You Don’t Know Jack!
With all due respect to Ayn Rand, who was Jack Dempsey?
Frankly, it’s a JKD tragedy that more of us don’t know who he was and, more importantly, what impact he had on the Little Dragon and JKD.
If you watch footage of Lee pulverizing the heavy bag in his backyard – beating it like it owed him money – you’ll notice a very distinctive manner in the way he threw his punches. Well, that is, after you recover from the shock of seeing a man so small punch harder than many people can kick! How did he do that? That’s the question. He wasn’t always doing it that way. In fact, after his legendary and very frustrating fight with Wong Jak Man, Lee rightly reasoned that he needed more hitting power. That altercation with Wong, after all, went on for way too long though Lee threw something like a gazillion punches. Licking his tactical/technical wounds afterward, he knew he needed more power.
And that’s where our man comes in – Jack Dempsey.
First, it’s important to understand that Bruce Lee was both a man of ideas and action. He wanted results and he knew that the best way to get them was to find men that had already gotten them. So, do you want punching power? Who better to learn from than a fighter they called the man-killer? Seriously. You don’t get that moniker by slapping like a sissy. Especially in the heavyweight division.
So, how good was Dempsey? Well, he was the heavyweight champion from 1919-1926. In his career, he won 51 times by KO (records vary because of the shoddy nature of some of his early fights. Not only this, but he fought dozens of “exhibition” matches against top fighters of his day and dispatched one and all). The thing is, of those 51 KO’s, 25 were in the first round. He was a menacing, snarling, two-fisted, panther-quick destruction machine. But, lest you think he was all power and no skill, Dempsey was a master boxer – a scientific and intellectual destruction machine of historic proportions. No less a fighter than Mike Tyson tried to pattern himself after Dempsey.
Dempsey’s title winning performance against a giant of a man named Jess Willard is instructive as to his incredible offensive capacity. In the first round, after prowling along the rim of the fighting measure, staying outside of Willard’s daunting reach (he was 6’6 and 240lbs!), Jack connected with a thunderous barrage. Willard, who had previously killed a man in a boxing match, was sent to the canvas seven times. Seven. To his credit, he kept getting up only to get hammered back down again. By the end of the round Willard wasn’t the same man anymore. The soon to be former champion had a broken nose. A broken jaw. His orbital bone was obliterated. He lost hearing in one ear. He had multiple broken ribs and most of his teeth were gone.
This was a match – fought nearly 100 years ago on July 4, 1919 in a sweltering 100-degree heat because there were no stadium lights yet – that changed boxing history and kicked off what would be known as the Roaring 20’s. No one had ever seen such a pulverizing spectacle. Never. Especially in a title fight.
In all, Willard, the fallen giant from Kansas, appeared to be a casualty of one of the mighty guns from the recently ended World War. No. He was simply the latest victim of the most destructive fighter in boxing history. Dempsey later said he felt sick to his stomach looking at Willard, appalled at what his inner fury and skill could do to another human being. And not just any regular fellow, remember – but a man who had beaten Jack Johnson, a champion and a man who outweighed him by 50 pounds.
Due to the epic destruction of the reigning heavyweight champion, Dempsey became larger than life. In a time when the heavyweight champion had no parallel in sports, he was now the emperor of masculinity, as it was said. No one had ever seen anything like it and even today it’s virtually impossible to understand the heights Jack scaled in popularity. One story can give us a little perspective, though.
Eddie Sutherland was a powerful Hollywood director in the 20’s. He was convinced that his lover, the famous actress Clara Bow, was having an affair. So, he told Bow he had to go to New York on some business, check on some plays that might make good movies. They shared a limo ride to Union Station in Los Angeles, hugging, holding hands and even weeping as they parted. But Sutherland got off the train in Pasadena and took a taxi back home. When he went to Bow’s mansion, having a key, he let himself in. The bedroom door was locked. He began knocking and wouldn’t go away as Bow yelled at him to leave or else she’d call the police.
But who calls the police on their lover? She was stalling.
Finally, she opened the door. She was wearing a bathrobe.
“Where is he?”
“Who? It’s just me, Eddie,” she said and tried to usher him out of the room.
“There’s a man here! I smell a man.”
“What are you, a bloodhound?”
He looked under the bed. Then he checked the closets. Finally, he came to the bathroom door. It was locked.
“I know you’re in there,” he shouted. “C’mon out here so I can knock your teeth out, you yellow son-of-a-bitch!”
The door opened.
