Great Moments: Boxing
Frank Hague & The Million Dollar Fight
Boxing first million-dollar bout took place in the Garden State. On July 2, 1921, world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey met light heavyweight title-holder Georges Carpentier, who also held the European heavyweight crown. Promoter Tex Rickard had initially intended to hold the fight in the Polo Grounds, but New York Governor Nathan Miller was not a fan of prizefighting and blocked the plan.
Enter Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, a notorious powerbroker who never missed a chance to bring business to his town (or line his pockets). Hague purchased a vacant lot from John Boyle, a paper manufacturer, on Montgomery Avenue. The site—which would come to be known as Boyle’s 30 Acres (it was actually 34)—had once been home to the minor-league Jersey City Skeeters. A $250,000 stadium was designed with seating for 50,000 fans. Nearly 1,000 workers built the stadium over the course of 9 weeks. During construction, it was expanded to hold 80,000-plus as interest in the fight increased. Technically an amphitheater, Boyle’s 30 Acres had the greatest seating capacity of any structure of its kind, before or since.
Dempsey, who had successfully his title twice, was one of the most talked-about athletes in the sports world. He was a relentless attacker who was willing to trade blows in order to lure opponents into his deadly punching zone. Carpentier, a French fighter, combined speed, skill and good punching power. He had taken his title from Battling Levinsky earlier that year in Jersey City, at Westside Park. Carpentier was the underdog in the fight, but the fan favorite thanks to his personal charm, good looks and flawless ring technique. The sporting press made the most of another contrast: Dempsey avoided service in World War I, while Carpentier had served in the French Army.
Commercial radio was in its infancy in 1921, with just a handful of stations broadcast in New Jersey and New York. RCA was keen on doing live coverage of the fight. It set up a huge General Electric transmitter in neighboring Hoboken, from where the call of the fight was carried to theaters and auditoriums across the country. It would be the first world title fight broadcast live on radio.
The gates opened in the afternoon and the stadium was filled by the time local favorite Frankie Burns out-pointed Packey O’Gatty in eight rounds. Among the spectators were hundreds of women, who had traditionally been denied entry to U.S. prize fights. The total gate was reportedly $1.7 million, easily surpassing the previously unreachable $1 million plateau.
The main event saw the champion, who outweighed the challenger by 20 pounds, control a quiet first round. In the second round, Carpentier landed a hard right that some claimed could have knocked out another fighter. As it was, it withered Dempsey and backed him to the ropes. Had the punch found Dempsey’s famed “iron jaw,” it may well have changed the course of history. Instead, Carpentier’s blow crashed against Dempsey’s cheekbone, straining ligaments in the Frenchman’s wrist and fracturing his thumb. The pain prevented him from following with a combination, as dictated by his usual strategy and style.
Two rounds later, just over a minute into Round 4, Dempsey landed a devastating right hook that sent Carpentier to the canvas for the 10-count.