Skip to main content
Original Issue


A jaunty Frenchman helped glamorize the 20s with a pair of boxing gloves on his brittle hands and gallantry in his heart. But Georges Carpentier was too small to live the dream which idolizing millions created: he couldn't dethrone Jack Dempsey

The world has always been inadequately supplied with Galahads, but there are few areas of human endeavor in which the shortage is as acute as in the prize ring-purity of heart, even in its more synthetic manifestations, is seldom proof against a hard right to the belly. This does not mean that a good Galahad cannot be a gold mine, but simply that he must be teed up with great care. This month the most glorious sacrifice of them all was publishing his shining memoirs in Paris and in so doing reflected upon the fact that 90,000 people paid $1,626,580 to watch Jack Dempsey reduce him to jelly at Boyle's Thirty Acres in 1921.

The glorious sacrifice, of course, was none other than Georges (The Orchid Man) Carpentier of France—a child of fortune if one ever lived. He weighed but 167 pounds, had brittle hands, had been beaten by U.S. Middleweight Billy Papke in 1912 and was such a sad excuse as a heavyweight contender that Promoter Tex Rickard, rumor said, asked Dempsey to take it easy for three or four rounds to keep from turning history's first million-dollar gate into a million-dollar fiasco. But, for all that, it was Carpentier who struck the fight's most dramatic blow—a solid clout to Dempsey's jowls that sent thousands home convinced he really might have won.

His memoirs indicate that he almost—but not quite—thinks so himself. Carpentier, a coal miner's son, now runs a saloon near the Are de Triomphe, but 41 years ago luck and a debonair air paid him astounding dividends. When he beat England's Bombardier Wells for the European heavyweight championship in 1913, Paris was not only astounded but delighted. Almost overnight Georges found himself rubbing shoulders with the Aga Khan, Nijinsky, Maurice Maeterlinck, Colette and assorted maharajas; he responded by duding himself up in a black bowler, yellow gloves, patent leather shoes, an ivory-headed cane. He drove a huge Bellenger touring car and dined regularly at Maxims.


World War I intensified his reputation as a hero and patriot; he flew over the German lines as a noncommissioned observation pilot, was decorated with the Médaille Militaire by President Raymond Poincaré himself—and then, as the prudent French realized that they might lose their best prize fighter by this sort of nonsense, was quickly made an army physical education instructor. By the time he crossed the Atlantic (with a manager, a masseur, a sparring partner, his wife Georgette, her maid and 15 trunks) after the war, and knocked out Battling Levin-sky, the light-heavyweight champion, the U.S. was almost as bullish about him as France. This, even though one newspaper reported that he had the face of a "choirboy."

Carpentier had partisans even among those who could not quite believe in the build-up (which had been furthered by sending him on a tour of the U.S. in a private railroad car once used by President Woodrow Wilson). A fair number of Americans considered Dempsey a slacker for having worked in shipyards during the war, and wanted the "soldier of France" to win. To keep from disillusioning them, Carpentier trained for the fight in private at a Long Island estate, and Rickard's press agents announced that he was perfecting a "secret punch."

By the eve of the fight the U.S. had been worked into a truly astounding state of tension. France was nearly hysterical. French President Alexandre Millerand left orders to be called at any hour for news of the outcome, and airplanes prepared to drop colored flares over Paris to signal the winner. "There are not 50 Englishmen or 10 Americans who understand our pleasure in Ph√®dre," wrote the eminently cultured Fran√ßois Mauriac, "but the eloquence of the fist is accessible to all men.... Victorious over Dempsey, Georges will be the torch of the modern world.... [He] revives in us the nostalgia of Athens." Georges, however, was nervous—he rolled and tossed all night long before the battle, well aware that Dempsey outweighed him by 20 pounds. As he walked through the enormous crowd to the ring, arrayed in a pearl-gray bathrobe, he was thinking: "I don't know where I am. I don't even know if I've come here to fight. I have forgotten everything. I have the feeling that I'm walking on a cotton cloud in a nightmare."

As he sat on his stool before the battle, Carpentier stared nervously at an airplane overhead in search of "something concrete to attach me to the known world." But, at the bell, his worries cleared away—Dempsey, he instantly noted, was keeping away, chin hidden behind his left shoulder, his face "the very image of distrust." Though Dempsey hit him a couple of rabbit punches and demonstrated that his reflexes were fast as lightning, Georges weathered round one unharmed.


In the second, Carpentier decided his only chance of getting past Dempsey's long arms lay in counterpunching. He dropped his guard, Dempsey charged and Carpentier hit him with a right, thrown with all his might, and sent the champion reeling to the ropes. But the punch also broke Georges' right thumb. "Bravo!" shouted his manager, Francois Descamps, as he returned to his corner. "Right hand," breathed Carpentier heavily. "Thumb hurts." There was only one thing to say and Descamps muttered it: a classic cussword expressing the ultimate in frustration and disgust.

From then on, calculated Carpentier, "there was only one thing for me to do—finish beautifully." That was easier said than done. In the fourth, Dempsey accelerated with murder in his eye. Carpentier recalls: "He hit me everywhere. On the flanks, arms, shoulders, head. Any place was good for a punch. My legs weaken. I fall. I hurt all over but . . . I'm perfectly lucid." He rose at nine, took a left to the face and a right punch to the heart, and that was the end. He was counted out. He recalls that he got up before Dempsey could help him: "I tried to keep face.... I didn't want to make an exhibition of my sadness."

That, for all intents and purposes, was the end of Georges Carpentier, lucky pug, though he did fight a few more times—losing to Battling Siki in Paris and Tommy Gibbons in Michigan City, Ind. But it was not the end of Kid Galahad at all. After Dempsey ruined him, the New York Times sympathetically reported: "As a fighter he was beaten but as a boxer he remains superior." England's Prime Minister Lloyd George sent him a cable: "I admire you more than ever." To this day, Carpentier's customers regard him as a noble warrior indeed. Does this tale dramatize those rousing words of Georges Jacques Danton to the French legislature in 1792: "De l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace!"? Or does it simply prove that the Yellow Kid Weil was right when he said: "You can't knock a good mark"? Well, anyway, Dempsey was one rough customer.




RECORD CROWD of 90,000 half-hysterical fans who came to see the advertised "Battle of the Century" watched Carpentier take fearful punishment from Dempsey.


END OF NIGHTMARE came for Carpentier when the savage Dempsey walked away as Georges was counted out. Jack had coasted in early rounds to give the crowd, which brought Tex Rickard his first million-dollar gate, a show for its money.