Feature   Know Your Military

Sports Heroes Who Served: World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Served in WWII

Dec. 15, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey was the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926.

A man wearing a tank top has his arms crossed as he poses for a photo.
William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey
William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey is shown in 1920 when he was the world heavyweight boxing champion.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jack Dempsey
VIRIN: 200921-O-ZZ999-001K

Dempsey grew up poor in Colorado, then West Virginia and Utah. In "Dempsey," his 1977 autobiography, he wrote that as a teenager, he would visit saloons and challenge everyone inside, saying "I can't sing, and I can't dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house."

He mentioned that he rarely lost any of these barroom brawls and made money from bets that were placed.

During World War I, Dempsey worked in a Philadelphia shipyard.

Dempsey's fame came on July 4, 1919, when he met World Heavyweight Champion Jess Willard in the ring in Toledo, Ohio.

A photo provides an aerial view of a group of people in a boxing ring surrounded by a large crowd.
Boxing Ring
William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey is in the ring with Georges Carpentier just before the fight in Jersey City, N.J., July 2, 1921. Dempsey, who was defending his title, won the match.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 210702-O-ZZ999-002C

Despite being 6-foot, 1-inch tall and 187 pounds, Dempsey knocked Willard down repeatedly. Willard was 6-foot, 7-inches tall and 245 pounds.

After the match, Willard said "Dempsey is a remarkable hitter. It was the first time that I had ever been knocked off my feet. I have sent many birds home in the same bruised condition that I am in, and now I know how they felt."

Dempsey successfully defended his title against Billy Miske in September 1920; Bill Brennan in December 1920; Georges Carpentier in July 1921; Tommy Gibbons in July 1923; and Luis Angel Firpo in September 1923.

A boxer knocks his opponent from the ring.
Knock Out
A 1924 painting by George Bellows shows William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey knocking out Argentine heavyweight boxer Luis Angel Firpo at New York City's Polo Grounds on Sept. 14, 1923.
Photo By: Courtesy of George Bellows
VIRIN: 240606-O-ZZ999-002

In September 1926, Dempsey fought Gene Tunney, a former U.S. Marine, in Philadelphia. Dempsey lost his title on points, rather than a knockout or technical knockout, in 10 rounds.

Dempsey later explained the loss to his wife, saying, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Decades later, President Ronald Reagan borrowed that quote when his wife Nancy visited him in the emergency room after the attempt on his life.

Two men wearing dress shirts, ties and boxing gloves pretend to fight in front of a crowd. A third man, who is also wearing a dress shirt and tie,  holds the arms of one of the men.
Mock Fight
William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey mock punches magician Harry Houdini, who is held back by boxer Benny Leonard in a photo that dates back to the early 1920s.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 200921-O-ZZ999-002C

On July 21, 1927, Dempsey knocked out future heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey in round seven. The fight was an elimination bout for a fight against Tunney.

On Sept. 22, 1927, Dempsey again lost to Tunney; after it was over, Dempsey decided to retire.

When World War II started, Dempsey joined the New York State Guard and was commissioned a first lieutenant. He later resigned that commission to accept a Coast Guard Reserve commission.

The cover of Time magazine shows a drawing of a man; the words "Champion Dempsey" are written beneath the drawing.
Time Magazine
William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey appears on the cover of "Time" magazine in 1923.
Photo By: Courtesy of Time magazine
VIRIN: 230910-O-ZZ999-002

He reported for duty in June 1942 at Coast Guard Training Station, Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, New York, where he was the director of physical education.

After being promoted to commander in March 1944, Dempsey was assigned to the transport USS Wakefield. In 1945, he was on the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton for the invasion of Okinawa. He also spent time on the USS General William Mitchell.

Two young men in sailor uniforms load an antiaircraft gun while an older man in an officer’s uniform looks on.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Dempsey
Coast Guard Cmdr. William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey looks on as two Coast Guardsmen load an antiaircraft gun in the Pacific theater in 1944.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 440606-O-ZZ999-002C

Dempsey was honorably discharged from the Coast Guard Reserve in 1952.

On May 31, 1983, Dempsey died at the age of 87 in New York City.

More Stories of Sports Heroes Who Served
sports graphic
Sports Heroes Graphic
Sports Heroes Who Served graphic - with title
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903