On June 24, boxing fans around the world will commemorate the 118th anniversary of William “Jack” Dempsey’s birth.
This evening – May 2 – Sacramento’s Geery Theatre gets the party started for the well-liked heavyweight champ with its world premiere of Dan Fagan’s “A Tiger Without Mercy.” The one-man show, starring Fagan as Dempsey (as well as some 30 real-life figures in the prizefighter’s life), and directed by Anthony D’Juan, continues through May 10.
As the first-time playwright (and up-and-coming actor) details, this “Tiger” is no blindly “Raging Bull,” but neither is he a pussycat. Dubbed “the Manassa Mauler” by writer (and boxing aficionado) Damon Runyon, whose Broadway-based stories inspired such works as “Guys and Dolls” and “The Lemon Drop Kid,” Dempsey was a gritty, small-town Colorado boy who would develop world-class tactical skills to complement his God-given boxing talents.
Writer Joyce Carol Oates calls his style “fast, direct and merciless.” Journalist Mike Casey, calls Dempsey the greatest of all time.
“Jack, the ninth of 11 children of an impoverished family of Mormon itinerant workers in Colorado, welded brilliant technique and strategy with a stupendous punch like no other boxer,” writes Casey in one of the many pieces on the coal miner-turned-heavyweight champ Fagan would study during the seven months he spent researching and writing “A Tiger Without Mercy.”
“His punches came packed with the full power of his entire shoulder span," continues Casey. "He was a nightmare of an opponent. He hated sharing the ring with anybody else. He appeared to be a fist fighter from another planet. It was no coincidence that they called him ‘the man killer.’"
“The chilling term of ‘man killer’ wasn’t casually lumped on Jack Dempsey in the throwaway manner that nicknames are handed out today. It was thoroughly earned in the toughest schools the fight game has ever seen. It was earned thrillingly, violently and sometimes shockingly by a unique force of nature.”
“He was a great personality to write about,” said Fagan of Dempsey, who elicited his fair share of roars during the Roaring ‘20s. “He was someone who started with nothing, but who achieved a lot. As an actor and a writer, I’m drawn to characters who are complex and interesting – Dempsey fit the bill.”
Fagan, who, as a very young boxer-to-be, spent three successful years in the ring making his father proud and his mother nervous, brings more of himself to his script (and to his performance as Dempsey) than a shared appreciation of the manly art.
Born and brought up in a cozy, cloistered community (Cody, Wyo.) whose population has yet to hit exceed four digits, Fagan was drawn to televised bouts, and then to the local boxing gym.
“I fell in love with it,” said Fagan, 27, who went on to become a two-time state boxing champion. “It was a very demanding sport, and forced me to be committed and dedicated.”
But when city-funded support was cut, Fagan looked for other outlets for his energy. He found some satisfaction in playing a variety of team sports, but nothing was quite the same as lacing up the gloves and going mano-a-mano.
“I grew up in the country outside of town – swimming in the canal, climbing mountains and hay bales, and riding horses,” he said. “We didn’t have cable, we had five TV channels. It wasn’t a typical childhood, but it was a memorable one.”
But Fagan was eager to escape the confines of village life, and pursued a variety of odd jobs that he looked to take him to more romantic locales than the interior of a coal mine. His wanderlust would eventually land him in Buenos Aires, where he bartended until his visa expired.
“I always had a desire to go out and see other places – much like Jack Dempsey,” said Fagan. “I had a fascination with South America. To me, Buenos Aires was mysterious place, deserving of the nickname ‘the Paris of South America.’ I made a snap decision to go there and live for a while.
“It was a wonderful three months.”
But as they say, all good things must come to an end.
“I was 22, and I asked myself, ‘Now what are you going to do?’”
The answer turned out to be head back to Sacramento where he had family living in nearby Elk Grove.
While taking classes at Cosumnes River College, he met drama instructor and River Stage founder Frank Condon who invited him to participate in the 2010 premiere of his “True Life Stories” project about the personal and professional challenges facing six student actors. (Think “A Chorus Line” without the dance belts and Danskins.)
Since then, Fagan completed a successful acting internship at the B Street Theatre, nailing a number of roles along the way, including parts in the company’s productions of “Carapace,” “In Absentia,” and “We Declare.” Additional Sacramento-area credits include “Strangers on a Train” (Actor’s Theatre of Sacramento), and “My Fellow Creatures” and “Liar” (EMH Productions).
Looking back on his short-lived career as a pre-teen boxer, Fagan said the program’s closure was the best thing that could have happened to him.
“After I stopped boxing, I made this huge discovery in theater,” said Fagan. “It changed the course of my life, and it was all for the best.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The world premiere of "A Tiger Without Mercy"
WHEN: 8 p.m. May 2, 3, 6, 9, 10
WHERE: The Geery Theatre, 2130 L St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHO: Written and performed by Dan Fagan; directed by Anthony D’Juan
TICKETS: Call (307) 250-1891