Dempsey And Johnson: Who Would Win?

By Tom Donelson
Updated: February 13, 2005

L TO R:Jack Dempsey & Jack Johnson

NEW YORK, NY—I received an EMAIL from a boxing enthusiast and he challenged me- Could Jack Dempsey really beat Jack Johnson if they both fought? His point was that Jack Dempsey couldn’t carry Jack Johnson jock strap and made an excellent case for Johnson superiority. So I asked boxing historians for their view. Both fighters had common opponents, Jess Willard and Fireman Jim Flynn. Willard defeated Johnson whereas Dempsey destroyed Willard. In the reverse, Johnson slaughtered Flynn whereas Dempsey was knocked out in one round in one of his first fight with the Fireman. (He did revenge the lost with a one round knock out in their next encounter.)

But let us discount these fights. Willard defeated an out of shape and old Johnson, who spent the previous three years overseas and avoiding prosecution from the Mann Act. When Dempsey fought Willard, Willard had only fought one time in four years.

What we need to examine is boxing style. Dempsey fought boxers such as Tunney, Gibbons and Carpentier. He easily beat Carpentier and out slugged Gibbons. However, Tunney easily beat Dempsey twice. Tunney was a boxer in Johnson class and showed that a great boxer could beat Dempsey. My critics will remind me that Dempsey had not fought in three years and was 31 years old. My counter is that Dempsey was only three years older than Tunney and in the rematch, it was Tunney who had taken the whole year off while Dempsey defeated Sharkey in a elimination fight. Dempsey did not have the excuse of being rusty in their second match. It was my belief that the Dempsey that defeated Willard would have probably beaten Tunney but the 1923 version that scratched out a decision against Gibbons would have had difficulty in beating Tunney.

Dempsey was a better boxer than people given credit and a hard puncher who out slugged bigger fighters. Willard outweighed Dempsey by 55 pounds and Dempsey was the decided underdog. Dempsey’s superior speed and excellent boxing skills allowed him to maneuver inside Willard longer reach. The rest is history.

Johnson biggest weakness was his cautious nature. Against Marvin Hart, he was the more accurate puncher, as Hart face looked a mess at the end of the fight. His cautious nature allowed Hart to attack and the judges awarded Hart the victory due to his aggressive nature. (It could be argued that Hart skin color didn’t hurt in gaining the decision.) Johnson handled Tommy Burns, who was a quick and fast fighter rather easily. Burns fought Johnson with a go for broke style of his own but Johnson power and quickness proved too much. (Burns was considerably smaller than Johnson but at the time, he was the best white heavyweight after defending his title over a dozen times in a year period.) Johnson easily beat Jefferies, a bigger and stronger fighter. But that Jefferies had not fought for six years and Johnson just manhandled an old Great White Hope. (One boxing historian told me that Jim Jeffries at his peak was the one fighter who could have beaten Jack Johnson but he was unconvinced that Dempsey could have handled Johnson speed.)

Against Willard, Johnson fought a more aggressive style and easily won the first twenty rounds before age and hot Cuban summer day conspired to wear the old champion down. A younger Johnson would have easily beaten Willard, whose main asset was his ability to take punishment. Johnson never fought a swarming fighter with Dempsey’s power whereas Dempsey did fight a superior boxer but he lost to that superior boxer.

Here is what Johnson had in his favor. He was a marvelous defensive fighter with excellent power and hand speed. He could take a punch and Dempsey would have a difficult time in penetrating Johnson defense. His cautious style cost him in the Hart fight but his style allowed him to easily take the championship from Burns.

Here is what Dempsey had in his favor: he would be the same size as Johnson with more power. His hands were quicker than most would have suspected and his go for broke style would have forced Johnson to fight from the opening round. The disadvantage was that a boxer could out maneuver him as Tunney showed. But a boxer had to be able to take a punch and Tunney was one tough cookie and for that matter, so was Tommy Gibbons.

The key to a Dempsey-Johnson fight would be how much energy Johnson would have to exert in the early rounds and how much punishment Dempsey could lay on Johnson. Against Willard, Johnson abandoned his cautious defensive style and went on the offense early. The 1910 Johnson, who easily beat Jefferies, would have easily defeated Willard. The Willard fight showed that Johnson could sustain a aggressive fight for 20 rounds and the case can be made that Johnson had the endurance to withstand Dempsey go for broke style. At least for 20 rounds.

Styles make fights and the question that you will have to ask: Could Dempsey aggressive style tired out Johnson or would it be Dempsey be the one fading in the stretch? Would Johnson quickness and boxing smarts prevail against Dempsey power? Here are two fights that might prove give us a picture of what Dempsey-Jackson fight would look like. Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fought twice in 1980. In their first fight, Duran forced Leonard to go toe-to-toe and what surprised boxing observers were the quickness of Duran’s hands and the chin of Leonard. The second bout was the completely different. Leonard used his superior foot and hand speed to defused Duran and since Leonard had enough power to hurt Duran as Duran moved in; Leonard was able to maintain a safe distance from Duran. He neutralized Duran’s power with his boxing skills.

A Jackson-Dempsey fight would resemble either Leonard-Duran I or Leonard-Duran II, depending upon your point of view. Most boxing historians that I talked with feel that the fight would go the direction of the second Leonard-Duran. Jackson hand speed and defensive skills would triumph over Dempsey tenacity just as Ali was able to beat Joe Frazier two out of three times. There are others who believe that Dempsey pressure would be the determining factor such as it was in Frazer-Ali I or Leonard-Duran I.

In our first book, Viewing Boxing From Ringside, Frank Lotierzo and I rated Dempsey ahead of Johnson but now I had three years to think about it. Johnson would have the edge, but it would be a close edge. Think of it of an early 20th century version of Ali-Frazier trilogy. If these fighters fought three times, Johnson would win two out of three since he would be the more adoptable fighter. Ali and Leonard learned from their mistakes in their first fights with their swarming rivals and had the style to change. Leonard used foot movement in his second fight to force Duran “No Mas.” Ali toughness and accurate punches allowed him to survive his next two fights with Frazier.

So it would be Dempsey power and tenacity versus Johnson command of the ring. Johnson ability to adapt would be tested and certainly, Dempsey had the right style to beat Johnson just as Johnson had the right style to beat Dempsey. As Fox News proclaim, “I report and you decide.”