Firpo v. Dempsey: the fight that made September 14 Boxer’s Day

When fans mistakenly celebrated the defeat of Luis Ángel Firpo, a legend of Argentine boxing was born

After Argentina won the 2022 FIFA World Cup, videos of fans’ roar at the final whistle went around the world on social media. In 1923, the internet didn’t exist, but when the Palacio Barolo lighthouse lit up to show Luis Ángel Firpo had beaten boxing heavyweight world champion Jack Dempsey, the streets of Buenos Aires filled with roars and celebrations too. Unfortunately, fans had been misled.

In Argentina, boxing was first practiced as a sport in the late 19th century. But the explosion in popularity would only come in the 1920s, with Firpo’s fight against Dempsey at the New York Polo Grounds on September 14, 1923. Considered one of the most dramatic fights of the 20th century by American sports magazine Sports Illustrated, it’s the reason Argentina celebrates Boxer’s Day on this date.

Firpo was born on October 1, 1894, in Junín, Buenos Aires Province. He suffered hearing loss in his childhood, prompting his parents to move to the capital to receive better medical treatment. They settled there permanently in 1906.

Exempted from military service because of his hearing problems, he started working in a brick factory. After he single-handedly fought off three men who tried to rob the place, factory owner Félix Bunge suggested he try his luck at boxing. Aged 26, Firpo participated in some clandestine fights, as boxing had been outlawed in Buenos Aires in 1892. He had his first official fight on January 12, 1918, at the Teatro Casino in Montevideo. There, he lost by knockout in the first round to the Uruguayan Angel Rodríguez, but went on to tour Uruguay and Chile.

However, Firpo made it big on two tours of the United States in 1922 and 1923, with boxing promoter Tex Rickard arranging big fights for him. After he beat Jack McAuliffe by knockout in front of an 80,000 crowd in New York, a clash with former world champion Jess Willard was announced.

Luis Ángel Firpo
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Willard, by then aged 42, was far from his prime. But the fight was advertised as the decider for a spot to challenge defending champion Dempsey. Firpo won by a knockout in the eighth round, and sports reporter Damon Runyon was so impressed he dubbed him the “wild bull of the Pampas.”

After a promotional tour of the US, Firpo finally arrived at the New York Polo Grounds on September 14, 1923, where 82,000 fans were waiting.

In Buenos Aires, over 2,500 people paid 50 cents to hear the radio broadcast at Luna Park stadium, Buenos Aires’ now-legendary boxing venue. Those who couldn’t afford it waited outside Palacio Barolo, the tallest building in Buenos Aires at the time. Influential journalist and businessman Natalio Botana installed two lights at the top. If Firpo won, a green light would fire up. If Dempsey did, it would be red.

Firpo had hurt his left shoulder in the promotional tour, so he came out swinging, knowing he didn’t stand much chance if he let Dempsey drag the fight out. Still, his U.S. opponent sent him to the floor seven times in the first round — under current rules, a boxer can’t go down more than twice in the same round.

The Argentine recovered, however, and in the middle of the first round landed a series of blows against Dempsey, the last of which sent him flying over the ropes onto the journalists’ desk. 

That was where the legend of Argentine boxing was born. Visibly confused, Dempsey was helped back into the ring by members of the crowd. Exactly how long the defending champion took to return has never been determined, although most sources agree on 17 seconds. This is plenty more than the 10 seconds required for a knockout win, but referee Jack Gallagher decided the fall was invalid and never started the count.

When the second round started, Dempsey took just 57 seconds to land the blow that sent Firpo down for a ninth and final time.

Still, there was room for some (misguided) celebration in Buenos Aires. A mistake in the Palacio Barolo lighting meant the green light was turned on, delighting the crowd, before it was quickly fixed.

The “wild bull of the Pampas” was received in Argentina as a national hero, and such was his popularity that the ban on boxing was lifted in February 1925, with the pugilist from Junín receiving license number one. He would continue fighting until 1936, when he retired with a record of 33 wins, six defeats, and 28 knockouts. 

Firpo died on August 7, 1960, and was buried in Recoleta Cemetery, but he’s considered the father of Argentine boxing to this day.

A version of this piece by Walter Vargas was originally published on Télam. Translation by Fernando Romero Núñez.


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