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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Latest Boxing News & Rumors Today / Jess Willard thought he might kill Jack Dempsey – July 4th, 1919

Jess Willard thought he might kill Jack Dempsey – July 4th, 1919

Publish Date: 07/05/2023
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

Heavyweight champion Jess Willard asked for immunity before stepping into the ring to face challenger Jack Dempsey in Toledo, Ohio.


Willard,37, had killed a fighter in 1913. The death haunted him all his life. He was concerned it could happen again.

The huge Kansan said days before the bout, “I’m going to carry this boy Dempsey for the full twelve rounds, not hurting him any more than I absolutely have to.”

Willard, the conqueror of Jack Johnson, entered the ring, a 5-4 betting favorite. Several writers favored Willard.

Video: Jack Johnson vs Jess Willard HD60

Jack Johnson vs Jess Willard HD60

After observing Willard’s training, Dempsey’s father picked the champion to win.

Promoter Tex Rickard told Dempsey, “Willard is a big man. You look small. Every time I look at you, you get smaller. I’m afraid Willard will kill you.”

Even Dempsey was concerned.

“I wasn’t just fighting for the championship,” Dempsey said. “I was fighting for my life.”

Willard was huge. 6′ 6” in his stocking feet. His fight-day weight was 245 pounds. Dempsey was five inches shorter and fifty-seven pounds lighter.

During the pre-fight instructions, Dempsey,24, eyed Willard with a scary intensity. As usual, he had worked himself into a pre-fight rage. He saw a sizable target easy to hit. He scowled and went back to his corner.

It was blistering hot, over 100 in the shade.

Dempsey was prone to attack an opponent immediately in the opening heat.

Video: JACK DEMPSEY | The Man Who Inspired MIKE TYSON


Willard had trained for this, but at the opening bell at 4:09 P.M., Dempsey did not charge. He stayed away and boxed. Crouched – panther-like, waiting for the right moment to attack.

Dempsey let fly with a left that stopped Willard in his tracks. The big man advanced – his left arm outstretched, jab probing. Dempsey was edgy – like a piece of dynamite, ready to explode.

Tick, tick, tick.


Suddenly, Dempsey charged forward, arms pumping like pistons, whinging hooks. The coup de gras was a right to the heart, followed by a blistering left to the jaw.

Willard dropped to the floor with a look of disbelief on his face. Or pain. His jaw had been, according to reports, some denied, shattered in seven places. He pulled himself up but was soon down again, Dempsey standing on top of him, ready to attack. He fired blistering shots, targeting Willard’s torso, eye, jaw, and mouth.

Willard went down six more times.

Video: Jack Dempsey vs Jess Willard HD

Jack Dempsey vs Jess Willard HD

Four of his teeth were gone. His eye was closed, and his nose was bleeding. Dempsey’s brutal attack continued.

Willard could not escape. The champion, who thought he might kill the pint-sized (to him) challenger, found himself on the brink, bloodied, broken, groggy – unable to see or get up.

The crowd volume reached a crescendo. The fight, as it was, looked to be over. Referee Ollie Pecord raised Dempsey’s hand.

Dempsey left the ring, only to be summoned back by manager Jack Kearns. The round had ended before the count of ten.

Willard sat semi-conscious in his corner. He would continue to fight for two more rounds. And fight back. Dempsey, arm weary at times, unleashed, but Willard stayed upright.

His guts were without question.

Born dirt poor and once a hobo, Jack Dempsey, 187 efficient and pulverizing pounds, was the new heavyweight champion of the world.


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