Called the "battle of the century" by boxing enthusiasts, the fight between Jack Dempsey and Frenchman Georges Carpentier at Boyle's Thirty Acres was an extravaganza. It introduced sports as a leisure-time activity for the masses in the 1920s. The site today is south of the Mill Creek Gardens at Montgomery Street and Florence Place.
The contest for the heavyweight championship took place on the overcast, humid Saturday afternoon of July 2, 1921, and was scheduled for 3:00 PM. Randy Roberts, author of Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler, places the historic fight in the cultural perspective of the post-World War I era: "In an age where man seemed to be guided by amoral forces beyond his control, the Dempsey-Carpentier fight represented man as master of his fate" (119).
The official attendance for the fight was 80,183, but by all accounts, the stands built for over 91,000 were packed to capacity. An unexpected turnout of some 2,000 women attended the sporting event. Roberts reports that "the fight grossed $1,789,238, well over twice as much as any previous fight" (120). In attendance was a roster of notables: Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague and New Jersey Governor Edward I. Edwards; the three children of Theodore Roosevelt--Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Alice Roosevelt Longworth; industrialists John D. Rockefeller, Jr. William H. Vanderbilt, George H. Gould, Joseph W. Harriman, Vincent Astor, and Henry Ford; entertainers Al Jolson and George M. Cohan; and literary figures H.L. Mencken, Damon Runyon, Arthur Brisbane, and Ring Lardner. Prominent Long Island residents like Ralph Pulitzer, Harry Payne Whitney, and J.P. Grace made the trip to Jersey City. Their interest in the fight came from Carpentier's use of a Manhasset Bay estate as his training camp.
The press corps at the fight included reporters from England, France, Spain, Japan, Canada, South America, and from across the nation. Sportswriters Bob Edgren of the New York Evening World, Tad Dorgan of the New York Evening Journal, and Joe Wiliams of the Cleveland Press were present. Local sportswriters were: Jackie Farrell, then of the Hudson Dispatch; J. Owen Kennedy of the Jersey Journal; Jim Egan of the Jersey Observer; and Morris (Rosey) Rosenberg of The Bayonne Times. Approximately, 2,000 Jersey City police and firefighters were assigned to the event to maintain the "law and order" that was synonymous with Hague's rule of the city. Six hundred ushers were hired to check for counterfeit tickets.
Jersey City was not the first choice of fight promoter George Lewis "Tex" Rickard, who orchestrated the event with all the hype available for its time. He selected the Jersey City site and leased the property only after some haggling about the event with state and local officials. Rickard initially wanted the fight to be held in New York City and considered the use of the Polo Grounds in uptown Manhattan, favoring an outdoor venue. New York State had legalized boxing under the Walker Boxing Law, named for Democratic Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York City. However, Republican New York Governor Nathan L. Miller opposed prizefighting and claimed he would intervene if the fight took place in the state by having the Walker Law repealed.
Rickard wished to schedule the fight close to New York City. So he then looked across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Roberts explains: "In early April, . . .[Governor] Edwards . . . offered his state to Rickard. The choice was thus narrowed to the leading New Jersey cities--Newark, Atlantic City and Jersey City. Political infighting followed, but just how much and by whom is not known. The fight would certainly be a boon to the chosen city, and the person who owned the land that was picked for the site of the arena would stand to make a small fortune . . . . the nod went to Jersey City, town blessed by its proximity to New York City and the support of Governor Edwards" (Roberts 113-114).
The New York Times posits that Rickards visited Jersey City in April and had lunch with Hague and members of the Chamber of Commerce at the Elks' Club. He was shown several sites in the city and is quoted as saying: "Not since I have been in the promotion game have I met a more enthusiastic body of men than in Jersey City" (April 14, 1921). At the filing of that article, the Times predicts that, while Jersey City had made "an attractive proposition" and had a good location for a larger gate, Atlantic City was favored.
According to Lud Shahbazian of the Hudson Dispatch, it was Hague who recommended the property of his friend John F. Boyle as the site for the event. Boyle's brother was Jersey City Fire Chief Roger Boyle, who later with two other brothers Andrew J. and Luke, inherited the sports arena. George Mecurio of the Jersey City Reporter writes that years later Dempsey's manager Jack (Doc) Kearns claimed Hague received $80,000 under the table for the deal (July 16, 2001).
Boyle's property was on a plot of marshland on the south side of Montgomery Street, opposite his paper box factory. With the approval of Boyle and Rickard, the construction of an arena started on April 28th. C.S. Edwards, the governor's brother, was awarded the building contract. Rickard decided on an outdoor arena of yellow-pine wood construction, referred to as the "pine bowl." It had 91,613 seats, a tower for newsreel photographers, and continued to be used for a time for prizefights in Jersey City.
