The Early Years
Born into a family of thirteen in Manassa, Colorado, Dempsey's mother read to her son from Modern Gladiator, a book about fighter John L. Sullivan, the first champion of the modern era. Growing up listening to stories of Sullivan and watching his two older brothers become fighters, Dempsey, at age eleven, decided he would become the heavyweight champion of the world. After completing the eighth grade, Dempsey
left his large poor family to follow the rumor of work from town to town. Working as a miner, dishwasher, farm hand and cowboy, he would use his spare time to indulge his passion for boxing. With a high-pitched voice, the skinny kid with blue-black hair would challenge anybody he could for a few dollars and bragging rights. He was known as "Kid Blackie" during the early years of his career but would eventually become the "Manassa Mauler." He once walked across the Nevada desert from Tonopah to Goldfield for a $20 purse. The fight, against "One-Punch" Hancock was held in the back of a bar. Lasting only fifteen seconds, Dempsey floored "One-Punch" with one punch and then took on Hancock's brother, who suffered a similarly embarrassing fate. "When I got five bucks for thirty-five seconds of fighting," said Dempsey. "I felt I was on my way."
Dempsey soon developed a reputation for his menacing style and powerful punch that would make it difficult for him to find fights. Meeting manager Jack Price would change that. Dempsey and his new manager traveled to New York armed with press clippings of his twenty-six knockouts and dreams of fame. Without the polish and training of a fighter from the big city, however, Dempsey didn't get much attention. He did manage to catch the eye of an interested fight man named John "the barber" Reisler after one particular bout at the Fairmont Fight Club. Reisler then set up a fight with a superior veteran heavyweight named John Lester Johnson. Knowing his limitations, Dempsey reluctantly agreed to fight. With twenty pounds on Dempsey, Johnson delivered a beating that left three fractured ribs and two black eyes in its wake. Although he was recognized for his flair, style and courage, Dempsey headed back west to regroup.
It was during this trip home that Dempsey met and married a piano-playing prostitute fifteen years his senior named Maxine Cates. The two endured a tumultuous relationship that was marked by his long trips away from home and her reluctance to give up her way of life. At nineteen, Dempsey was struggling to provide for his wife and continuing to dream of fame and fortune. In San Francisco, he met the flamboyant manager that would help him take the next step. John Leo McKernan, known as "Doc" Kearns, had been a welterweight fighter, minor league ballplayer, faro dealer, bouncer and bartender before he settled in as a fight manager. His flashy style—including jewelry and strong cologne—clashed with Dempsey's. Ultimately, though, the match would be fruitful. Kearns got the fights and Dempsey the knockouts. In the spring of 1917, they began a string of fights that would pave the way to his first title fight.