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World Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey mock punching magician Harry Houdini in the 1920s. 

For most of his 87 years, boxing legend Jack Dempsey was known the world over as “The Manassa Mauler.”

During his heyday in the 1920s when he reigned as the World Heavyweight champion, Dempsey was as famous as Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. One of Dempsey’s best friends and admirers was none other than Spencer Penrose of Broadmoor fame.

At Penrose’s request, Dempsey stayed at The Broadmoor in 1926 and trained at nearby Turkey Creek Ranch (owned by Penrose) for his first fight with Gene Tunney. But Dempsey was so barraged by reporters and fans that he had to leave Colorado Springs to finish his training. He lost his title to Tunney on Sept. 23 that year in Philadelphia when Tunney received his emphasis “long count.”

Before Dempsey was a star, he made his living working the mines around Victor and Cripple Creek in the early part of the 20th century. Dempsey attended school through the eighth grade and had jobs at the Portland Mine in Victor and Mollie Kathleen in Cripple Creek while training for his boxing career. Known as a nomadic traveler, when he was done working in the mines he would fight for money, though his early fights are not listed under his official fight log.

Known as “Kid Blackie” in his early days as a fighter, according to official fight records, Dempsey had at least one professional fight in Cripple Creek — at the Lyric Opera House on Nov. 19, 1915. Dempsey knocked out opponent George Coplen in the sixth round.

According to legend, “Kid Blackie” had become Jack Dempsey on May 13, 1913, at Lyric Opera House. That was the night his brother Bernie — who was “pushing 40” — asked his kid brother to fight Coplen in his place. Bernie registered his brother as “Jack Dempsey,” the name of a deceased middleweight champion.

Dempsey’s early years were hard. Born William Harrison Dempsey on June 24, 1895, in Manassa, Colo., to Mormon parents Hyrum and Mary Dempsey, the young Dempsey was the ninth of 11 children. His family was forced to keep on the move to look for work. By the age of 8, young Dempsey had shined shoes, sold newspapers, picked apples and done odd jobs for farmers. At age 11, he was working in the Gold Camp mines. He left home at 16 to concentrate on a career as a professional boxer.

“I guess I had a hundred fights between 1911 and 1916,” Dempsey once told a reporter.

Dempsey also fought for meals in dozens of Colorado Wild West saloons, and rode rails across the state as a “hobo.”

“I can’t sing. I can’t dance. But I’ll lick anyone in the house,” Dempsey was reported to have said.

Sometime between 1907 and 1913, Dempsey arrived from Telluride to work in the Gold Camp alongside his brother, Bernie. His first job was at the Mollie Kathleen. Bernie was working at the Golden Cycle Mine.

According to the Cripple Creek District Museum, Dempsey’s reputation in the early days ran the gambit from well-liked fellow to not-so-savory character. His time in Victor brought mixed reviews, and the stories passed down about him from generation to generation are the stuff of legend.

He was arrested more than a time or two after “causing trouble in a local bar and fighting with other miners,” as was reported in papers of the day. He was locked up many times in a “one-man jail cell with three other guys.”

Ironically, the building that housed the jail, City Hall and the fire station also held the room that Dempsey used to train. It was a small room on the second floor with a fire pole off to one corner. The majority of his time was spent at Portland Mine and in City Hall training for fights.

On July 4, 1919, Dempsey became the World Heavyweight champion when he defeated Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio. Dempsey was declared the champion after Willard’s corner stopped the fight after the third round.

Danny Summers has been covering sports at all levels in the Pikes Peak region since 2001. Send your story ideas and feedback to danny.summers@pikespeaknewspapers.com.

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