ON June 30, 1919, American citizens surged into saloons to clink their last glasses of hard liquor, and staggered out. At one minute past midnight on the “thirsty-first,” Pittsburgh and everyplace else was subjected to the Wartime Prohibition Act, the “dry law,” which was a warmup before the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in January. Newspapers ran front-page obituaries for John Barleycorn; mock funerals were held in men’s clubs, kegs laid out in caskets, whiskey bottles stuffed with black roses. There was an epidemic of hangovers. Many proprietors announced their intention to remain open with the 2.75% beer temporarily tolerated by the Allegheny County DA on tap. No mention was made of crates of ardent spirits stashed in the back; winks went unreported. Over at Epiphany Church, Father O’Connell could have his sacramental wine at Mass and doctors’ prescriptions of alcohol for internal ailments would be honoured “when the patient is under constant supervision.” No refills.

Irish, Italian, and German Americans in the big eastern cities were outraged at this intrusion by blue-nosed busybodies with nothing better to do. At least one Catholic congressman would submit a bill of repeal. “A hard fight looms,” said a headline.

A hard fight looms, said the sports section. On July 4, heavyweight champion Jess Willard, who stood six foot six and weighed two-forty-five, would defend his crown against a surging Jack Dempsey. Dempsey, six-one and outweighed by sixty pounds, earned the “Giant Killer” moniker after knocking out Fred Fulton and Carl Morris in a minute or less. He’d been training in Toledo since May. Willard got there on June 30. Both had their life insurance paid to date.

Red Mason, who was handling Pittsburgh’s allotment of tickets for the big fight, placed a large bet on Dempsey. Harry Greb, surprisingly, picked the giant. Both were confident in Greb’s chances against Dempsey.

harry greb

Greb had him in his sights for nearly a year already because of a snub. He was in Philadelphia the previous summer when he heard Dempsey was going to face Billy Miske instead of him. “I think I am entitled to it,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. After defeating light-heavyweight champion Battling Levinsky later that night, he was at it again, telling all and sundry that he should get a shot at the man then hailed as the new wonder of the heavyweight class. Then he went and beat Miske in Pittsburgh two months before Dempsey got him in Philadelphia, just because.

“Me for the heavyweight class. I’ve cleaned up the middleweights . . . and I can go through the light heavyweights just as easily,” he said on a train platform in Buffalo in February 1919. “Fight Dempsey, why not? I hope he wins.”

Dempsey turned up in Pittsburgh on March 9 for a week-long engagement at the Victoria. The theatre section of the dailies called it “an opportunity to study Dempsey’s methods” and Harry and wife Mildred may have been in the audience doing exactly that.

A week later, Dempsey was asked his opinion about the upcoming Greb-Bill Brennan bout at Duquesne Gardens. He didn’t know much about Greb, but he knew Brennan. “He gave me one of the hardest fights I ever had,” he said. “If Harry Greb thinks he is going up against an easy proposition in Bill Brennan, he is much mistaken.”

“Harry Greb had no trouble in outpointing Bill Brennan of Chicago in 10 rounds last night,” said the Gazette Times on the 18th.

A tentative deal for Greb-Dempsey went up in smoke after the Willard-Dempsey articles precluded the challenger from boxing anyone before July 4. Another offer materialised for Dempsey to face Greb in an eight-rounder if he beat Willard.

Dempsey brutalised Willard. Meanwhile, Greb was nine hundred miles west of Toledo looking up at Brennan again. No one was confident in Brennan’s chances; no one. “There is no telling what is liable to happen to him,” quipped one newspaper. Greb “slashed and slammed his way to victory” and took in $1,903.75. It was a fraction of what Dempsey earned. “Look at that Jack Dempsey. Getting $27,500 for a chance at the heavyweight title,” he said. “Say, boy, that’s going to be my dish someday. Just watch me.”

