Only the most die hard American sports fan is likely to recognize the name Luis Angel Firpo. In Argentina he is a national icon thanks, in part, to one big fight and one amazing painting.
In 1923 Jack Dempsey was the biggest name in sports. The heavyweight champion of the world took a backseat to no one, not even the great Babe Ruth.
In 1923, Luis Firpo, nicknamed “the wild bull of the Pampas,” was a handsome, strapping, 6′ 2″ heavyweight contender who had made a name for himself by beating, among others, former champ Jess Willard. On September 24, 1923, Dempsey and Firpo met before 80,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York. The fight was over inside of two rounds, but what a brawl it was.
Within a few seconds of the first round Firpo knocked Dempsey down with a hay maker, but Dempsey bounced back to knock the Argentine down an unbelievable seven times. (No three knockdown rule and no neutral corners in those days.) Firpo somehow survived the onslaught and kept on punching. Just before the end of the first round he hit the champion so hard that Dempsey fell through the ropes and out of the ring. Dempsey landed on the press table.
That moment – Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring – is captured in George Bellow’s famous painting.
Amazingly, somehow Big Jack pulled himself back into the ring and the round ended. The slugfest continued in the second round with Dempsey finally knocking Firpo out to retain the championship. Firpo pocketed more than $150,000 for the fight, a lot of money in 1923. He went on to fight a while longer, but used his smart business sense to parley his boxing skill into a fortune. Luis Firpo died in 1960, but is well remembered in Argentina where statues have been erected in his memory.
The Bellow’s painting hasn’t hurt either man’s reputation either. Firpo is the only man to ever knock Dempsey out of a boxing ring. Dempsey was tough enough to take it and still prevail. The picture has been reproduced a million times. If I ever own a place where you can get a beer and shot I know what would hang behind the bar.
There you have the Argentine roots of the one of the greatest boxing matches of all time and the origin of a painting the Smithsonian ranks as an American masterpiece.