Jack Dempsey Sparring with Big Bill Tate, June 1919
From Dempsey-Willard Fight Pictures
16mm Film Transfer
I saw this short film of Jack Dempsey sparring with fellow contender Big Bill Tate when it was posted on Youtube several years ago. I’d never seen it before. The quality was poor from multiple VHS copies, so I began a search for the source footage. I discovered that the clip was actually part of the official Dempsey-Willard Fight Pictures, which not only included the Dempsey-Willard fight, but prefight footage of both Dempsey and Willard in training. I recently acquired a short 16mm documentary on Jack Dempsey. As I was scanning the footage to video, I discovered it included the same sparring session footage, and in excellent quality.
It’s less than two minutes long, but what a story it tells. This is among the earliest surviving footage of Dempsey in action, and among the best single film of him in training. Though Dempsey is 6’1” at 190 pounds, he looks like a middleweight compared to the 6”6” Tate, who was also a ranking contender. Even after I adjusted the film speed to real time, Dempsey appears amazingly fast. The boxers are clearly not going full out, but it’s a genuine workout, and not staged playing for the cameras. Dempsey’s bob and weave style is on full display, as well as his brilliant footwork propelling him under and inside Tate’s persistent jab. This is the first glimpse of modern boxing.
Tate was very agile for a boxer his size, though not particularly fast. You can see the Jack Johnson-era influence in Tate’s style, and yet how effective Dempsey is in overwhelming him. Tate and Dempsey were good friends and Bill was employed in the Dempsey’s camp through the championship years. Tate retired along with Dempsey in 1927.
Tate was not only a crucial sparing partner in helping Jack to fight bigger men like Willard and Firpo, but he was also important in comparing Dempsey to Harry Wills, who was unjustly denied a title fight by promoters. Wills and Tate fought six times between 1916 and 1922. They were the same age, but Wills had more experience and won the early fights, two by KO and two by decision. But as time went on Tate either improved or Wills declined. For in their final contest in 1922, Big Bill, the man we know as Dempsey’s sparring partner, fought Wills to a 10 round draw.