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Murray: And Still Champion!

Murray story archive

Tuesday, August 7
Updated: August 8, 4:13 PM ET
Murray: Dempsey was the meanest
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on November 17, 1965.

There are all kinds of ways to get ready for a heavyweight championship fight. You work on what you need.

Joe Louis used to practice going to the farthest neutral corner. Gene Tunney practiced running for his life, Floyd Patterson should practice getting up and Muhammad Whatisname should practice shutting up.

Lots of fighters practice hooks to the head but Gene Fullmer used to practice hooks with the head. Rocky Marciano threw so many punches in so many directions he just had to make sure he didn't hit the referee -- or the ring posts.

ESPN Classic
SportsCentury will profile Jack Dempsey on Friday, August 10 at 8 and 11 p.m. ET.
But Jack Dempsey was the only champion who practiced the same way the early Christians did -- as if his opponent had a mane and claws and would not only fight him but eat him. Dempsey even fought a punching bag as if it might open fire at any time. Sparring partners limped out of town on every bus. A newspaper man climbed into the ring with him once as a gag, and a colleague had to write the fellow's story for a few days afterwards while he took nourishment through a straw. "Dempsey fought you," a battered spar-mate once confided, "as if the two of you were on a ledge 20 stories up and it was either him or you."

The man who can best testify to the terrible tornadic frenzy of the Dempsey attack is a tall, graceful, New Orleans-born Irishman named Marty Burke.

Martin Burke, now 70 and still blondhaired, is known around the sound stages of Hollywood as the father of 20th Century Fox's television star, Paul Burke ("12 O'Clock High") but he was known around the gyms and barges of New Orleans' "Irish Channel" section as "The Turk," the best left-hook artist who ever came out of bayou country.

Marty's book, if he writes it, is going to be called "1,000 Rounds with Jack Dempsey, or Did You Think I Got This Ear Answering the Telephone?" If you doubt Dempsey's punch, Marty will take your hand and press into what once was a chest bone, but what is now a depression deep enough to hide letters. Dempsey did that with a single hook. Marty forgets what kind of punch it was that used to break his nose regularly.

Marty began to train with Dempsey well before the Dempsey-Willard fight. The two of them toured the tank towns of New Jersey and Pennsylvania where Dempsey's manager, Doc Kearns, posted a ritual $500 fee for anyone who could go the route against the tigerish Dempsey. Doc used to post himself behind the curtain with a bung starter in case any of the tank palookas got lucky, but Marty recalls the few who squared off against Dempsey went out on a stretcher. Marty had to take up the slack and keep the show going.

One night, when his nose looked like a pomegranate and his ear had grown so far it looked like a second head, Marty mildly suggested to Dempsey that he take off a day to heal. "Oh," soother Dempsey, "I'll take it easy with you, Turk -- just a few body taps." The first part of his body Dempsey tapped was his nose -- with one of the hardest rights he ever threw. "Jack just didn't know the meaning of 'take it easy' when he got into the ring. You had to be alert out there or you'd find yourself looking around for your head."

One time, Marty sparred six rounds in one week with Dempsey, and then fought 15 with Gene Tunney for the American light-heavyweight championship. "The six rounds with Dempsey were worse than the whole 15 with Tunney." In fact, Burke says, his tow fights with Tunney -- he lost both -- were easier than any single vaudeville fight with Dempsey with 16-ounce gloves.

Marty's next-hardest fight was with Harry Greb. "He hit me so often, I actually turned around to see who was helping him. With Greb, it was a good thing he couldn't hit hard because he hit often. With Dempsey, it was a good thing he didn't hit often because he hit hard."

At 6 feet 3 inches, Marty had altitude going for him in most fights. Also, he presented a slim target. He weighed as little as 154 when he first began to tour with Dempsey. He fought George Godfrey, on of the great Negro fighters of the '20s, only after the boxing commission told him to put on four more pounds on the afternoon of the fight. Marty spent the rest of the day draining down bootleg ale and Guinness Stout. He not only made the weight, he almost made the drunk tank. This was the first time they ever had to give a fighter a shower BEFORE the fight. Marty showed up at 175 pounds, singing "Mother Machree." Godfrey, a two-bottle man himself, just looked jealous.

Marty even won the fight. At 220 and cold sober, Godfrey was no match for him, and this was at a time when all the ranking heavyweights were ducking behind the color line and keeping Godfrey, known variously as the "Baron of Leiperville" or the "Leopard of Leiperville" and other alliterations, at bay. In time, Godfrey came up to Marty after the bout and allowed, "Turk, you're the first fighter I met in a long time didn't ax me to handcuff myself."

After Dempsey, Burke didn't see any need to ask anybody to handcuff himself. In fact, he was the first to know it when Dempsey began to lose it all. "I told him before the Tunney fight, 'Jack, you know you can't fight anymore. Tunney shouldn't lose a round.'" It turned out, Tunney didn't. Not even the one he was knocked down in for 14 seconds in the second fight.

Marty drifted around the fight game for several more years after that -- or until he got knocked out in one round by Young Stribling. "Five years before, Stribling couldn't have hit me with a handful of birdseed."

Back in New Orleans, Marty opened a French Quarter saloon so tough the shore patrol used to walk it in platoon strength. Some of Marty's last fights were with longshoreman half his age and twice his weight and one night when business was good, Marty sat down after he had stacked a few customers in a neat pile outside the front door, and reached in his mouth and extracted three teeth by hand which had already been loosened by fists.

He spoke in a lisp as he inspected the bloody molars. "I wonder," he questioned, "how Dempsey missed these?"

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.