Connecticut, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati made overtures to match Dempsey with Greb. Greb did his part and targeted Dempsey’s opponents and sparring partners.

Among the former was Levinsky, whom Greb whipped for the umpteenth time on July 14. Among the latter was heavyweight Terry Kellar, who was running around Ohio claiming Greb was afraid of him. “Greb is no Dempsey,” he said. “Those folks who are talking about matching Harry and Jack must want to see the Pittsburgh boy murdered.”

“HARRY GREB SLAUGHTERS LOCAL MAN” said the Dayton Herald on August 12. “[Greb] won by not more than the length of one of Babe Ruth’s really long drives.” The crowd had a better time than Greb: “Put some cinders up there so Kellar can run!” “Someone wants you on the telephone, Terry!” “Let him hit you once, Harry!”

Greb was back in Pittsburgh two days later. His next fight was at Forbes Field, which afforded him the novelty of sleeping on a bed with Mildred instead of a railroad bench with Mason. He was looking forward to giving Brennan his fourth consecutive beating when he heard that Brennan was being lined up for a shot at the new heavyweight champion. All he had to do was give “a good showing” on August 23. Greb blew his top. “I’ll prevent that meeting,” he said. “I’ll give Brennan such a lacing that he will not be fit to fight Dempsey or anyone else for many weeks.” He also promised to put a decisive end to their one-sided tête à tête, and did.

Dempsey gave Brennan a shot anyway. Greb could do no more than delay it, and it wouldn’t be the last time he bumped off a prospective opponent only to see him propped back up and given a king’s ransom. Brennan extended Dempsey almost twelve rounds before he got stopped. He did unto Dempsey what Greb routinely did unto him—busted him up. Dempsey finished with a swollen eye, a torn ear, and an admission that it was “just about the most closely contested fight I ever had.” Greb broke into a wide smile at that and told a reporter that “his idea of a life of ease and comfort would be fighting Brennan once a week for a fair purse, until he retired from the ring because of old age.”

In September 1919, Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns mentioned several fighters in the running for a shot at the heavyweight crown, but was dismissive of Greb. Kearns wasn’t alone. In November, after Greb defeated another Dempsey sparring partner, former heavyweight king James J. Corbett forgot all about his own losses to the lighter Bob Fitzsimmons and the smaller Tom Sharkey and scoffed at Greb’s chances against Dempsey. “Greb is entirely too light and too small,” he said.

Greb found it baffling—Corbett had never even seen him fight. “I think I am as good now as I will ever be, and, without boasting, that I can beat almost everybody in the game, Dempsey not excepted,” he said. “I am really anxious to fight him and I do not understand why the fans refuse to consider me in the light of a contender.” He then presented his case, listing four contenders Kearns was aiming for: Miske, Willie Meehan, Brennan, and Joe Becket. “I have beaten the first three, each more than once, and would like to fight Beckett,” he said. “If, on comparative records, anybody has more license to fight Dempsey than me, I’d like to know who he is.”

By early 1920 fans were coming around, especially in Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, where Greb’s dominance was witnessed firsthand. There was talk of a ten-round no-decision match to take place in Buffalo on May 31 and reports said Greb hopped a northbound train in January to discuss it with the Queensberry A.C. promoters and agreed to terms. He was in Akron on March 9 when a long-distance call from the promoters came in claiming Dempsey had also agreed to terms.

Greb came home to a mountain of mail, some of it congratulatory, some with sincerest condolences. He had much to say about his stylistic advantages and his intention to win. “I’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose,” he said, and then asked to be left alone with his thoughts, which were grim. “I’ll be in there to do or die,” he said. “And I don’t expect to die.”

In April, Kearns denied that any negotiations had happened. “Bunk,” he said, “pure and simple.”

In July, Greb got word that Dempsey was in Manhattan, at a training camp at Broadway and Fifty-Seventh Street, and headed to Union Station.