There stood Jack Dempsey.
Eddie Sutherland had just called Jack Dempsey a coward and threatened to knock out his teeth.
Quickly coming to his senses, Sutherland smiled and apologized. “Jack…I didn’t know it was you. Just kidding, Jack.”
Some reports have Sutherland getting Jack’s autograph before he left. Imagine that. Imagine finding a man in bed with your girl and you get his autograph. And then you tell all your friends. That’s how famous Dempsey was, and that fame was built upon those thundering fists.
Until Dempsey’s time, scientific punchers were unknown. Knockouts happened more from a fighter being worn down than blown away by a single punch or quick barrage. We now live on the other side of this history and, therefore, it’s easy to miss the significance of it all. When Babe Ruth his 59 homers in 1921, and then broke his own record with 60 bombs in 1927, other hitters in baseball were lucky to hit 10 or 15. But that was the 20’s. Jack’s fists inaugurated that golden era of sports and he wasn’t hitting baseballs; he was decimating professional fighters.
Sure, there were hordes of crude punchers – wild men that rushed forward swinging with all their might. Get this image out of your head. Those types of men were – and are – crude brawlers. They may have been heavy handed (if they were any good at all) but Jack was a surgeon, but his goal wasn’t to fix, but to destroy.
In the fight with Willard he was at his destructive best. The first half of Round 1 was what most people call a “feeling out” period. Great action and surreal damage followed in the second half of the round but it was the first half that’s important because it shows Jack’s patience. Dempsey stayed outside of Willard’s mammoth 83-inch reach. He was giving away nearly 50-pounds too and big Jess was looking to catch Jack with an uppercut on the inside, so Dempsey was careful, stalking, waiting, and expertly clinching on the inside when his attacks didn’t work.
No great knockout puncher can be impatient. What makes them dangerous is their controlled fury – their careful aggression. And this has to be the case because if they rush in foolishly they’ll catch a counter-punch coming in and that’s always bad because you give the punch more power by running into it. Aggression can and will be used against you and fighters that attack must be all the more vigilant against mistakes lest they end up taking damage on the way in.
Well, right around the half-point of the first round Jack caught big Jess with that falling-step jab – a punch that Bruce Lee would later adapt as his own. It caught Willard flush and opened him up for what the sports writers of the day called a barrage. Today we’re used to such language but it wasn’t popular then. It was a reference to Dempsey’s short and pulverizing hooks on the inside. He’d go to the body with both hands, hammering shots underneath a fighter’s guard and then he’d rip hooks at the head. It reminded the ringside writers of World War 1 artillery barrages.
Well, Dempsey let loose on Willard’s body and then crashed a hook home. It landed flush and big Jess slumped to the canvas in the Ohio summer heat. It was the perfect hook. It fractured the champion’s cheekbone in thirteen places. Willard sat there with what Grantland Rice called a dazed and foolish look, his face “twitching in pain and bewilderment.” He rose AT six and was met again by a Dempsey left-hook. Half of his face was already destroyed and now six teeth were dislodged. The teeth scattered, bloodied, onto the canvas as Willard went down again.
It remains to this day perhaps the worst beating ever administered in a title fight. The damage was so appalling that rumors developed over the years that Dempsey had used “loaded” gloves. But Dempsey didn’t need to cheat. He had mastered the skill of using all of his bodyweight in every punch. That was his secret. And he wanted every fight to be over in a hurry because he reasoned that the longer a match went on the more likelihood that he could be injured. “I never go in confident,” he once said. “Any sucker can get lucky and give you a crack in the chin. I go in, saying to myself, ‘kill ‘im, kill ‘im, kill ‘im. Otherwise, he’ll kill me.”
So, Jack, you see was the perfect fighting machine. Hard to hit but rabidly aggressive. Scientific yet with animal instincts. Ferociously aggressive but tempered by smart tactics and precision technique.
And that’s the odd part of it all. Scientific men – men of intellectual precision and careful thought are not thought to be aggressive. It’s naturally assumed that high aggression and intellect are antithetical. All throughout history this bias is in evidence; men of the mind think that men of action are beneath them. Victor Davis Hanson, the brilliant historian, points this out about Patton. The great war general was the best read and most probing intellectual of his day, but his aggressiveness made others think he wasn’t an intellectual. Patton swore a lot and spoke in ways that dripped with the fury of combat. He said, “son, it isn’t your job to die for you country…it’s to make sure the other son-of-a-bitch dies for his.” This isn’t how a professor talks. But both Patton and Dempsey – and later Bruce Lee – would ask us to check our premises. Ideas, to be true, must work in reality. That’s the test of an idea. Does it work? And Patton was a philosopher of war; Jack was a philosopher of the ring and of man-to-man fighting. They were men of the mind. Indeed, they were two of the most honest men to ever live because they put their own bodies on the line to see if their theories worked.
