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JACK DEMPSEY - THE NON-PAREIL 1861-1895 - 'Champion of the World'

Leinster Leader, June 12th 1926
A Kildare Champion

          Somewhere on the plains of the Curragh there is a monument erected in grateful remembrance of a “bare-knuckle” gladiator. The peasant will proudly recall the doughty deeds of the great Donnelly and sometimes by turf fires the “mitchers” sing, o’ the nights the praises of the valiant plainsman. In a county famed for its sporting traditions it is but just that sporting memories should endure. Yet it is strange that Kildare should forget one of the greatest knights who ever stepped forth from the “Short Grass” arena. There is no monument, there is no tradition nor is there a single verse in his native county in memory of one of the greatest fighters in the history of the “squared circle.” Jack Dempsey the famous Nonpareil. Fate is bitter indeed and the fruits of conquest are pitiful recompense when Kildare forgets a son who for six years waved the “Short Grass” stand and over the heads of the foremost middle weights of forty years ago.
Jack Dempsey was born near the Curragh on December 15, 1862, and his parents brought him to New York while he was a hardy youngster, although little is known of his early career in those tough, bare-knuckle days. His first notable encounter took place on April 7th, 1883 and from that date until he fell victim to the treacherous pivot punch, six years later, he claimed the plaudits of the multitude as a boxer and a gentleman. One hundred and fifty-eight pounds of strength, strategy, grace and chivalry speedily won him the flattering title of “The Non pareil” of the ring. A man of sterling honesty and gentlemanly bearing in that raw pioneer period, when good qualities were at a premium, could not fail to elicit a grudging word of praise even from those who sampled the dead accuracy of his flashing hands. His uncanny skill and unquestionable pluck could only be really appreciated when this grey-eyed wizard with the light brown, wavy hair was pitted against some fierce cave man battling with desperate ferocity.
          The good looking young Irishman easily became the idol of the boxing public. He was a master of strategy who opened a new chapter in ring-craft with his powerful arms and restless, slender legs. His contests numbered hundreds while he suffered only three defeats. 
          This new favourite was hailed as champion even before he met and defeated George Fulljames. Dempsey fought the Toronto boy on July 30, 1884, at Far Rockway, just outside New York, and the Canadian went down and out in the 22nd round. The Champions during an unbroken series of victories, handed a sleeping draught to La Blanche at Larchmont, Long Island, on March 4th, 1886. La Blanche who was later to prove the Nemesis of his conqueror, was four years Dempsey’s senior and a great fighter. He took the quietus in the 13th round.
           The battling Irishman took part in many unique contests, but strangest of all was his encounter with Johnny Regan on December 13th, 1887. This meeting was the climax of much ill-advised bitterness between the backers of both camps. The ring was the dock of an old barge in Long Island Sound, and the test was a fight to a finish with the bare knuckles. Truly it was a battle of primitive man but it is well to remember that the “kid glove” era of boxing was merely at its birth. The rounds were not yet set to time and a “knock down” replaced the gong. Knuckles flashed for a solid hour. Fourteen rounds had been fought under London Prize Ring rules when the barge, which had been securely moored to two stakes, was partly submerged by the tide. The strange “ring” was cut loose and towed out into the Sound. Both the principals were about to resume when a squall struck the “ring” and a heavy snow shower covered the slippery deck. A truce was called and the party went ashore. Someone suddenly remembered an old boat house about 20 miles away and a heavy trudge through the driving snow brought the small body to more cheerful surroundings. An obliging landlord, some hot drinks, and the men were soon trading punches with the onlookers sitting on the bar and shouting advice between drinks. Another sixteen rounds and almost an hour of furious fighting were marked when word came that two policemen were down the road. Disdaining heavier clothing the fighters plunged into the woods and their followers found a clearing amid the snow. Here Dempsey and Regan fought to a finish. In the 45th round the referee cried “Time,” but Regan was unable to continue. It was the end of over four hours of heavy punching with almost anything allowed except biting and kicking. No doubt some our present-day champions would look rather sheepish at the prospect of a four-hour “mix-up” with a twenty mile walk for a “breather.”
           In August 1889, Jack Dempsey lost the crown. It happened in San Francisco and the winner was La Blanche. Jack’s defeat was the sensational climax to a terrific bout in a setting typical of those prize-fighting days. A rudely constructed ring with its four plain posts and sagging ropes, stood out under the blinding glare of unshaded lights. ‘Frisco was he-man’s town in those days and many a rough joke was cracked with the waiters who answered the call for beer in the smoke-laden atmosphere of the Old Pavilion
          For thirty-one rounds Dempsey had maintained an unbeaten front against his more powerful opponent and held the heavier end of the points. In the thirty-second round the swarthy, thick-set marine bounded to the centre and the final act had begun. A clinch, a break and the champion shot a left and right to the head.
          Blanche again hung on and the crowd became sarcastic. Four more clinchers and Dempsey was non-plussed. He was content to break away, drop his hands and await the next clinch in La Blanche’s wrestling tactics. And then the crowd woke up. At the ninth break Dempsey dropped his hands and the marine remained at close quarters. A half-turn to the right and he swung completely round. A whirlwind right connected with Dempsey’s chin and the pivot punch had landed. The Nonpareil sagged at the knees and dropped. He was out. The crowd gasped as the referee reluctantly awarded the laurels to the victor. And so the star of a great fighter set in ‘Frisco. La Blanche won the championship but lost his reputation. Since that fateful August night the pivot-punch has never again been tolerated in the ring.
          The Kildare boy was bitter but took his defeat like a sportsman. On January 14th, 1891, he was out-classed by the great Bob Fitzsimons, man of superior strength and weight. Dempsey resisted gamely until the Cornish-man put him away in the thirteenth round.
          It was apparent to all that the former champion had seen his best days. He fought three more contests. Mike Keogh suffered defeat at his hands. “Australian” Bill, Pte. Carthy, was held to a draw and Tommy Ryan secured the victory on January 18th 1895. Ryan was an ambitious, capable young man of twenty-five while Jack was a sick veteran who had seen thirty-two years of a bitter struggle for existence.