The eight-sided wooden arena, costing $325,000, was 300,000 square feet. It was built in two months by 600 carpenters and 400 workers, using 2,250,000 feet of lumber and 60 tons of nails. The attendees paid between five dollars and fifty cents for general admission and up to fifty dollars for ringside seats. Tickets were available at B.F. Keith's Theatre on Newark Avenue and Bay Street. According to Roberts, "In the best seats the match would be watched without fear of life or limb; but the wooden outskirts of the arena shook frightfully from any commotion initiated by the holders of the expensive seats. It was truly a democratic arrangement" (114).
On the day of the fight, spectators came by automobile, trolley, jitney, or foot. They arrived from New York City via special trains of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad through the Hudson Tubes, from ferryboat to the Jersey City waterfront, and by jitney to the "Montgomery Oval" from Journal Square and Exchange Place.
The Jersey City Chamber of Commerce helped promote the fight with a three-fold brochure. It included statistics about the contenders, a transportation map to the "Montgomery Park Arena," a drawing of the arena for the purchase of tickets, and a list of ten reasons why Tex Rickard selected Jersey City for the fight. Below the listing was a final promotion for Jersey City as "the most desirable site in the Metropolitan Zone for locating your factory or warehouse" that is "Next to the Largest City in the World" ("How to Get to the Fight," Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room).
According to some boxing experts, the two fighters were mismatched. Dempsey, known as the "Manassa Mauler," became the heavyweight champion in 1919 when he defeated Jess Williard, the "Great White Hope" in Toledo, Ohio. But he was "labeled as draft dodger" (Roberts 112) during World War I. Dempsey applied for a domestic exemption to support his family, was granted 4A status, and continued to fight during the war. Carpentier, or the "Orchid Man," was hailed as a popular war hero having served in the air force. He received the Croix de Guerre from the French government and was called "handsome, urbane, slender, and debonair" (Roberts 103). In 1919, he had defeated Joe Beckett, the British heavyweight champion in London.
Rickard offered Carpentier $200,000 to Dempsey's $300,000 for the boxing event--considerable sums for the time--and an equal share of twenty-five percent of the film profits. Roberts views the match-up by Rickard as a good promotional strategy and management: "Not only did Rickard understand the psychology of the use of money, he also was a master of dramatic symbolism. The people sought to attract to boxing were not particularly lovers of a good fight, but rather men and women, especially wealthy ones, who were interested in the drama inherent in a battle of contrasts . . . . Never would the issue and symbols be so simple and so devastating." (Roberts 109)
In preparation for the fight, Dempsey trained in Atlantic City. On the day of the fight, he stayed at the home of financier and politician General William C. Heppenheimer, who lived at the northeast corner of Montgomery Street and Jersey Avenue, which was within walking distance to Boyle's Acre.
As the day of the boxing match approached, Governor Miller continued his opposition to what he called the " 'commercial enterprise' of professional boxing" (Roberts 114). Congressional representative James A. Gallivan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, tried without success to ban the fight based on Dempsey's absence of military service. Other opponents were the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the Board of Temperance and Public Morals of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In Jersey City, the Clergy Community Club unsuccessfully appealed to the Hudson County Grand Jury. It also forwarded their condemnation of the event to Mayor Hague. According to Roberts: "The organization of pastors carefully listed the reasons for their opposition: the bout would attract 'bruisers' rather that the 'finer types' of citizens; the fight would serve to 'brutalize' the youth and foster juvenile delinquency; and the entire standards of Jersey City would be corrupted by allowing the match to be staged" (Roberts 115).
The "battle of the century" is celebrated as the first sports event broadcast on the radio, the mass communications medium of the decade. Rickard wanted to broadcast the event to advance prizefighting in the post-war culture. To accommodate the radio broadcast, a wooden makeshift room was constructed under the stands. Telephone lines and a temporary radio transmitter, sponsored by the Radio Corporation of America, were installed at the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railway terminal in Hoboken. Major J. Andrew White worked the radiophone and H.L. Walker the control board.
Early in the afternoon, as the spectators gathered and overhead clouds threatened rain, two bantamweights, Frank Burns of Jersey City and Packey O'Gatty of New York City, fought in one of the preliminary bouts. Rickard feared that members of the crowd might start to leave if it rained. He instructed White and Walker to go on the air before the main bout. White is quoted as saying, "It is drizzling rain while Packey O'Gatty and Frankie Burns are battling. It is the eighth and last round and Tex Rickard has just announced that Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier will fight at 3 P.M., rain or shine for the world's championship" (Brennan, Jersey Journal, February 9, 1960).