Mason went with him, understandably concerned. A near-peak Dempsey was five inches taller, thirty pounds heavier, hit harder, and was nearly as fast and aggressive as Greb himself. While an official match was a win/win scenario, this was lose/lose. Greb, too willing, thought nothing of risking his health and reputation for zero compensation. And if he did get the better of Dempsey, what then? Would money-mad Doc Kearns risk the heavyweight crown against him? Not likely. It was a crazy idea. Greb didn’t care. He would put Dempsey on the spot and show him and the whole world who’s who and what’s what.

On Tuesday afternoon, July 27, Dempsey looked up and there he was.

Mayhem at Midtown

Reports said Dempsey was “well pleased” when Greb approached with an offer to get into the ring, but this should not be misunderstood. It was no favour from a colleague. It was a direct challenge from an adversary and had to be met.

We don’t know what happened on Tuesday except that Greb “boxed four hard rounds” against Dempsey and it got the boroughs buzzing. At three o’clock Wednesday, before Greb came into view, every seat was filled. Outside on 57th Street, a traffic cop had to clear the crowd from blocking traffic.

The price of a ticket was doubled, which meant that for roughly the cost of a haircut and a shave, you could watch David and Goliath—and it was no metaphor. Greb surprised everyone again with his showing, including promoter Tex Rickard and Kearns. Dempsey himself told Rickard that Greb was the first “who ever gave him a real workout.”

On Thursday, the added attraction of Douglas Fairbanks acting as honourary referee brought more to the arena door, particularly women. Kearns dubbed it “Ladies’ Day” and let them in gratis. We have details about what happened in that last session. “Greb tore into the champion,” said one report, “and in the middle of the second round, time had to be called when the Pittsburgher landed a hard right on Dempsey’s left eye and split it open.” Another report said it was a left hook that blackened Dempsey’s right eye. Embarrassed, Dempsey told his handlers he would try it again. A few exchanges later, he told them he would have to call it off for the day.

It was an unofficial TKO. Greb left the ring to ear-splitting acclaim. Fans spilled from the stands and surrounded him.

Dempsey stood by and nursed his eye.

New York fans joined the chorus clamouring for Greb to get a shot at the heavyweight crown. Rickard, who was blocking black title challengers by segregating them into diamond-belt tournaments, did something similar to Greb. He promised him a title shot—at middleweight.

The Battles at Benton Harbor

A few weeks into August, Dempsey’s handlers made a hurry-up call to get Greb to the training camp in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Dempsey was said to be concerned about ring rust and news out of challenger Billy Miske’s camp that he’d knocked out a sparring partner. This was nothing but hype. Insiders knew Dempsey was doing a favor for Miske, who was sick and watching medical bills pile up to the ceiling.

Greb knew what this was really about. When the two first clashed in July, Dempsey had just finished a stint with a travelling circus—entertaining children with a chimp and champ act and falling in love. This time he’d be ready.

On Tuesday August 31, Dempsey was tearing up sparring partners in a ring set up at promoter Floyd Fitzsimmons’s ballpark and promised to continue “hot and heavy for the balance of the week.” No one mistook his sun-speckled musculature for rust.

At some point that afternoon, Greb appeared. A fellow middleweight went two rounds one observer said “he’ll never forget” and climbed out. As Greb was about to climb in, Dempsey declined. Tomorrow, he said. He’d just gone eight rounds and knew from experience that Greb was not one to tangle with when he’s fresh and you’re not.

Tomorrow came soon enough. A host of writers were present as time was called and Greb was unleashed. “Greb,” went one report, “was in and out, under, around and on top of the champion for the full nine minutes that they traded punches.” In the first round, Greb landed a left uppercut and two rights to Dempsey’s chin. In the second, he was bouncing around the ring and off the ropes to score punches. “Three lighting lefts” landed on Dempsey’s face in the third. It was front page news in the St. Joseph Herald-Press.

