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U.S. Department of Defense

12/15/2020 | News release | Distributed by Public on 12/15/2020 09:01

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

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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.

Spotlight: Commemorating World War II

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.




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.