Jack Dempsey, "The Manassa Mauler," and Other Things that Made me Strong; a.k.a. "Chin"
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The raw, straightforward nature of boxing attracts me. Without padding, equipment, teammates, fancy uniforms or involved procedures there is no hiding from oneself or the violence. Jack Dempsey, heavyweight boxing champion from 1919-1926, came from Manassa -- a small, forgettable town in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. As a kid, visiting my aunt and uncle nearby, the car passed hand-painted wood signs advertising his birth place. The figure on the signs, fists raised, remained a mysterious presence until I could take the detour as an adult. Jack Dempsey, part Irish, part Native American, had grown up impoverished, uneducated, slept under trains and in hobo camps as a runaway teen, and, in general, had societal odds stacked against him from the get go. He surprised everybody, winning (amongst other feats) against the WWI hero and favorite Georges Carpentier, when the odds were 50 to 1 against him. It was the first million dollar gate in boxing history and Dempsey eventually walked out of his career one of the richest athletes in the world. I think about what internal, uncrushable part provided Dempsey the determination to find and follow out his strength in boxing instead of falling over some other line. Similarly, when boxer James Jeffries came out of retirement for "the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro" by trying to beat then current champion Jack Johnson, what gave Johnson the strength to win The Fight of the Century in 1910 as the band played All Coons Look Alike to Me and an all-white audience howled against him? Ultimately this piece is an exploration of inner strength and a reflection of how violence, hardship and what we survive in childhood and beyond can alchemize into determination, even when we are not backed or understood by those around us. Boxers can be rated by their chin, their "ability to tolerate physical trauma to the face without being knocked out."