulted and one that saw Dempsey descend into total chaos for the first time, a feeling that would become as familiar to him as slipping on a pair of old shoes.

“I just kept swinging. Sometimes I think I saw a face in front of me, sometimes I didn’t. I kept swinging.”

Dempsey claimed he could remember nothing after the fifth.

A rematch was not immediately slated, but the failure of a potential Sudenberg opponent to deliver on a sidebet let Dempsey back in just days later. Dempsey moved a bit further north with the purses, his second battle with Sudenberg staged in Tonopah. Still years from the three-ringed circus his career would become, there was interest surrounding the young scrapper who trained for the fight in the town’s casino. Tonopah was a young but bustling setting, festooned with banks and lawyers and saloons as money poured in from Nevada’s second largest silver strike. By 1920 they had pulled $121m out of the ground and Dempsey was there to pull out his own piece.

“A great many were dissatisfied with the decision last Monday,” wrote the Tonopah Daily upon the fight’s announcement. “Dempsey gave Sudenberg the best fight he has had in this part of the country.”

Sudenberg, who seems to have been a prickly character, held the power in his relationship with Dempsey and so clearly backed himself to win a rematch. A fascinating aspect of the fight is their respective sizes. Dempsey was referred to as a middleweight in the earliest dispatches surrounding the fight, but in the ring made an impression upon ringsiders as the bigger man. Taller, rangier, it is possible he was already the heavier of the two or it may be that his trek through the surrounding desert left an early impression of litheness which slipped away as Dempsey, holding cash, boxed and ate his way to a size advantage during the build-up. The Goldfield News described him upon entering the ring for the rematch as looking “more like an overgrown schoolboy than a fighter” as he stepped on the canvas before noting wryly that he “proved otherwise.”

The fight quite literally drew from miles around, with “Goldfield well represented at ringside” and “eight to ten auto loads” appearing from nearby mines. Dempsey grabbed their attention early, a man you will recognise, coming out of his corner like a rocket and deploying what the Tonopah Daily Bonanza named “Dempsey’s mass attack,” presumably an early incarnation of the terrible beating he would inflict upon Jess Willard in Toledo with the world’s title at stake. Indeed, Sudenberg does appear to have visited the canvas in that first round, but Dempsey, over-eager, under-seasoned, missed with key punches following up his advantage and the canny Sudenberg survived a round of murderous intent.

Papers also report the use of straight punches by Dempsey, that he preferred range and looked to that superior range to dominate. Early Dempsey contests fascinate me in that they repeatedly throw up this story, of a fighter who at just 6’1 was able to dominate most of the desert’s pugs with height and reach. Here he plays the role that would later be played by Willard, Carl Morris and Fred Fulton, longer men trying to control the range while Dempsey tormented them with slips and punches.  Here it was Sudenberg who in the third and fourth seemed to do something of a job, getting inside and hitting to the belly while the two accused each other of low blows.

Dempsey is a victim of some criticism over his own use of low blows, alleged or otherwise, in huge fights with Tommy Gibbons and Jack Sharkey. It should be remembered always that he learned his trade in spots like Tonopah and Goldfield where local referees were not sympathetic to pleas for justice to be dispensed. Dempsey fought like a fistic savage because he was raised as one.

After just four rounds in Tonopah, he was tired, feeling the effects of a difficult month and a fast fight. “Dempsey takes punishment well and ducks cleverly,” noted The Bonanza, while The News saw Dempsey holding on a good deal more in the second half of the fight.

By round eight, Sudenberg began to show the effects of Dempsey’s right hand which he worked “like a sledgehammer” while Sudenberg “lands heavily on Dempsey’s digestive apparatus.” At the final bell the two worked one another mercilessly in search of the decision, but they were greeted by a draw.

Under a more modern ruleset I suspect that Dempsey would have received the nod. He crushed Sudenberg in the early part of the fight and more than matched him late, but with the referee acting as a single judge, draws in fights where a winner was not inarguably apparent were common.  Fighters expected it and pressmen expected it, which is perhaps why some of those in attendance saw the result as eminently reasonable. Dempsey clearly landed the better shots, but Sudenberg was rewarded for his gameness in “carrying the fight” a tenet of the era.

Dempsey had impressed though. “In Dempsey, who gives the promise of developing into a heavyweight,” stated The News, “there is room for a world of improvement, and with the experience he will gain during the next few years he should make a formidable opponent for any scrapper.”

Portentous words.

When Dempsey left Tonopah – history does not record whether he walked out – he was mere days from his twentieth birthday, an overgrown schoolboy appearing on the good end of draws against older, more experienced men, already determined to become heavyweight champion, already of the belief he would become one. History tells of a third fight between he and Sudenberg the following February, a more mature Dempsey thrashing a cowed Sudenberg in two rounds.

I spoke to Dempsey scholar and author of the outstanding In The Ring series, Adam Pollack. “Didn’t happen,” was his verdict.  “I am certain it didn’t take place.”

It is nice to have this one cleared up. Dempsey did not need to defeat Sudenberg to leave him behind. Dempsey, like any heavyweight champion has his obsessed fans – among them the men who developed a single thin thread concerning a third Sudenberg match and turned it into a truth that was reported in A Flame of Pure Fire and elsewhere – and obsessed haters, but there is no denying what he did. Irresistible and eternal, people will generate and propagate myths about Jack Dempsey for as long as there is fighting.

This story is about his beginnings – see the single-minded determination that saw him walk fifty miles through a desert? See the legendary fast start in the second fight? The mid-round sag that would lead Jack Johnson to label him a three-round fighter? His bending of the rules? Then again, what of his seeming determination to box against a smaller opponent? This was something he abandoned in time to avoid disaster against geniuses like Tommy Gibbons although it would not be enough to save his weary legs from Gene Tunney’s escape.

Dempsey’s matches with Sudenberg were his emergence from the desert in more ways than one.  They were where his pursuit in earnest of the world’s heavyweight title began. These were his first major steps outside of Salt Lake City where his ambitions were as penned as Sudenberg’s were in the desert; the defining series of an emergent Jack Dempsey.

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