I was simultaneously flabbergasted and thrilled the recent morning Jack Dempsey, age twenty-four and just a week after tomahawking slow, long-inactive, and overconfident giant Jess Willard, marched into my gym and said, “I’m taking my career to the twenty-first century. You interested?”
Only pride prevented me from dropping to my knees and thanking all deities.
“No one in 1919 can give me what I need. I want the new heavyweight title and, from what I hear, the twenty million a year I can earn.”
“Counting endorsements, you can earn a helluva lot more than that, Jack. You’re still a legend. But, if I’m to train you, you’ve got to trust my judgment about how things have changed. You’re too small to be a heavyweight nowadays.”
“Are you batty? I slaughtered Willard, who’s six-six, and I’ve pounded guys heavier than him in the gym.”
“Today, Jack, you’re a cruiserweight. Willard wouldn’t be in the top twenty, even if he trained hard like he did for Jack Johnson in 1915. His skills, which were never great, had eroded quite a bit by the time he met you. And he just doesn’t have the athleticism.”
“What the hell’s a cruiserweight?”
“That’s someone who’s two hundred pounds and under. Fight in that division or you’ll have to go against Wladimir Klitschko, who’s six-six and two-fifty and a far better athlete than Willard. We put men on the moon forty-five years ago, Jack. You want to fight today, you gotta think like a modern man.”
“I want this Klitschko.”
“You’re not getting him now, if I’m handling you. Let’s start where every other man your size is, as a cruiserweight, and see what happens. We can put you on a special diet and strengthening program and some other stuff and maybe see how you, at about six-one, can carry two-fifteen or so. Right now, you’re in the one-eighties. I’ll get you the right fight.”
The next day I called Jack in his elegant Manhattan hotel suite, the location of which must be kept secret, and said, “Your name’s magic, Jack. All four cruiserweight champions would love to fight you.”
“What the hell do you mean four champions?”
“Well, there’s the WBC, the WBA, the WBO, and the IBF – each has a champion.”
“That’s nonsense, and if I weren’t a gentleman I’d say worse. Who are these guys, anyway?”
“Krzystof Wlodarczyk, Denis Lebedev, Yoan Pablo Hernandez, and Marco Huck.”
“You remembered all those strange names?”
“Maybe I had to check one or two. The problem isn’t the names themselves it’s that nobody knows the names. I don’t think I can get you more than five million for any of them, but that’s huge for a cruiserweight fight.”
“I’ve already seen how much things cost today. I’m not gonna live in Central Park. Get me some real dough.”
I asked myself who’s the world’s biggest name about Jack’s size. The answer: Anderson Silva. A year earlier, at age thirty-eight, the supreme mixed martial artist had been dethroned by knockout, and then in the rematch tried to kick the leg of his conqueror, champion Chris Weidman, who raised a shin-shattering knee. Silva has recovered, and I showed Jack clips of the younger Brazilian magician battering opponents’ legs, bellies, and faces with long kicks and following up with combination punches and, when on the ground, choking or arm-barring opponents into submission.
“That’s crazy,” Jack said.
“When you were a young saloon brawler, didn’t you ever go to the floor?”
“Sure, then I became a boxer.”
“Krzystof Wlodarczyk also became a boxer and he wants you bad.”
“How much to fight this Silva?”
Let me check. I ordered Jack to run six miles a day on the treadmill in his suite, and during the following week I negotiated with some investors. Then I invited Jack to my office and called Dana White, CEO of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and explained the key points above.
“Jack Dempsey’s back? You think I’m a fool?”
I clicked the video conference button, Jack made a fist at White’s image, and the executive, speechless for several seconds, said, “I’ll be in New York tomorrow.”
In my modest office behind my tattered but esteemed gym, I sat behind my desk and White perched in front. Jack sat at the end of the desk, looking left at me and to the right at White.
“The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a corporation, the best in the business by every standard, and we control all aspects of the matchmaking, promotions, the fight, and the money.”
“Despite your success, you still haven’t come close to super-money fights like those of Floyd Mayweather.”
“Fine, I’ll kick his ass,” Jack said.
“Floyd’s only one-forty-seven and very particular about the guys he fights,” I said. “Listen, Dana, let’s keep it simple. Even though my fighter’s an infinitely greater draw than even the distinguished Anderson Silva, we’ll split the revenue with you, half the gate, half the pay per view, half the souvenirs, which will be enormous, half of everything.”
