Heavyweight boxing’s biggest fight thrown in Murray…100 years ago!
Apr 09, 2018 04:15PM ● Published by Shaun Delliskave
Boxer Jack Dempsey (left) spars before a fight. (Photo/Library of Congress)
It was a scandalous night in Murray back on Valentine’s Day in 1917 when the city hosted a national heavyweight boxing fight that was settled in only 25 seconds. The ticket that night featured local heavyweight superstar, with only one loss, Jack Dempsey. His opponent from New Jersey was a fighter with a mixed record of wins named “Fireman” Jim Flynn.
Boxing-crazed Utah during the post-World War I years hosted numerous matches held in venues from the Grand Theatre to, and most interestingly, Murray City’s Fire Hall. Once the fire engines were hauled out, the Fire Hall was spacious enough to hold quite a crowd and profitable enough for promoters to book it as a sporting arena. The Fire Hall’s current owner, BMW of Murray, just finished refurbishing the century-old building, but stepping inside the building, one can still see the voluminous hall.
It wasn’t unusual to see boxing’s newest sensation, Jack Dempsey, on the streets of Murray. Originally from Manassas, Colo., he had bought his mother, Celia, a home, located where Three Fountains condominium complex currently sits. Celia and Jack were converts to Mormonism, which spurred the move to Murray. However, Jack was likely not actively practicing his new faith—he reportedly met his first wife, Maxine, in a Salt Lake City bordello.
In the rowdy days of Murray’s saloon-infested State Street, local boxing matches were held with regularity. As it is now, prizefighting was illegal in Utah, so fight promoters found loopholes to circumvent the law. Fights were billed as exhibitions, and law enforcement was lenient when the fight was also a fundraiser.
Murray’s first major “fundraiser exhibition” that attracted national attention pitted erstwhile local boy Dempsey against the fighter Young Hector. On September 28, 1916, Dempsey drove from his mother’s home down 4800 South to the State Street Fire Hall to face Hector. In three rounds, Dempsey had pummeled the challenger enough that his opponent retired from the match, and Dempsey moved one step closer to taking on heavyweight champion Jess Willard.
The fight was so popular that promoters were already planning the next exhibition—all for the benefit of the Murray City Fire Department—but had trouble finding an opponent for the Manassas Mauler. What better opponent, the fight organizers thought, to bring to the Fire Hall than boxer “Fireman” Jim Flynn.
Flynn had twice fought and lost the heavyweight title to champions Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson. The Murray match even attracted the nation’s sportswriters’ attention. Utah was abuzz in February as the match drew near, with the Salt Lake Telegram even printing where the fighters were training and announcing that a special train would be scheduled to accommodate spectators from Utah County.
Sports columnists were bemoaning Flynn as not much of a challenge. Walter Bratz wrote, “Sounds like a classy card. As a matter of fact, it is nothing else.” Dempsey’s promoter was already trying to schedule a match against champ Jess Willard before the fight even took place.
The night of the fight, a sellout crowd filed into the Murray Fire Hall, and the two fighters made it into the ring. The bell rang, and within 25 seconds, Jack Dempsey lay knocked out cold after two punches. The Ogden Standard Examiner howled, “The whole affair is the worst prizefight in the history of the state.”
Newspapers cried that it was fixed, but it was also noted that Dempsey was still out well after the count. Dempsey claimed that he was not warmed up yet. If he threw it, he paid dearly for it, since he waited until 1920 for a chance to fight Willard for the title.
Promoters quickly settled on a rematch a year later to the day, but in Chicago. Dempsey wasn’t cold this time and KO’d Flynn in the first round. The Murray match would be the only knock-out blemish on the heavyweight champion’s record on his way to becoming one of the highest-paid athletes in the first part of the 20th century.