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Georges Carpentier: The Fighting Frenchman

The Orchid Man
Publish Date: 12/05/2018
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

“Carpentier was fast. He could punch with both hands, and was a KO puncher…he had terrific footwork…when we fought he was over the hill, but he was still a dangerous puncher…I think he was one of the greatest of all.”– Boxing Hall of Famer Tommy Loughran on Georges Carpentier

Most people remember the great French multi-division champion Georges Carpentier for the beating he suffered at the hands of the immortal Jack Dempsey in boxing’s first Million Dollar Gate back in 1921. This is in fact quite unfair, as the “Orchid Man” was actually one of the greatest fighters in the history of boxing, pound for pound. He is regarded by many as the greatest European boxer ever. Carpentier was a quintessential “boxer-puncher”, meaning he had the refined skills and technique of a master boxer, but could back it up with a tremendous wallop, especially in his right hand. Georges fought many of the best fighters of his era, all in multiple weight divisions. Some of the men he fought were fellow Hall of Famers Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Tommy Loughran, Tommy Gibbons, Ted “Kid” Lewis, and Billy Papke. Stiff competition to say the least.

Stylistically, Carpentier was a hard nut to crack, as his attacks were often unpredictable and he was noted for being very creative in the ring. He was also quite responsible defensively, and was rarely defeated via knockout. While the majority of his notoriety as a puncher was due to his right hand, he had a tremendous left hook and he was a master at finding unique ways to land power punches from every conceivable angle. Carpentier was quite adept at utilizing momentum to chain his punches to generate huge power. Incredibly, Georges kept his power in every weight class he competed in. This is a testament to the ongoing refinement of his skills that coincided with him growing into a full Light Heavyweight fighter. Carpentier even rung the great Dempsey’s bell with a right hand in their historic 1921 fight. Before the 5’11 Frenchman developed into a top of the food chain Light Heavyweight, he started his career at the tender age of fourteen as a bantamweight.

Born in France in 1894, Carpentier was the son of a coal miner, and like many other young men with humble beginnings, turned to the manly art of fisticuffs to further himself. Almost immediately, young Georges proved a natural, winning the French Welterweight title at the age of 17, and later winning the European title in that division later in 1911. Just a few months later, he moved up to 160lbs and captured the European Middleweight belt. This set the stage for his first high-profile fight against World Middleweight Champion Billy Papke. The eighteen-year-old Carpentier gave the veteran Papke a solid fight through 15 plus-rounds, but by the 17th (out of 20 scheduled rounds), young Georges was being beaten and was cut badly. The fight was stopped in the 18th.

Following his match with Papke, Carpentier was earning enough money that he could slow down his fight schedule a little as he had been competing at an average of nineteen times per year during his first four years as a professional. At this point, Carpentier began fighting at around 170-175lbs, and started testing himself in the Heavyweight division. After capturing the European Light Heavyweight title against Dick Rice in 1913, Georges closed the year out by defeating Bombardier Billy Wells of England on two occasions for the European Heavyweight title. He beat the bigger man both times by vicious knockout, showcasing that the Frenchman carried his power all the way up to Heavyweight. By the age of nineteen, Carpentier had captured European titles in a staggering four separate weight divisions. You might think this is fairly commonplace, as most of the top fighters in recent years have belts in multiple divisions. Here’s the rub: in 1914, there were only eight divisions. Even though Carpentier’s titles were European and not world titles, he was still not even twenty years old.

Carpentier continued his dominance throughout 1914, defeating nearly all comers in the Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight divisions. The lone defeat during this stretch was a disputed decision to the great Joe Jeannette. Also in 1914, the twenty-year old Carpentier added the “White” Heavyweight championship by defeating Gunboat Smith. Carpentier made a tremendous amount of money for this fight by taking in 9,000 pounds Sterling (equivalent to nearly one million dollars today). However, just as the Frenchman’s career was about to hit the stratosphere, World War One broke out and he joined the French Air Force. Georges Carpentier did not fight professionally for nearly five years, missing what would have been the peak of his career. Highly decorated during the war for valor, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Upon his return in 1919, The Orchid Man won the World Light Heavyweight title, defeating Battling Levinsky by knockout. Over the next year, he proceeded to defend his belt on five occasions, winning all by stoppage. For good measure, Georges recaptured the European Heavyweight title by trouncing British champion Joe Beckett, knocking him out in one round. All this success combined with his status as a war hero contributed to Carpentier’s great popularity, and despite his five-year layoff, he was in top form. This led to the demand for a fight against the feared, but (then) unpopular Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey.

Unlike the commonly accepted views that fighters were all brutish ruffians, the handsome Carpentier (along with Gene Tunney later on) brought an air of refinement and gentlemanly behavior to the sport, giving it a credibility with the masses it lacked beforehand. This, in combination with his status as a war hero, helped make him enormously popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Carpentier’s persona clashed with the public perception of Dempsey’s reputation as a “slacker” and an uncouth beast who massacred his opponents rather than outbox them. In reality, the two men had a lot in common. They each had incredibly humble beginnings and were both rough characters in the ring. This set the tone for boxing’s first Million Dollar Gate, held in New Jersey on July 2, 1921. Despite the massive hype by promoter extraordinaire Tex Rickard, and the Orchid Man’s bravery and skill, Carpentier was mauled by Dempsey and knocked out cold in the 4th round. He stunned Dempsey at one point with a hard right but could not finish the job. Dempsey was fully in his prime and in reality, as great as he was, Carpentier could at best hope for a brave showing before he got laid out. Carpentier had other high-profile fights after, but was not the same fighter, despite being only 27 years old. By 1926, he was retired, having lost three bouts to Gibbons, Tunney, and Loughran, men who he might have beaten had he been at his best. All three men said even in his faded twilight, Carpentier was among the greatest fighters they had ever faced.

After retiring, Carpentier parlayed his dynamic personality and reputation into many successful endeavors. He wrote, performed as a song and dance man in Vaudeville, acted in movies, and owned a successful restaurant in Paris called “Chez Georges Carpentier”. Throughout his long life, Carpentier remained good friends with Jack Dempsey, and they met to commemorate the anniversary of their 1921 fight. In regard to his legacy, he should be remembered along with other all-time great pound-for-pound fighters like Mickey Walker, Henry Armstrong, and Roberto Duran. Carpentier was that good, and he is due the respect now that he had when he was alive. The Orchid Man was World Light Heavyweight Champion and also European Champion at 147lbs, 160lbs, 175lbs, and at Heavyweight, despite never weighing above 175lbs for a fight. He finished his career with an impressive 92-14 record, with 60 by way of knockout. Most of his losses came at the very beginning of his career, when he was practically a child, and at the end, when he was past his best. While in his prime, very few Middleweights and Light-Heavies could match him. Georges Carpentier passed away at age 81 in 1975.

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