Afterward, the fight announcer Joe Humphreys decided to try the "voice amplifier," known as the "Magnavox," as loudspeakers were initially called. It was installed over the "pine bowl" arena. The Burns-O'Gatty fight, therefore, was the first prize fight to be transmitted, although the Dempsey-Carpentier bout, heard by 300,000, is considered "the first broadcast of a championship boxing match" (Roberts124).
When Carpentier entered the eighteen-foot square ring for the main event, he was greeted by the playing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Angered by the loud cheering for Carpentier, Dempsey and his opponent did not shake hands. But the pugilists shook hands with Mayor Hague and Governor Edwards when they entered the ring. The bell rang for the start of the fight at 3:16 PM, Dempsey knocked Carpentier unconscious one minute and sixteen seconds into the fourth round, and referee Harry Ertle from Jersey City ended the bout at 3:27 PM. Shahbazian reports that at the end of the eleven-minute fight when "the roaring crowd leaped to its feet, those who were there insist, the pine structure actually swayed" ("New York Governor Forced Fight to JC," Hudson Dispatch, July 2, 1971).
For Roberts, "The fight that was so assiduously promoted and that attracted the interest of much of the world was not a very good fight" (126). The fight may not have been the most memorable athletic performance for either fighter; however, it was an unqualified phenomenon in many categories; it attracted unprecedented attention at home and abroad to what was happening that day in Jersey City (Mappen, "Jerseyana: For One Day in July 1921, Jersey City Became the Boxing Capital of the World." New York Times, June 9, 1991).
Boxing matches continued at the Montgomery Street venue into the 1920s. On July 12, 1923, Luis Angel Firpo defeated Jess Willard in a knockout in eight rounds before an overflow crowd of 100,000 people. The New York Times (July 13, 1923) called it the "most select boxing crowd since the Dempsey-Carpentier bout." After it fell into disrepair and out of favor with boxing fans, the large wooden arena was razed in June 1927. In 1952, Boyle's Acres became the site of the Montgomery Gardens Housing Complex that was razed in 2015. The low-rise complex Mill Creek Gardens opened on the site in 2019.
Brennan, Ed. "The Day History Was Made in Jersey City ." Jersey Journal 9 February 1960.
"Dempsey Knocks Out Carpentier in the Fourth Round; Challenger Breaks His Thumb Against Champion's Jaw; Record Crowd of 90,000 Orderly and Well Handles." New York Times 3 July 1921.
"Fire Chief Boyle of Jersey City, 68." New York Times 27 January 1940.
"Firpo Knocks Out Willard in 8 Rounds." New York Times 13 July 1923.
"How to Get to the Fight." Jersey City, NJ.: Joan D. Lovero Collection. New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.
"John F. Boyle, Jr., 57, Jersey Industrialist." New York Times 9 December 1953. John Boyle, Sr. was the treasurer of the Democratic State Campaign for Frank Hague for twelve years.
Kahn, Roger. A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring 20s. New York: Harcourt Brace, 2000.
Mappen, Marc. "Jerseyana: For One Day in July 1921, Jersey City Became the Boxing Capital of the World." New York Times 9 June 1991.
_____. " Jersey City Tastes Glory." Jerseyana: The Underside of New Jersey History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992: 162-165.
Mercurio, George. " 'The Battle of the Century.' " Jersey City Reporter 16 July 2001.
Roberts, Randy. Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1979.
Shahbazian, Lud. " Jersey City Gave Boxing Its First Million Dollar Gate Just 50 Years Ago Today." Hudson Dispatch 2 July 1971. Shahbazian was a Hudson Dispatch cartoonist in 1921 and attended the fight.
_____. "New York Governor Forced Fight to JC." Hudson Dispatch 2 July 1971.
_____. "Rickard Feared Quick Kayo." Hudson Dispatch 2 July 1971.
_____. "Thirty Acres, But Who's Counting." Hudson Dispatch 10 September 1988. Shahbazian states Boyle's property was actually thirty-four acres and the Public Service Gas Company (now PSE&G) was part owner of the property.
" Tex Tours Jersey City ." New York Times 14 April 1921.
"Today, JC Shows That It Is 'There.' Today JC Tastes International Glory." Jersey Journal 3 July 1921.
Zeitlinger, Ron. "Dempsey, The Jersey Journal Beat Competition." Jersey Journal Anniversary Section 2 May 2017. http://www.nj.com/jerseyjournal150/2017/04/dempsey_vs_carpentier_in_1921_was_boxings_first_mi.html