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Training Tips from Jack Dempsey - Pound for Pound Strength

The Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey

Jack Dempsey is a timeless model for the ferocity, the dedication, and the scientific nature with which we should approach our training. He taught the true meaning of pound for pound strength, taking down fighters with upwards of 20 lbs to his weight. He had a deceptive strength that conquered giants of the boxing world.

One of the most marked things about his strength is that he didn't have the ripped, lean muscular of many fighters today, nor did he have the bulky, bulging type of muscle that many heavyweight fighters have. He looked remarkably mediocre, having perhaps a bit more muscle than the average man. But he controlled that muscle, controlled his strength, developed his power from the inside out, and got into his rings with no reservations. We can employ an aspect of all of this to take our workouts and training to the next level, pound for pound.

A Brief History

Jack Dempsey, The Manassa Mauler, was undoubtedly one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all-time. Out of roughly 80 total fights (he sometimes boxed under a pseudonym so there might've been more), 51 were knockouts, and many were against larger opponents.

His fight against Jess Willard was iconic for the entire sport of boxing, and for the importance of the idea that “size does not equal strength”. Jess Willard, at 6' 6 ½”, towered over the 6' 1” Dempsey, and outweighed him by about 50 lbs.

Being heavyweight champion for four years, all bets were on Willard mopping the ring with Dempsey, but Dempsey's ferocious power floored Willard seven times, and his own bob and weave technique left him with little damage. Nevertheless, Dempsey was the kind of man who would continue a fight even with damage, having immense mental toughness to go with his strength.

Boxing was his work, and he never played around with it. He trained and fought like he was hungry for his victories, like he was gearing for war. And in a general sense, he was.

Dempsey himself said, “I was hungry. I had to fight my way along. Freights and the like, fight, fight all the time. The life was tough, but it hardened you.”

He was a man who brought his toughness and ferocity to the ring with a vengeance, but he didn't fight in a sloppy rage. Quite the opposite, Jack Dempsey had phenomenal footwork and head movement to bait his opponents, along with a quick step in and powerful hooks that he put his full body into.

Build On the Basics

What can we learn from the way Dempsey trained and battled? For one, he had incredible intensity mixed with a scientific and efficient style. When you train, you can't simply throw weights around as though that were a real means of strength progress.

Be dedicated with your training. If you're training with a weight vest, don't practice with the weighted vest until it's a little easy, then move on to a heavier weight. Your tendons and ligaments won't get the same benefit. It'd be like trying to do a maltese because you progressed quickly on your pec flys. What you should do instead is train with the weight vest until it's use becomes almost negligible, until you are strong enough with the vest that you almost forget that it's on.

The weight vest is only an analogy; the point is that when you develop your basic skills as well as you can, you get much better at using your whole body for those skills. Wasted movements disappear, and all that's left is your polished, sculpted power that you put full force into your training. Always look to “train until you can't get it wrong”, and once that's been achieved, try moving to a new skill if you see fit.

This is also important because you'll develop dedicated strength as well as patience. You may see your own strength improvements, and quickly rush to move through heavier weights in hopes to see more of those great improvements. That's a way to get injured really quickly if you don't pace yourself. As climbers often say, “Trust the equipment.” You'll sometimes have to just trust that the way you train will improve your strength overall, even if you don't understand exactly how it'll develop your ligaments or tendons. You can continue to train in that manner until you're truly ready to move on.

Train Like You're Hungry

You are in the gym, or wherever you train, and you prepare to do a workout. What's on your mind when you workout? Are you thinking about the kids, Lady Gaga's hit new single, or anything unrelated to your workout? If so, stop and focus. This isn't a game, and it's not to be played with. If you want strength, weight loss, speed, or whatever you're in the gym for, you've gotta be hungry for it.

As an American, I live in a consumer society where physical wants aren't nearly as difficult to come by as they were for my predecessors. Hungry for my generation is more figurative than literal. But when you are hungry, your main thoughts revolve around food, and almost every action you take goes toward getting you something to eat.

Take that mindset into your workout. Act like, for the hour or so you train, there is nothing in the world you could want more than to be stronger. There isn't a single thing that could satisfy you more than burning a few more pounds of fat off. Putting more power into your tackles is a life or death matter.

When you approach it like it's that serious, you end up with some serious results. You might have a goal and end up completely demolishing that goal with the progress you make from really training like you're hungry.

Put Your Body Into It!

Dempsey didn't have the physique of Adonis or Hercules, but he had the power to back up every word he spoke. His chest and arms weren't phenomenal compared to what a lot of boxers train for nowadays, but he had a very powerful back. His back was trained well by doing lots of hard, heavy bag training as well as farm work.

His hooks and short-range punches capitalized on this powerful back strength, and allowed him to put tremendous power into his punches, to the point that some people tried to say that he stuffed his gloves for the Jess Willard fight (he, in fact, did not). He knew that he couldn't just account for the weight difference by trying to out-bulk his challengers, so he perfected his ability to put the full force of his body into his strikes, at up close and personal distances.

He may also have learned to contract his muscles at the right moments through muscle control training. Dempsey was a friend of Otto Arco, a man known as the “Magician of Muscle” who was well versed in muscle control (they're pictured together above). I think it's safe to assume that Dempsey applied some of Arco's muscle training into his own training, and reaped tremendous benefits.

Be Mentally Powerful

Whatever your goals, face them with the mental fortitude to get as close as you can, even if you don't reach them. Gene Tunney faced Jack Dempsey twice, and won on both occasions, but noted how Jack Dempsey's mental strength and his aggressiveness in the ring made the matches that much harder, even though Dempsey was past his prime in those matches. Jack Dempsey was a hard man to knock down, but he was never the type to stay on the ground if he was. Tunney said that "Jack could recover faster than any man I ever fought. He was dangerous with a five-second interval." 

When trying to reach a goal, to overcome a challenge, you have to have the strength to carry you over, but you also have to have the mental strength and endurance to get back up if your goal has nearly knocked you out. It won't be easy, and getting knocked down never really is.

For Dempsey, even when he got back up to fight, he lost his fight with Tunney. But he fought. And he never stopped putting in everything he had. And that's what made him one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time; that's what can make YOU the best that you could ever be. Train well, train ferociously (as Matti Marzel would say), and don't give up.

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