The Detroit Times carried an Associated Press wire that said Dempsey’s famous left hooks were missing and he was getting countered to the body and the head and that Greb “gave a spectacular demonstration.”

“The Pittsburgher went into him like a hurricane,” another wire reported, “piling up points with his rapid, erratic style, and eluding the champion’s retaliatory efforts with ease.”

Newspapers in the Midwest reported that “Greb staggered Dempsey twice” and the Chicago Tribune confirmed that “there was nothing easy about the going for either,” that it was “a real battle. . . worth the price of admission and more.”

The New York Times said Greb was “all over him and kept forcing him around the ring”—at times jumping off the canvas to hit him in the mouth—“and seemed to be able to hit him almost at will.” It was “a real, honest-to-goodness battle.”

Frank G. Menke, one of the foremost sports columnists of the day, said phooey to all that. His coverage opened with a very different tack: “Jack Dempsey doffed the role of slugger today and donned that of boxer and startled the assemblage by his remarkable skill in the new role.” It’s a curious claim. In other words, the reports of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and the local newsmen at ringside were the stuff of delusion. Dempsey was merely practicing new shifts, said Menke. He was limiting his offense “to jabs and short wild hooks.”

Menke didn’t hear Big Bill Tate tell a reporter that Dempsey never pulls punches, that “he just lets them go and when they land—WHAM!” And Dempsey is on record confirming that he was taking no prisoners. “I made up my mind to let myself out today to satisfy myself that I am fit,” he said.

Menke’s write-up seems to be an attempt to stifle the applause for Greb’s showing and his claims were repeated in a letter to the press signed by Dempsey on September 3. It looks like an alibi provided by one friend to another. And friends they were. A few years later, Dempsey bought a racehorse. He named it “Frank G. Menke.”

Thirty years later, his friends were still in denial. George A. Barton said Dempsey was handcuffed by Kearns, who wanted him to make Greb look good so he could steal him away from Mason. This too contradicts the contemporary reports; Greb himself swore that Dempsey was trying to knock him out “every day.” What’s more, at the end of the two rounds, Dempsey asked for one more round, which supports the impression that he “could do little with Greb,” looked bad, and tried to save face.

The wide publicity given Wednesday’s session brought scores of fans and gawkers in on Thursday. Dempsey seethed all night while Greb weakened his legs with Mildred at a boarding house not far from the camp, and his eyes must have narrowed when he read the front page of Thursday morning’s Herald-Press: “Newspaper men at the ringside expressed the belief that Greb rocked the champion with a right to the chin in the third round.”

When he climbed through the ropes that afternoon, he called on Greb first. One report mentions that eight-ounce gloves were used. Wednesday’s were fourteen ounces.

Dempsey “tore into the Pittsburgh lad” immediately, according to the same Herald-Press. The New York Times said it was Greb who tore into Dempsey and landed a left hook to the body “with all the force at his command.” Then “the fur began to fly.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said Greb “got in some pippins at the start” and as Dempsey returned fire, “the sickening sound of leather smashing flesh echoed around the ball park.” Greb was seen eluding Dempsey’s left hooks but was absorbing wicked shots to his ribs and there was real concern at ringside that someone might get hurt and badly hurt at that. Kearns was telling Dempsey to “slow down.” Mason was telling Greb to “be careful.” Greb was mocking Dempsey—“G’wan! Do your stuff champion!”

The United Press said Greb “fought viciously all the way” and Dempsey was “soaking Greb hard at long range and in the clinches.” Universal Service reported that Dempsey “more than held his own” in the first round, Greb hit him flush on the chin in the second, butted him “rather savagely” in a clinch, and then stepped back and was punching him repeatedly at the bell. In the third, Dempsey, spitting blood, went after Greb with body shots that lifted him off the canvas and sent him spinning backward. He was, it said, making Greb miss and countering hard, which is exactly what the AP reported Greb did to Dempsey the day before.

