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Hard to Believe: Kearns and the Shocking Con

Hard to Believe: Kearns and the Shocking Con

By Aaron Lloyd

Throughout the vaunted history of prizefighting, there have been so many countless instances of underhandedness, that the sport of boxing alone could have fielded a women’s professional softball league with its duplicity.  However, one particular occurrence stands above others in its brilliance and treachery that it almost demands commendation based entirely on its artistic and theatrical merits. 

The year was 1920, and Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion, was being shopped around by his manager Jack “Doc” Kearns in an attempt to maximize his “profit to risk” liability.  After shooting down a list of potential “suitors,” a meeting was eventually arranged between Kearns and a man by the name of Francois Deschamps, who managed the business affairs of French light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier.  Kearns immediately recognized the marketability of a fight with such international implications, especially against a fighter as revered as Carpentier, whose matinee idol looks and war-hero status made him a hot commodity at the ticket office.  Kearns initially imagined the fight taking place in either London or Paris (promoted by himself of course) with a host of eager European speculators all clamoring to foot the bill.  Unfortunately, as the scale of the event grew, so did the price tag, and Kearns became grounded in the realization that the promotional details were out of his area of expertise, and he therefore, reluctantly embraced the idea of having his long time nemesis Tex Rickard help with the fights’ orchestration.

Now, Rickard was no stranger to the intricacies of developing an effective promotional strategy for a prizefight of this magnitude, and his “Midas-like” touch on the Joe Gans-Battling Nelson lightweight championship fight fourteen years earlier, was a testament to his ability to draw a crowd.  However, when approached by Kearns, his initial enthusiasm for the project was tepid at best, and while the fight more or less sold itself, Rickard seemed less than enthusiastic about taking on the proposition.  Sensing Rickard’s spiritless tone, Kearns casually made mention of the fact that two Cuban financiers had approached him with the intention of hosting a fight in Cuba, and were willing to pay the champion $100,000 for a walkover against a little known bullfighter named John Sanchez.  Rickard’s interest was piqued, but he still respectfully declined any and all involvement at that time.   

Several days passed before Rickard had another “chance” meeting with Kearns, this time at the Hotel Claridge, a lunch spot with which Rickard was known to have been a frequented patron.  As Rickard was customarily perusing his menu, he noticed a group consisting of Kearns, sportswriters Damon Runyon and John Lardner, and two unidentified well dressed Latin businessmen, being seated at an adjacent table.  After his curiosity finally got the better of him, Rickard called the head waiter over to his table and asked him if he knew the identity of the two important looking individuals wearing silk hats, the finest suits, and smoking expensive cigars, seated with Kearns.  The waiter informed Rickard that from what he gathered they were a couple of sugar and tobacco millionaires from Cuba who were in town to discuss the particulars of “some major boxing event.”  Once Rickard could contain himself no further, he made his way over to the table to see what information he could gather firsthand, and was met by a most gracious and accommodating Kearns.      

“Tex, allow me to introduce Senor Juan Rodriguez,  and Senor Manuel DeCosta.  They are here to discuss the fight in Havana.”

Puzzled, Rickard responded, “You meanthe fight with the bullfighter? Sanchez”

“No, that’s all changed.  These gentlemen have a certified check worth $500,000 to guarantee  Dempsey-Carpentier.”

“Si , si,” replied Rodriguez.  The fight will draw a million dollars in Havana.”

After taking a moment to process this interesting new development, Rickard excused himself, gathered his things, and on his way out, he leaned in to Kearns and whispered, “See me tomorrow.  I’ll match their offer.”

The rest as they say, is boxing history.  Two days later, the “Battle of the Century” was signed, with Rickard taking on promotional duties for boxing’s first million dollar gate.  On July 2, 1921, over 80,000 spectators paid more than $1.7 million to see Jack Dempsey knockout Georges Carpentier in the fourth round to retain his National Boxing Association sanctioned title. 

As for the two Cuban financiers who had originally agreed to bankroll the event in Havana, well, after returning the rented duds, and collecting their just compensation, they went back to their unassuming day jobs as bus boys at the restaurant across the street.