          On June 8th 1895, five months after his defeat by Ryan, a benefit was given for the sick and poverty stricken boxer. His friends sent him to Portland, Oregon, hoping that the change of air would aid him in his losing fight and tuberculosis. On November 1st 1895, the poor, wasted body of the once famous Nonpareil answered the final call of “Time” and death was the victor. He lies buried far away from his native plains.

          Perhaps, later on, when Kildare erects a monument to those who took part in a sterner fight she will not forget Jack Dempsey. And, perhaps, the site will be in Donnelly’s Hollow where the spirits of two gladiators will hear the faint echo of distant cheering when the horses come “up the straight.” Meanwhile the champion rests in a neglected grave over which some former admirer has carved the simple, yet sincere, lines:-
Far out in the wilds of Oregon
On a lonely mountain side
Where Columbia’s mighty waters
Fell down to the ocean’s tide,
Where the giant fir and cedar
Are imaged in the wave
O’ergrown with weeds and lichens,
I found Jack Dempsey’s grave
I found no marble monolith
No broken shaft or stone
To tell of the great triumphs
This vanished hero won;
No rose, no shamrock I could find,
No mortals here to tell,
How sleeps in this forsaken spot
The immortal Nonpareil
A wind rock-strewn canyon road,
That mortals seldom tread,
Leads up this lonely mountain
To the bivouac of the dead.
And the western sun was sinking
In the Pacific’s golden waves
And solemn pines kept watching
O’er poor Jack Dempsey’s grave
Forgotten by ten thousand throats
That thundered his acclaim;
Forgotten by his friends and foes
Who cheered his very name
Oblivion wraps his faded form
But ages hence shall save
The memory of that Irish lad
That sleeps in Dempsey’s grave
Oh! Fame, why sleeps thy favoured son
In wilds, woods and weeds?
And shall he ever thus sleep on
Interred his valiant deeds?
‘Tis strange New York should thus forget
Its “Bravest of the Brave”
And in the wilds of Oregon
Unmarked, leave Dempsey’s grave
                                        Val O’Grady
[typed by Roy O'Brien]
NOTE: Over the years we have had many queries re. Jack Dempsey and based on the information given, Karel Kiely, Genealogist with Kildare Co. Library was able to come up with the following information regarding his bitrhplace and parents. .
Jack Dempsey, “The Nonpareil”-“Without Compare”

Born John Kelly 21/11/1861 at townland of Athgarvan to John Kelly and Alicia Kelly (nee Lennon)
Mother remarried at death of her first husband on 7/8/1865 to Patrick Dempsey of Walshetown, Newbridge and John Kelly took the name of John Dempsey.
John “Jack” Dempsey died of tuberculosis/consumption at home of his father-in-law James Brady at Grand Avenue, Portland, Oregon on 1/11/1895 and is buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery, Portland, Oregon.
There are some curious references to other areas and John Noonan of Clane has unearthed a strong local tradition that suggests the Kelly family were originally from Clane and that the boxer hails from there.
We would be interested in any information regarding his birthplace which might throw further light on ther matter.
A feature in the Leinster Leader of 12 June1926 on World Champion boxer Jack Dempsey - 'The Non-Pareil,' who hailed form Co. Kildare

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