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A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s Format Kindle
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|Longueur : 496 pages||Word Wise: Activé||Composition améliorée: Activé|
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The digressions are never more ponderous than in the recounting of the new champion's trial for draft evasion in 1920. It's a compelling story of backstabbing by the first of his three wives. (Dempsey was acquitted, but taunts of "slacker" would follow him for years.) Nevertheless, for every two pages of high legal drama we get a page about the Republican convention or something. Is Kahn afraid that, having just read about the mauling of Jess Willard, his readers will find it hard to withstand a little courtroom tension? Nor does he limit his generic social history to the 1920's. He informs us long-windedly that the early settlers in Dempsey's native Colorado had to be tough. "As Hollywood reminded America so often in later times, hostile Plains Indians were a persistent menace." Duh! Does Kahn expect a large readership from Mars?
When he sticks to boxing, Kahn is a champ. Against Willard in 1919 for the heavyweight championship, "Dempsey landed a left jolt to the jaw and then, in seconds, he landed the most devastating combination of punches in boxing history." Shortly thereafter: "Has there ever, before or since, been such a punch as the single left hook that destroyed half of Willard's face?" And then: "At this point, Willard's life was in peril." These are lines I won't easily forget.
After Willard and the draft evasion ruckus, Dempsey fought Georges Carpentier, a Frenchman who trained secretly. Dempsey's camp professed to be concerned, perhaps about a new punch. "Others were less impressed. Damon Runyon and Westbrook Pegler suggested that Carpentier wanted secrecy because his workouts would reveal that he didn't stand a chance. Ring Lardner drove to [Carpentier's camp] from Great Neck with his nine-year-old son, John, and was turned back by the guard at the front gate. 'Mr. Carpentier is sleeping,' the guard said. A second visit produced the same result and the same excuse. Lardner drove home and wrote a line for the ages: 'M. Carpentier is practicing ten-second naps.'"
Dempsey knocked out Carpentier in 1921, and the following year he took out Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana (a pathetic, weird story of small-town boosterism). In 1923 it was Argentinian Luis Firpo, who famously knocked Dempsey out of the ring. Think you'd like to try boxing? Dempsey says, "I have no memory, none at all, of the most spectacular moment in my career." Then there were the two big losses to studious, pompous Gene Tunney, the second marked by the "long count" (eighteen seconds; Kahn suspects a fix). Finally, now that he'd lost, the public loved Jack Dempsey.
Kahn doesn't need his ceaseless Hollywood vignettes and cheap shots at Warren Harding to convince us: this sandlot world is long gone. Nowadays Firpo's sneaker company would have too much at stake for that illegal boost by the ringside sportswriters to stand. (Dempsey should have been disqualified.) Football broadcasts record the hang time of every punt; imagine the furor that would be created by replays of the long count! The evolution of the newly domesticated sport of boxing is fascinating. The reason Willard's life was in danger is that in 1919 there was no neutral corner rule. Unlike a few years later against Tunney, Dempsey was allowed to stand over Willard and resume hammering him as soon as he got up.
Every raw detail counted. Kahn's pugilistic players discuss the timeless issue of sexual abstinence vis-a-vis performance. (Kahn throws in a great Casey Stengel quote, but the one I remember is "It isn't the sex itself, it's the time it takes to find it.") Dempsey "soaked his hands in brine to toughen them. He sloshed bull urine on his face." That's on page 20; on page 188 it's the other way around. The image is irrepressible, so this slip-up in the raw detail called copy editing rankles. (Five pages from the end of the book, when anyone with a soul is reading through his own tears, we are confusingly introduced on the same page to daughter Barbara and stepdaughter Barbara. Aaugh!)
Dempsey often had to fend off people who wanted to go a round or two with him. Hemingway was the worst, and here Kahn issues one of his many well-turned phrases: "Any amateur who threw down a serious challenge was delivering an insult and it is remarkable that Dempsey remained as gentle as he did with such pretenders."
Kahn painstakingly explains the biomechanics of what goes on in the "squared circle called the ring." In Dempsey's artistry, you account for every movement of every part of your body. When you start a punch, relax your arm: "As the relaxed left hand speeds toward the target, suddenly close the hand with a convulsive, grabbing snap. Close that left fist with such a terrific grab, that when the knuckles smash into the target the fist and the arm and the shoulder are frozen steel-hard by the terrific grabbing tension. That convulsive, squeezing grab is the explosion."
This is Dempsey's instruction book talking, but it sounds to me like Dante. I wish there was more of this. Jack Dempsey wasted no motion in his craft, but his biographer lets his guard down continually. Big Jess Willard should have been so lucky.
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