Throughout the match, the two thousand who crammed into the park spontaneously “burst into cheers and prolonged applause.” The announcer had to request that they stop exhorting the two combatants—it was too rough already.

Barton rightly framed Thursday’s session as Dempsey’s answer to the embarrassing coverage around Greb’s good showing in Wednesday’s session. But his memories about what actually happened were faulty. It was, in his mind, a one-sided rout and much briefer than it actually was. An emboldened Greb, he said, tore into the champion early in the first round only to be immediately paralysed by “two fearful blows” to the body that popped his mouth open and made a cartoon out of him. Dempsey caught him as he sank and held him up, Barton continued, and Kearns ended the contest early. These details don’t appear in the next day’s accounts; in fact, a contemporary report said it was Soldier Kelly who he caught under the armpits after a knockout blow.

Barton’s memory was faulty; his loyalty was not. He wrote the article in 1952 in response to the “Johnny-Come-Lately” talk that Dempsey ducked Greb because he was handled in a sparring session. “Let me set you right,” Barton wagged his finger. “And don’t let anybody tell you differently.”

Barton protested too much. His autobiography may tell us why: “The friendship I formed with Jack Dempsey in 1918,” he said, “is one that I have treasured down through the years.”

At the conclusion of the Thursday session there was bedlam in the stands. The crowd was yelling madly for “more, more,” tossing straw hats in the air, and cheering for a full ten minutes. Greb probably made a beeline for Mildred at ringside. Dempsey was sucking wind. A reporter saw him and thought it strange that it should take him so long to recover. He remarked that the champion’s conditioning was not what it should be.

But it wasn’t that. Dempsey knew what it was.

Greb was in Milwaukee later that September, his spirit as ardent as ever. “I know he cannot put over his famous rights on me,” he said. “I would wear him down.”

“I ask no favours,” he went on. “I can make more money in my own class. I merely want to satisfy myself.” Mason was bursting with confidence: “We have signed to meet Dempsey, $17,500 our end and if the champion wants any part of our game he can have it any old time.”

Dempsey was silent. So Greb tried forcing it again. In June 1921, he went to Atlantic City and took a jitney from Pacific Avenue to Dempsey’s training camp with an offer to box, ostensibly to help him prepare for Georges Carpentier. Kearns nixed it. He knew his true intention, which was, said Westbrook Pegler, “to make a fight of it and a spectacle of Dempsey and thus promote himself into the next fight for the championship.”

Foiled again, Greb resumed his scorched earth campaign. He went after Kid Norfolk, who was also calling out Dempsey, and Tommy Gibbons, who was deep in negotiations for a shot at the biggest crown in sports. Gibbons simply had to beat “a good man” to clinch the deal. He was foolish enough to sign for Greb.

Thirteen thousand crammed Madison Square Garden, Dempsey and Gene Tunney among them, to watch Gibbons try to win the most important fight of his life with his head stuck in a hornets’ nest. Mildred was cheering as Greb landed six and seven punches before pulling away without a return. Jim Jab, who bet on Gibbons, sat awestruck as Greb won twelve of fifteen rounds. Someone yelled, “One more setup for Dempsey is hobbled!” and when the decision was announced, Greb received perhaps the greatest ovation of his life.

Snippets overheard at the exits saluted the victor, though the very fans who gave him no chance against Gibbons now gave him no chance against Dempsey. He’s too undersized they said again. He can’t punch hard enough. They’re still saying it. Greb heard it then and if he’s listening from wherever he is, he hears it today. He sat in the dressing room with reporters. “I know it is going to make some people laugh but I am positive I can defeat Dempsey in a 12 or 15-round decision bout.” The reporters stopped scribbling and looked up. A few chewed their pencils. “I haven’t the slightest fear of Dempsey.”

Giant Jess Willard saw and believed. Greb, he said, “is the only boxer who has a good chance to win a decision over Jack Dempsey.”

