Dempsey Vs. Carpentier by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but as Frank Adams once remarked, the betting is best that way. The event at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City was the conclusive triumph of Reality over Romance, of Prose over Poetry. To almost all the newspaper-reading world–except the canny fellows who study these matters with care and knowledge–Carpentier had taken on something of the lustre and divinity of myth. He was the white Greek god, he was Mercury and Apollo. The dope was against him; but there were many who felt, obscurely, that in some pregnant way a miracle would happen. His limbs were ivory, his eyes were fire; surely the gods would intervene! Perhaps they would have but for the definite pronouncement of the mystagogue G.B. Shaw. Even the gods could not resist the chance of catching Shaw off his base.

We are not a turncoat; we had hoped that Carpentier would win. It would have been pleasant if he had, quite like a fairy tale. But we must tell things as we see them. Dempsey, in a very difficult situation, bore himself as a champion, and (more than that) as a man of spirit puzzled and angered by the feeling that has been rumoured against him. Carpentier entered the ring smiling, perfectly at ease; but there was that same sunken, wistful, faintly weary look about his eyes that struck us when we first saw him, at Manhasset, three weeks ago. It was the look of a man who has had more put upon him than he can rightly bear. But with what a grace and aplomb he stood upon that scaffold! Dempsey, on the other hand, was sullen and sombre; when they spoke together he seemed embarrassed and kept his face averted. As the hands were bandaged and gloves put on, he sat with lowered head, his dark poll brooding over his fists, not unlike Rodin’s Thinker. Carpentier, at the opposite corner, was apparently at ease; sat smilingly in his gray and black gown, watching the airplanes.

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You have read the accounts of the fight to small purpose if you do not realize that Carpentier was utterly outclassed–not in skill or cunning, but in those qualities where the will has no part, in power and reach. From the first clinch, when Dempsey began that series of terrible body jabs that broke down the Frenchman’s energy and speed, the goose was cooked. There was nothing poetic or glamorous about those jabs; they were not spectacular, not particularly swift; but they were terribly definite. Half a dozen of them altered the scene strangely. The smiling face became haggard and troubled.

Carpentier, too, must have been leaving something to the gods, for his tactics were wildly reckless. He was the aggressor at the start, leading fiercely for Dempsey’s jaw, and landing, too, but not heavily enough to do damage. Again and again in that first round he fell into the fatal embrace in which Dempsey punished him busily, with those straight body strokes that slid in methodically, like pistons. Georges seemed to have no defence that could slacken those blows. After every clinch his strength plainly ebbed and withered. Away, he dodged nimbly, airily, easily more dramatic in arts of manoeuvre. But Dempsey, tall, sullen, composed, followed him steadily. He seemed slow beside that flying white figure, but that wheeling amble was deadly sure. He was always on the inner arc, Carpentier on the outer; the long, swarthy arms were impenetrable in front of his vitals; again and again he followed up, seeking to corner his man; Carpentier would fling a shining arm at the dark jaw; a clinch would follow in which the two leaned together in that curious posture of apparent affection; and they hung upon each other’s necks–Carpentier, from a distance, looking almost like a white girl languishing in the arms of some dark, solicitous lover. But Mr. Dempsey was the Fatal Bridegroom, for at each union he would rivet in several more of those steam punches.

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There was something almost incredible in the scene–so we had been drilled in that Million-Dollar Myth, the unscathability of Carpentier. Was this Gorgeous Georges, this blood-smeared, wilting, hunted figure, flitting desperately from the grim, dark-jowled avenger? And then, in the latter part of the second round, Georges showed one flash of his true genius. Suddenly he sprang, leaping (so it seemed) clear from the canvas, and landed solidly (though not killingly) on Dempsey’s jaw. There was a flicker of lightning blows, and for an instant Dempsey was retreating, defensive, even a little jarred. That was the high moment of the fight, and the crowd then showed its heart. Ninety thousand people had come there to see bloodshed; through several humid hours they had sat in a rising temperature, both inward and outward, with cumulating intensity like that of a kettle approaching the boil. Dempsey had had a bigger hand on entering the ring; but so far it had been too one-sided for much roaring. But now, for an instant, there was actual fighting. There were some who thought that if Georges could have followed up this advantage he still had a chance. We do not think so. Dempsey was not greatly shaken. He was too powerful and too hard to reach. They clinched and stalled for a moment, and the gong came shortly. But Carpentier had shown his tiger streak. Scotty Monteith, manager (so we were told) of Johnny Dundee, sat just in front of us in a pink skirt, and had been gathering up substantial wagers from the ill-starred French journalists near by. Scotty was not in any doubt as to the outcome, but even he was moved by Carpentier’s gallant sally. “No one knew he was a fighter like that,” he said.

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The rest is but a few words. Carpentier’s face had a wild, driven look. His hits seemed mere taps beside Dempsey’s. In the fourth round he went down once, for eight or nine counts, and climbed up painfully. The second time he sprawled flat; Dempsey, still with that pensive lowered head, walked grimly in a semi-circle, waiting to see if that was the end. It was. Greek gods are no match for Tarzans in this game.

It was all over in a breathless flash. It was not one lucky blow that did it, but a sequence of business-like crushing strokes. We shall not soon forget that picture before the gong rang: Carpentier, still the White Knight of legend and glory, with his charming upward smile and easy unconcern; and Dempsey’s dark cropped head, bent and glowering over his chest. There was in Dempsey’s inscrutable, darkling mien a cold, simmering anger, as of a man unfairly hounded, he hardly knew why. And probably, we think, unjustly. You will say that we import a symbolism into a field where it scarcely thrives. But Carpentier’s engaging merriment in the eye of oncoming downfall seemed to us almost a parable of those who have smiled too confidingly upon the dark faces of the gods.

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