“How much money are you talking about?” White asked.
“One hundred million.”
“That money’s guaranteed?”
“When the contracts are signed, Steve Ballmer’s ready to make the deposit.”
“I guess that won’t fuck up our business model. Deal,” said White, shaking Jack’s hand and then mine. “When do you want the fight?”
“Four months should be plenty,” I said. “How about the Super Dome in New Orleans. I love that Super Bowl vibe?”
“Fine,” said White.
“What about the rules?” Dempsey asked. “I don’t like all that kicking and choking.”
“That’s called scientific fighting, Jack. My guy Anderson’s got four limbs and he’s gonna use all of them. If you can’t handle that, then go for Krzystof Wlodarczyk.”
“Jack, you’re a brawler and the last guy I’d expect to worry about the particulars.”
“Fine,” said the Manassa Mauler.
I convinced Jack to resume his regular boxing training and spend an additional hour or so a day wrestling and submission fighting. In that regard I hired a college wrestling coach who also had a background in jujitsu. He insisted on anonymity since his university had fifteen years earlier threatened to fire him if he competed in mixed martial arts.
Like I’d expected, Jack was a tiger on the mats, tackling guys, choking them, and punching their faces.
“Jesus Christ, Jack, these wrestling sessions are separate from the boxing and kicking workouts,” said the grappling guru.
“I gotta learn to mix ‘em all in.”
The Super Dome was packed and at least ten thousand fans must have been celebrities. Jack had been married to actress Estelle Taylor and squired many beauties but gallantly refused to talk much about them then or now. He didn’t have time. He was marching toward the ring. Yes, money enabled us, for this fight at least, to eliminate the UFC octagon, an ominous eight-sided cage, and get a traditional ring. Jack entered to a raucous five-minute ovation. Silva was enthusiastically greeted.
At the bell Jack Dempsey charged Anderson Silva, evidently undecided about punching or wrestling, and ate a long right snap kick to the jaw. From his back Jack quickly rolled onto his right knee, left foot planted on canvas, waiting for the count, but there was no count – he’d forgotten – and Silva kicked him again, a shot meant for the head landed low and popped Jack in the chest. Higher and the fight would’ve been over. Maybe it would be anyway. Like jumping into a saddle, Silva mounted Jack who put his hands and arms over his face and twisted and jerked and, though continuing to eat punches, shot a short left hook into Silva’s throat, knocking him onto his side whereupon Silva arose and, with both hands, summoned Dempsey to come and get him as he now stood hands at his sides except when he again used them to say come on, baby.
Dempsey, returning to the saloons of his youth, held both hands in front of his face and walked in swinging. A left hook to the head knocked Silva into the ropes and a right cross dropped him. Jack stood there, still waiting for a count that wouldn’t come, and I screamed, “Get his ass, goddamn it,” and Dempsey snap-kicked his rising opponent in the head, knocking him face down on the canvas, and then jumped on Silva and lustily choked him until the massive referee pulled him off.
I’ve been to many athletic events but never felt a roar like this. And I must tell you, many of the celebrants were African Americans who’d come to see Anderson Silva crush the man who, after winning the title, had declined to give black boxers a chance. That didn’t matter now. Three quarters of those in 1971 Madison Square Garden, and in pay-per-view auditoriums around the world, had cheered Muhammad Ali before and early in his first super fight with Joe Frazier yet erupted when Smokin’ Joe’s left hook flattened Ali in the fifteenth round. People love the guy who wins today.
At the press conference Dana White, an entertaining host, said, “Okay, this doesn’t prove anything. My background’s in boxing and I taught the sport for years. Just remember, tonight Jack Dempsey the mixed martial artist beat Anderson Silva, maybe the greatest ever pound for pound but now past his prime. I propose that, soon as his jaw heals, Jack fight Chris Weidman, our champion at one-eighty-five and a guy who, right now, is better than the great Anderson Silva.”
Jack took his right hand off his swollen jaw, which wasn’t broken, and said, “I watched Weidman’s fights but won’t be meeting him, at least not at this weight. I’m getting bigger and going up to two-oh-five and taking on Jon “Bones” Jones. He’s undefeated but doesn’t like to slug. See what that Swede (Alexander Gustafsson) did, busted him up and almost beat him. I want Jon Jones. But I’m also going after Wladimir Klitschko. Be honest. Tell me I can’t knock him out.”