Greb haunted the heavyweight champion like a ghost with soot on his suit. He was in every jitney that pulled into every camp, his voice called him out on sports pages in the name of Bob Fitzsimmons and Joe Walcott, his bland visage was in the bland tea Dempsey sipped with Hollywood fops. Greb was coming at him from every direction, eliminating contenders and targeting sparring partners—men he knew would report back to him. He even shared the name of another Dempsey haunt, but scars on four of the six men Dempsey defended his crown against said Greb, not Wills.

In April 1922, the New York Daily News took Dempsey at his word and invited the fans to decide his next opponent. Harry Wills began and ended the poll with the most votes. Greb spent most of it at third and finished fifth. Al Roberts was third, though Greb knocked him out a week before the poll ended. Kearns and Dempsey whistled right past it; the next opponent was Tommy Gibbons, who placed fourteenth in the poll.

In June 1922, Greb’s obsession with Dempsey saw him turn down three offers to fight Johnny Wilson, the middleweight champion. In November he confronted the New York press and rattled off what was becoming, with wins over Gibbons, Tunney, and Tommy Loughran inside of four months, the most remarkable record in boxing history. “If there is anybody else in the field that I have overlooked,” he said again, “I’d like to know about it.”

He was indeed overlooking others in the field. They’d been staring him in the face the whole time. “I was informed it would be proper for me to give $3,000 to the newspaper men of New York, the money to be used in booming a bout for me with Jack Dempsey,” he told a reporter for the Gazette Times in February 1923. “I could not see where I should give up my own money for such a project. I fought the proposition for a while, but finally gave up the money under protest.” He said too much, didn’t say it off the record, and when it triggered an investigation, his denials had zero credibility. This time Greb foiled himself—the boosts he needed stayed in the pockets with the boost money.

jack dempsey

Attempts to get Greb the shot were still going on in July 1925, when he was half blind and fighting with his head tilted to the right. Dempsey told Floyd Fitzsimmons that he would sign to meet “anyone except Wills or Tunney,” and suddenly Greb’s chances got better. Fitzsimmons said Dempsey gave his word. But Dempsey did an about-face and said he needed more time to get into condition. A few days later, he dismissed it outright, claiming that the sole match he wanted was with Harry Wills.

Dempsey never did sign to meet Greb. He never intended to.

Ed Hughes was among those who saw what Greb did to him in New York. “That bout convinced Jack that Greb would be a tough man to beat,” he said. Dempsey told Hughes plenty:

~  ~

I’d be a sucker to fight that guy. What would I get out of it? Probably he’d make me look bad for a few rounds. He’s a crazy fighter. It would probably take me eight or nine rounds to catch him. And when I knocked him out what would they say? Why simply that I beat a little fellow, and that he made me look bad until I happened to get to him. There’s nothing in it for me meeting that guy.

~  ~

Instead, he defended his crown against Greb casualties and hype jobs like George Carpentier and Luis Firpo. Doc Kearns was no dummy. He saw Dempsey-Greb as a scaled-down version of Willard-Dempsey. When “who’s next?” came up as it always did, he ignored the crazy fighter. When cornered, Kearns was shrewd enough to be dismissive. “I don’t think Greb would have any chance with Jack,” he told Frank G. Menke in 1919.

“Harry Greb could have licked Dempsey,” he told Damon Runyon in 1931.

By then, it should be noted, Kearns and Dempsey had parted ways with belligerence on both sides. Even so, Runyon saw a rare moment of candor and zeroed in.

“Oh, you admit then that Greb could have licked Dempsey?”

“Why not admit it now?” Kearns said. “It doesn’t make any difference at this late day.”

In 1933, the Eighteenth Amendment was finally repealed and Americans, including a few reformed prohibitionists, clinked a glass to ardent spirits. But the damage was done.

Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 is an eBook available now at Amazon UK (£6.34) and Amazon ($7.99).