The Dempsey Roll Explained

This is the Dempsey Roll. It was used to topple a giant. The man who created it was Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler.

The man being toppled is Jesse Willard, heavy weight champion of the world. Willard was a head taller and 60 pounds heavier than Dempsey, but he would endure what would come to be known as the most brutal beat down in boxing history.

Dempsey was known for his extreme aggression, and his punches matched his personality. But at the same time, Dempsey put of lot of thought and subtlety into the mechanics of his boxing. In any given match, his opponent could go down from a wild swing, or a tight, well-structured punch.

The Dempsey Roll was not one move, but a combination of punches built of Dempsey’s unorthodox techniques, that happened to result in one of the most beautiful knockdowns ever recorded on film.

And the first pieces of it are what Dempsey names in his book as the drop step and trigger step. The drop step is how Dempsey began each punch to build momentum. He would lean all his weight onto his front leg, and then quickly lift it up. This “triggered” his back leg to save him from falling, quickly pushing him forward. This technique allowed Dempsey to put all of his weight into each punch, as he was essentially falling forward into his opponent and catching himself…with his fist…on their face. Dempsey spent pages in his book explaining how stepping into his punches massively increased his power, regardless of how close, or how far away he was. For him, balance not something to be maintained, but a tool to be manipulated for more force.

As well as using drop steps, Dempsey also liked to shift into his punches. This brings us to the next part of the Dempsey Roll, Dempsey’s shifting bobs and weaves.

Dempsey would switch into southpaw and back to chase after his opponents, bobbing and weaving to get close enough to throw a power blow, often making a figure 8 motion with his head as he did so. He would angle his steps both to cut off the ring and take him off line. His weaving motion blended seamlessly into his punch, and helped load it up with even more momentum. He used this same figure 8 motion to put his head off line and load up each punch on his Dempsey Roll.

This brings us to the last technique from Dempsey’s book, the “Shoulder Whirl”. The shoulder whirl was Dempsey’s way of explaining what is now commonly called The Elastic Band Principle. It’s involves stretching your muscles as far as they can go until they whip back, like pulling on and then releasing a rubber band.

Pg 68 of Championship Fighting Be sure that your shoulders are driving the punches, that your punches are not pulling the shoulders.

Now, lets look at how each piece fit into the Dempsey Roll.

First, Dempsey gets off angle, and then shifts his weight forward with his drop step, quickly gaining distance. He ducks under Willard’s jab with his bob and weave motion, putting his head off line and transferring his weight. From here, it’s the bob and weave shifting, combined with the shoulder whirl.

The first three punches knock Willard’s guard from side to side, and the fourth one connects with full force. Dempsey put tremendous power into his punches, and Willard would spend the next several minutes of his life taking the worst punishment ever seen in the ring.

Dempsey was the rarest of fighters; a dangerous combination of unrelenting aggression and sophisticated ring-craft. We’ll end the breakdown with this interesting fact. At the age of 80, two young men tried to rob Jack Dempsey. After the dust had settled, he decided to let them leave, saying in his biography, “In a way I felt sorry for them, these are the kids that boxing could have helped”.

From the Modern Martial Artist, this has been David Christian, wishing you, happy training.

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