Beneath an intentionally nondescript headstone in Mt Calvary Cemetery on West Burnside rests Portland’s greatest boxer: “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey.
Dempsey was born John Edward Kelly in Ireland and moved to the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn at a young age. Like many immigrants of the day, the destitute Dempsey soon dropped out of school, plying a trade before picking up wrestling, and, ultimately, boxing.
In 1885, he arrived in Portland to fight a burly, volunteer firefighter named Dave Campbell. Because boxing was widely condemned, local bouts took place in the shadows. The October 17, 1885, Oregon Sentinel alerted readers that the upcoming Dempsey-Campbell bout would take place “within 100 miles of Portland.”
In the middle of the night on November 2, a bevy of steamships took fans via the Columbia River, eventually arriving at the farm of one J. Specht in what was still the Washington Territory. The two pugilists fought in a meadow after a hard rain. Footing proved to be perilous, as someone forgot to bring sawdust to scatter on the ground.
Dempsey nonetheless landed a ferocious shot in the third round, knocking his opponent out cold. A month later, Dempsey won a second bout in Portland, then returned to the fight mecca of New York—but not before falling for a local, Maggie Brady, whose upstanding family did not look kindly upon boxers.
Dempsey garnered national renown, retiring with a 50–3 record. After having reigned for years as undefeated champ, his “Nonpareil” nickname a nod to his rep for being “without equal,” the great Dempsey returned to his wife’s hometown, suffering from tuberculosis. He died at age 32. There was a campaign to erect a monument in Dempsey’s honor, but the Brady family preferred a meager gravestone that betrays nothing of his profession.
Of course, the name will always be famous, but that’s largely because another boxer—an eventual heavyweight champion with the same last name—so admired the earlier Dempsey that he, too, fought under the name Jack.
That Jack Dempsey came to be known as “The Manassa Mauler.” He was born in 1895, the same year his boxing idol died in a stately house, owned by the Brady family, at 389 Grand Ave. in the fight town of Portland.