Stephen F. Austin State University

Dempsey was a big hit with 1934 Longview crowd (July 2014)

Dempsey was a big hit with 1934 Longview crowd
By Van Craddock

Quick, name the greatest heavyweight champion in boxing history.

A lot of folks wound say Muhammad Ali, who truly could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. But many (ahem!) older fight fans would pick the Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey.

Dempsey, who retired from the ring in 1932, had been the heavyweight champ from 1919 until 1926. Even today, his 1927 "Long Count" rematch with Gene Tunney remains the most famous prizefight in boxing history.

But seven decades ago Dempsey climbed back into the ring once again, this time in East Texas.

The ex-champ was a frequent visitor to the Pineywoods. In fact, Dempsey was supposed to move to Tyler to serve as manager of a proposed 20,000-seat arena that a friend, East Texas oilman Bobby Manziel Sr., wanted to build. More on that in a minute.

Yes, Dempsey got back into the ring on March 28, 1934, but he wasn't putting on any gloves. Rather, he was in Longview to referee a couple of professional wrestling matches. Despite his retirement two years earlier, he remained America's most popular sports figure. A standing-room-only crowd turned out, cheering him and calling for a speech.

As usual, the ex-champ didn't disappoint.

"I can't dance and I can't sing," Dempsey told the crowd. "But like the Irishman, to be a good fellow, I will fight anybody in the house." Nobody took up the invitation.

At least not until the main event when referee Dempsey disqualified wrestler Smithy Smith. An "irate" Smith then went after Dempsey, who promptly knocked Smith out cold. Of course, it was all an act, but the crowd didn't care. For years, Longview residents recalled the time in 1934 when they saw Jack Dempsey clobber a guy with one punch.

After his retirement, Dempsey got into the restaurant business in New York City. He spent most of his time in the Big Apple, although he did travel to East Texas from time to time to check on his oil dealings.

"You know, I had rather be in East Texas than New York," the ex-champ told a newspaper reporter during his 1934 appearance in Longview. "That sounds funny, I know, but it's true. Here I can go and come unmolested and nobody bothers me, but in New York there is some club or special benefit every night. It eventually wears a fellow down."

Oh yes, the Tyler arena. Back in 1955 Bobby Manziel Sr. started building a large coliseum just east of Tyler on U.S. 64. What Manziel envisioned was a covered complex that could host sporting events, livestock expositions, music concerts and, of course, boxing matches.

Manziel asked long-time friend Dempsey if he'd relocate to Tyler to manage the facility. Dempsey said yes.

But only a year later Manziel died and construction stalled on the coliseum. It appeared Manziel's plans for a magnificent East Texas sports complex would remain only a dream.

However, Manziel's son, Bobby Jr., made the decision to finish the project, which for years had sat as an empty shell. The 60,000-square-foot facility, now called the Oil Palace, finally opened in October 1983. Since that time it's hosted everything from revivals to concerts to arena football.

Sadly, Jack Dempsey never got to see the finished product of the facility he once hoped to manage. The Manassa Mauler was 87 years old when he died in May 1983, just a few months before the Oil Palace opened its doors.