Interestingly, Dempsey, like Patton, hated war and fighting so much that they took no risks. They studied how they might end matters as quickly as possible. That’s the goal. For Dempsey, it was knocking his man out. When that happened, Jack knew he was safe. The best self-defense was KO power.
As evidenced in his book, Championship Fighting, of which Lee was a serious student, Jack was a highly scientific puncher who knew how to get every last bit of payload into every punch. Jack didn’t believe in light punches as set-ups – that’s what fakes were for! No. He was all-in on every shot and from him Lee learned what became essentials in the JKD system: the power-line, falling-step straight punch, and the four ways to get maximum power in every punch. This can’t be overstated: to watch Lee hammer the heavy bag is to see a Dempsey student.
There was a key in Dempsey’s approach that coincided with the Wing Chun Lee already knew. Jack, unlike other boxers, threw his straight jab (which he called the jolt) with a vertical fist. This allowed Lee to seamlessly integrate the new skills into his already existing framework. Jack taught in his book to throw the jolt with a step, hand before foot. Most people mistakenly believe that JKD’s non-telegraphic structure comes from fencing only. But there’s an enormous difference between striking someone with a blade and punching him. Dempsey provided the structure to punch with balance and power without telegraphing. And this revolutionized Lee’s game.
After the stepping jolt (the falling step), Dempsey taught that power punching came from not just springing forward (off the back foot) and falling forward (the gravity assist you get from the explosive step provided your punch lands before your front foot hits the floor) but also from upward surge and shoulder whirl. He said that in punching, the fist gets all the glory but it’s really only along for the ride. Every blow should have maximum body structure behind it. Bomb them, he said! And so he did – and so did Bruce Lee after him. Jack Dempsey made a heavy hitter out of Lee and Lee acknowledged this publicly by writing to his idol and mentor. That’s right! While so many JKD teachers obsess over every little detail of Lee’s life, seeking insight in the most asinine ways, they miss that Lee openly acknowledged Jack as his inspiration and teacher.
There has been this myth floating around in the JKD world that Lee, after abandoning Wing Chun (itself not entirely true) researched dozens of systems in order to find the truth. It’s not important why this myth abounds but it surely is a myth. Lee knew right where to look for his need of power. He looked at the greatest puncher of all-time. When we understand this, we avoid two critical errors.
First, we know the source and can avoid trying to reinvent the wheel as so many erroneously do. Thus, if you aren’t studying Dempsey’s footwork, evasion and punching structure, you aren’t studying JKD because that’s what Bruce did. Again, go back and watch Lee training in his backyard. The footage is all over the internet now, so it’s no mystery. And watch him sparring. You won’t see him practicing Kali or Muay Thai. The structure and goals of those disparate systems are contradictory to those of JKD. The evidence is clear that Lee, to gain more hitting power and freedom of footwork as well as aggressive tactical skill, studied the sweet science. In doing this, he transformed his method and developed JKD – the sweeter science.
Second, on the question of did Bruce Lee ever fight (read that: compete), you can rest assured that his sources certainly did. Dempsey was so formidable a fighter that he KO’d two armed muggers when he was in his 70’s! What’s the best way to deal with an armed assailant? Knock him out. That’s Dempsey. So, anyone who wishes to dismiss JKD because Lee didn’t have a competitive fighting career is ignorant of the fact that JKD’s sources – in this particular case Dempsey – knocked out world-class fighters with superlative skill. This is, therefore, the heritage of Jeet Kune Do. Real Jeet Kune Do stands as much, if not more, on the shoulders of Dempsey as it does on Ip Man and Wing Chun.
That Jack Dempsey isn’t known as a primary source of JKD is, as I said, a regrettable tragedy as it relegates students to trying to reinvent the wheel. People say, “man…Bruce could hit harder than anyone his size…he hit like a heavyweight.” They say this as though Lee was superhuman. No. He was a student of Dempsey – and you can/should be too. That’s where it started.
So, who was Jack Dempsey? The most fearsome puncher in boxing history and, believe it or not, one of the foundations upon which JKD was built. There is, simply, no JKD without him.