“I have $100,000 and a farm in Kansas … I have $100,000 and a farm in Kansas …”
These are the words that big Jess Willard repeated over and over again following his 4th of July 1919 defeat to Jack Dempsey. Through blood-soaked tears they were mumbled metronomically as he sat slumped on his stool at the end of the 3rd round. Amidst broken ribs and a shattered jaw the vocalisation of anything must have come wrought with only further unstinting pain.
His head puffy and badly beaten, observers could be forgiven for thinking that Dempsey had attacked him with an iron bar, and not just merely his fists. They say that the “Manassa Mauler” broke the giant’s jaw with his very first strike. A David and Goliath battle where the assumedly outgunned outsider did more than just fell the giant, but instead stomped all over his face and body whilst taking a machinegun to his pride.
At the end of it, the seemingly physically superior Willard, who was a solid pre-fight favourite, was left with nothing. No championship belt, no pugilistic future, and his annihilation by the smaller man ensuring zero honour in defeat. All that was left was his $100,000 purse and his Kansas farm. Through the delirium and Toledo summer heat it is little wonder that Willard focused on the only good things that his muddled mind could recall. That his championship purse is worth around $1.5 million in today’s value, is not insubstantial.
The preceding 12 minutes form part of misty-eyed boxing folklore. A tale so frequently told and indulged that it can be considered as part of boxing history’s kindergarten syllabus. If you don’t know it, you either haven’t been paying attention or don’t like the sport as much as you think you do.
The hulking Willard, known as the “Pottawatomie Giant” entered the ring at 6ft 6½ inches and weighing 235 pounds. Dimensions, that are fairly routine in today’s heavyweight division, but were then considered to enter the realm of a mythical giant. On the old cinefilm, as referee Ollie Pecord brings the combatants to the middle, Willard towers almost comically over the 6ft 1-inch and 187-pound Dempsey. A fighter, that if he was resurrected to the 21st century, would be little more than an underfed cruiserweight.
As the action gets underway, the contrast between Dempsey’s bobbing and weaving style and the champion’s stilted, upright approach, only further accentuate the height difference. To such an extent that one fully expects Willard to lower his fist down on to the top of the smaller man’s head and corkscrew him into the floor silent movie style.
But the opposite was manifestly true and is still visible now in the antique footage. Dempsey, 24-years-old, lean, bronzed, mean and dripping with menace–the original fighter with “bad intentions” long before the young Mike Tyson propagated the narrative and the shaved-in haircut. Not yet, Dempsey: the cultural icon and all-American hero, but still Dempsey the hobo, the Wildman, and worst of all, the cowardly draft dodger.
Willard was 13 years older, still strong but approaching middle age and muscle giving way to the first strains of podginess. Kind and sweet faced. Only his burly frame betraying any signal that his business was prizefighting. He looked like a man employed in the wrong game who should instead have been lifting hay bales on his Kansas farm.
He never wanted to be a boxer but reckoned early in life that for a boy of his enormous size and strength, but only token education, it presented him with his best chance of a living. He loathed violence and would often deliberately let his opponent land the first blow in order to self-justify his subsequent attack as reactive self-defence. Perhaps, in his own thoughts he was the fighter that never was. Certainly, he wanted only to be a cowboy, but that was made difficult due to his extreme size. He settled on being a good champion but even that hope was burnt to ashes before the Dempsey flame-thrower.
Academics often talk of stone ages and bronze ages and other epochs where one way of life or civilization, develops and replaces another. The same is true of boxing and on that July 4th afternoon modern boxing moved into its 3rd age. Dempsey’s destruction of Willard was as equally symbolic as “Gentleman” Jim Corbett’s victory over the prize-rings John L. Sullivan in the dying days of the 19th century. A triumph that established the primacy of fistic science over brawling.
When Willard stepped into that Toledo ring he did so as a continued embodiment of the boxing ethics laid down by Corbett. Perhaps, less stylish and co-ordinated but nevertheless a true advocate in standard and approach of a style that had remained largely unhindered in the intervening 27 years. Dempsey took Corbett’s science and allied it with the barroom slugger attributes of Sullivan. To top it all off, he significantly upped the tempo and moved boxing’s funeral march soundtrack into a Jazz age free-for-all. To witness Willard’s slow, ponderous, circling and fainting technique was to see a barrage balloon faced uncomprehendingly with a fighter jet.
Willard tried to keep the challenger at arm’s length by prodding out a diffident jab and fighting at range. However, about a minute into the 1st the Utah native finally caught up with him and felled him with a big left hook. This knockdown signals the beginning of the end for Willard, as the rules then did not require the aggressor to retire to a neutral corner, instead he could just stand over his opponent and hammer him insensible as he climbed to his feet. The process repeated itself six more times before the conclusion of the opening stanza.
The round ended with the giant prone on the canvass and the referee reaching a count of seven, before the timekeeper blew his whistle. The ringside bell had stubbornly refused to work in order to originally bring the fight to order, and the whistle was co-opted as a last minute solution. In all the initial hubbub the opening session commenced ten seconds late and the timekeeper neglected to take account of this and thus blew time early. A mistake that starved the challenger of a 1st round knockout victory and famously denied Jack “Doc” Kearns (Dempsey’s manager) collection on his $10,000 bet at 10 to 1 on a first round victory.
The whistle nominally saved Willard but mostly just allowed Dempsey to continue his unopposed onslaught. It took all of the giant’s courage to maintain his equilibrium throughout the next two rounds, before shattered and broken he finally surrendered on his stool before the commencement of the 4th round.
The surrounding pressmen were ludicrously harsh in their assessment of the now ex-champion’s efforts. One reporter exclaiming on the back of Willard’s retirement that “Willard must be labelled a quitter. He has disgraced the sport.” History, though has been kinder and recalls Willard’s annihilation as one of the fight games great acts of courage in a doomed cause.
Willard didn’t help himself in the days after the fight as the newspapermen sorted to establish the narrative. Reports circulated that he was severely injured and confined to hospital. However, in a final desperate act to defend his pride he rebutted them all and denied any significant injury. This, unwittingly, further fed the flame that he was a coward, when all film footage of the contest and ringside testament points conclusively to the opposite.
Close to 50 years later Jack Kearns sprinkled some late spice on the already well-seasoned story. In an interview with Sports Illustrated he claimed that Dempsey’s hand wraps were coated with plaster of Paris, and brought new context to Dempsey’s ferocious hitting. By this time Willard was already in his 80s and provided some further insight into the true extent of his injuries and the lasting indignity that he felt as a consequence of the pummelling. He remarked to interviewers, “I’ve been trying for almost 45 years to get the story printed, but nobody would believe me. I’m glad Kearns has finally admitted it. My jaw is still caved in from the beating that fellow gave me with cement on his hands.”
Yet, the Kansas man was still denied the last word as Dempsey sued the magazine for libel. Ultimately they settled out of court and accepted that there was no conclusive evidence to back up Kearns’ sensational claim.
Whatever his feelings, Willard, unlike many in the proud lineage of prize fighters, walked away with his finances in tact, if not his dignity. Away from boxing he lived a contented, quiet and affluent private life prior to his death shortly before his 87th birthday.
He will always be remembered in the shadow of Jack Dempsey and the great Jack Johnson, whose title reign he ended in the 26th round in Havana. Even that great victory is tainted by Johnson’s age, condition and later claims that he took a dive. As with the “loaded” gloves, there is no evidence to support this assertion and for once big Jess Willard should be given the benefit of the doubt. Not as a great champion but as a man that carried the title of the richest prize in sport and defended it to the extent of his limited ability and with limitless courage.