CONEJOS COUNTY – At 9 years old, Michelle Richardson didn’t exactly know how to process her firsthand encounter with Manassa’s legendary prizefighter.
“It was in July of 1966 at our annual Pioneer Days celebration,” she recalled, noting this year’s edition runs from July 18-20. “I had just turned 9, and Dempsey had come for the dedication of his boyhood home, which is now a museum and a park in his honor. He was the parade marshal, on horseback with our city mayor.”
Richardson was referring to boxing great William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey.
“My grandmother knew all about Jack, so as they approached where we were parked, she started waving her handkerchief and let it drop. He saw it fall, stopped his horse and climbed down, and when he picked it up and returned it to her, he kissed her hand. And he spoke to me, wished me a good day, then got back on the horse and finished the parade route.
“I didn’t know really what I had just received until a few years later; it took me a long time to realize not everybody got a Dempsey story that day.”
On July 4 this year, fight fans hailing from, and those making a pilgrimage to the small Conejos County town, got their own once-in-a-lifetime Dempsey story as they bore witness to the 100-year anniversary of Dempsey’s famed pummeling of Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio – earning Dempsey the heavyweight championship of the world.
Representatives from the World Boxing Council were on hand to award a commemorative title belt (with roots in the 1920s New York State Athletic Commission, the WBC was officially formed in 1963), initially affixed around the waist of the pugilist’s likeness welcoming visitors to the Jack Dempsey Park & Museum before entering its permanent home securely in the hands of a proud Richardson, now in her 20th year as the museum’s curator.
“We’ve had a lot of vendors come and sell their wares, and people came out to see the official presentation of the heavyweight belt – it’s been a beautiful day,” she said. “It’s something I’ve really enjoyed and cherish.
“It would be really nice to have some more of his fights commemorated. But certainly we felt like this was important enough that we needed to celebrate and make people aware.”
“There was an amazing turnout – I would say 200 or more,” said Misty Moravec, WBC Youth Committee executive secretary, who attended along with Vice President Rex Walker on behalf of President Mauricio Sulaiman. “I hope that people worldwide know what a legend he is and what he stands for. Maybe we all need to visit this small town and learn from them and the way they come together.”
Dempsey battered Willard for three rounds in 100-degree heat in 1919, and the much taller, heavier Willard – another small-town product, originally hailing from tiny St. Clere in Kansas’ Pottawatomie County (hence his ‘Pottawatomie Giant’ nickname; Dempsey’s ‘Manassa Mauler’ was bestowed upon him afterwards by famed sportswriter Damon Runyon) – was unable to answer the bell beginning the fourth.
It would be the last time a heavyweight champ lost the title in such a way until Feb. 25, 1964, when Sonny Liston surrendered in Miami Beach before Round 7 against Cassius Clay.
Both combatants in the iconic 1919 rumble became some of the longest-lived boxers. Willard lived to be 86, while Dempsey – who would beat Georges Carpentier on July 2, 1921, to earn the first sanctioned (by the nascent National Boxing Association, later to become the WBA in ’62) crown in the first million-dollar gate event – passed away May 31, 1983, at age 87.
And still, the champ reigns supreme in south-central Colorado.
“Even with the young people,” said Richardson. “I’m surprised at how many younger people from foreign countries know as much, or more about him than locals. They come from all over, want to know everything they can. I’ve had them from South Africa, Norway, England, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, and it’s wonderful.”
“Dempsey’s definitely alive and well.”