Cowboy Luttrell vs. Jack Dempsey
In the summer of 1940, a balding New York restaurant owner named Jack Dempsey launched a comeback at the advanced aged of 45. Piecing together remnants from the past, including extracts from the New York Times and other distinguished oracles, SecondsOut.com's Anthony Evans brings you the forgotten tale of one of the most unlikely returns to the ring in heavyweight history.
Over 74 years have passed since Jack Dempsey lost the world heavyweight title, but the 'Manassa Mauler' looms large in heavyweight history and has cast a shadow down through the decades. After his retirement - following a second loss to Gene Tunney in the infamous 1926 'Night of the Long Count' - Dempsey remained a massively popular figure in America. He remained active in boxing, often refereeing matches at the same arenas where he once headlined. He also refereed wrestling matches where the inclusion of Dempsey, in any capacity, boosted sales at the box office.
On one such occasion, in Atlanta in May 1940, Dempsey was refereeing a tag-team match. During the match, one of the participants, Cowboy Luttrell, decided to make a name for himself and change the script. He shoved Dempsey across the ring and beckoned the former champion to take a poke. Dempsey shoved the wrestler back, prompting Luttrell to throw a clumsy punch, but the former champion ducked and the whole thing fizzled out.
Afterwards, a local newspaper claimed Dempsey tried to smooth things out backstage, but Luttrell - over 24lbs heavier than the 45-year-old former champ - refused to shake hands and, after a few hastily chosen words, again went for a punch. The two were separated swiftly, but not before a furious Dempsey challenged the grappler to a real contest, and even offered to donate his purse to charity.
Because of Luttrell's dubious day job, there were fears that the match would be a fix, but Dempsey made sure the record was put straight. Speaking to the New York Times, he said: "No. It's no gag. I'm going to fight a wrestler down in Atlanta on July 1. We're going to fight with gloves, the lightest ones Georgia officials will permit, and under Marquis of Queensbury rules. I ought to knock him out quick because I can still punch, and he doesn't know how to fight."
Concerns immediately turned to the popular former champion's health. He was, after all, a 45-year-old restaurant owner, who had not fought in over a decade. But he told the Times: "Naw, I'm not takin' any chances. This Luttrell must be as old as I am. You know how those wrestlers are - they keep workin' till they're ready for the old men's home. And I know he can't fight. He swings from the floor. He's muscle-bound and slow. I don't like any part of this Luttrell and it will be a pleasure to take care of him."
Luttrell, obviously a seasoned veteran of hyperbole, retorted in the Atlanta Constitution: "I'm going to knock Dempsey's front teeth out. Boy, oh, boy, will people be surprised when I wade into Mr. Dempsey with both these big fists flying."
He added: "Don't you realise that any guy who could go around the rest of his life and say he was the man that knocked out Jack Dempsey would be a big gate attraction as a professional wrestler? I have everything to gain. He's crazy to risk himself in a bout with a man so much younger and in much better physical condition. But that's his business. From now on I am dedicating myself to the task of being the man who licked Jack Dempsey."
A strange phenomenon creeps up on sports fans and writers when a childhood hero returns. It could easily be dismissed as wishful sentimentalism, but it is more powerful than that. Many of those who snapped up tickets to see Dempsey's return, or rushed to write stories about it, grew up during Dempsey's hey-day.
They associated their youth, and the prime of their lives, with him. Now their hero was attempting to turn back the clock and, if he succeeded, they maybe believed the clock would turn back for them, too. These feelings, and genuine excitement at the chance to see the Manassa Mauler in action just one more time, drew an impressive 10,000 fans paying an even more impressive $37,000. The American public and media, who idolised Dempsey, whipped each other into a frenzy in anticipation of their hero's return after his years in the wilderness.
In the days leading up to the fight, perspective - and perhaps reality - seemed to slip away from many writers. Impartiality went out of the window, many of them even wrote that Dempsey would challenge reigning heavyweight champion Joe Louis. But the old fighter did little to ground their flights of fancy, maybe because he didn't want to ruin their fun or admit he was too old.
At the pre-fight press conference, Dempsey said: "That is something I cannot answer. If I prove I can still punch and, if the public demands the match, we will talk about it later. The man who takes Joe Louis' title away must have dynamite in either hand." Then, with a wry grin, he added: "I have been searching for a fighter to beat Louis. Wouldn't it be strange if he turned out to be Jack Dempsey?"
Dempsey received a 10 minute standing ovation when he entered the ring that night. Reporters waxed lyrical about a deafening roar that just wouldn't stop. They also mentioned that Dempsey looked much trimmer than expected. In fact, they noted that he was in better shape than his supposedly fitter opponent.
The fight was a mismatch. Luttrell, despite some boxing experience in his youth, was totally out of his depth and was battered from pillar to post in the first round, where only the bell and a vice-like grip for a defence - saved him.
But in the second, Dempsey - fighting from the memory of what he used to be - seemed to tap into whatever was left of his greatness. He dropped Luttrell three times in round two, finally knocking the Cowboy through the ropes and onto the arena floor, where he was counted out.
Dempsey stood in the ring, his arms aloft in victory for the first time in over 14 years, and one can only guess how he must have felt when the crowd, almost rabid with excitement, chanted his name. He had not disappointed them.
A New York newspaper read: "Dempsey, possessed with all the savagery and relentless fury of the Manassa Mauler of old, last night brought back memories of the days when he ruled the heavyweights of the world with a smashing two-round knockout of Cowboy Luttrell, a 224-pound Texas bull.
"Stalking his prey from the opening gong, the old warrior may have battered his way back into the heavyweight title picture as he turned loose a murderous attack on the huge wrestler that left Luttrell senseless and the crowd gasping in amazement.
"Contrary to pictures painted by crepe hangers before the fight, Dempsey was not fat. And he was not clumsy. Instead, fans saw a trim, tigerish Dempsey, lacking the speed of his golden days, but still perhaps the most dangerous fighter in the business, outside of the Brown Bomber."
Another newspaper was equally carried away: "Dempsey was not the flabby, aged ghost of a former great that some of our self-styled sports experts and humanitarians in this vicinity would have you believe. He was a whirling and slashing killer. Over four rounds, he would be a match for heavyweight champ Joe Louis."
But, deep down, Dempsey knew what would happen to him if he challenged Louis. He fought several more bouts against non-boxers, including a professional American football player, and then retired for good.
Luttrell, his 15 minutes of fame used up, disappeared from history almost immediately after guest referee Nat Fleischer completed the 10 count. His defeat was so crushing, so complete, it is unlikely any wrestling promoter hired him to cash in on his brief notoriety. He remains an obscure footnote in history.
On May 31, 1983, the flame of pure fire finally went out. Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, died aged 87. His legend burns on. Although it did little to enhance Dempsey's standing as a fighter, the brief comeback of 1940 reaffirmed his place among the true legends of boxing.
Legends don't just accomplish feats of wonder, plunder titles or simply knock people out - they inspire and touch people's lives.
All photos ALLSPORT / AFP / SECONDSOUT.COM