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Jack Dempsey vs Jess Willard (1919)

Jess Willard
800px-Jess Willard 1915
Biographical information
Jess Willard
"Great White Hope" "'Great White Hope' [1]
Pottawatomie Giant [2]
6 ft 6 1⁄2 in (1.99 m)
83″ (211cm)
Weight class
January 29, 1881
in Pottawatomie County, Kansas, United States
December 15, 1968
in Los Angeles, California, United States
Boxing career information
Style/Boxing Stance:
Career record:
36 total bouts, 26 wins, 6 losses, 1 draw, 20 KO's, 2 no contests

Jess Willard (December 29, 1881 – December 15, 1968) was a world heavyweight boxing champion known as the Pottawatomie Giant.[3][4]

He won the heavyweight title from Jack Johnson in April 1915 which earned him the nickname "The Great White Hope". He was known for his great strength and ability to absorb tremendous punishment, although today he is best known for his title loss to Jack Dempsey.

Willard held the championship for more than 4 years but only defended his title once as few people dared to challenge him. Today his reign is considered the 11th longest in the heavyweight division. He lost the title to Jack Dempsey in 1919 and to this day the fight is considered the worst beating any man has ever received in the history of boxing. Willard was knocked down for the first time in his career during the first round and another 6 times before the round was over; he suffered a cracked skull, broken ribs, shattered jaw, broken nose, four missing teeth, partial hearing loss in one ear along with numerous cuts and contusions.[5] Jess fought for two more rounds before retiring on his stool due to the injuries he received in the first round, relinquishing the title. It is one of the most controversial fights in boxing history and many thought Dempsey had something in his gloves during the first round to act as a knuckleduster to weaken the big Willard down.

At 6 feet 6 1/2 inches (1.99 m) and 235 lbs. (107 kg) , Willard was the tallest and the largest heavyweight champion in boxing history, until the 270-pound (120 kg) Primo Carnera won the title on June 29, 1933, and the 6'8" (2.03 m) Vitali Klitschko won the WBC title in 2004.

Boxing career[]

A working cowboy, Willard did not begin boxing until he was 27 years old.[3] Despite his late start, Jess Willard proved successful as a boxer, defeating top-ranked opponents to earn a chance to fight for the championship. Willard said he started boxing because he didn't have much of an education but thought his size and strength could earn him a good living. He was a gentle and friendly person and didn't enjoy boxing or hurting people, so often waited until his opponent attacked him before punching back which made him feel at ease as if he was defending himself. He was often maligned as an uncoordinated oaf rather than a skilled boxer but his counterpunching style coupled with his enormous strength and stamina proved successful against top-fighters. Willard's strength was so great that he was reported to be able to kill a man with a single punch which unfortunately proved to be a fact during his fight with Jack "Bull" Young in 1913 who was punched in the head and killed in the 9th round. Jess Willard was charged with second degree murder but was successfully defended by lawyer Earl Rogers.

Jack Johnson fight[]

On April 5, 1915 in front of a huge crowd at the new Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, in the 26th round he knocked out champion Jack Johnson to win the world heavyweight boxing championship.

Johnson later claimed to have intentionally lost the fight, but Willard is widely regarded as winning fairly which is evident from the recorded footage, the comments Johnson made to his cornermen between rounds and that he bet $2500 on himself to win.[6] Willard said, "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there." Johnson didn't followup on his claim after footage of the fight was made available.

Johnson found that he could not knock out the giant Willard, who fought as a counterpuncher, making Johnson do all the leading. Johnson began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th round knockout. Following the fight, Willard was heralded as "The Great White Hope."[7]

Willard fought several times over the next four years, but made only one official title defense prior to 1919, defeating Frank Moran on March 25, 1916, at Madison Square Garden.

Jack Dempsey fight[]

At age 37, Willard lost his title to Jack Dempsey on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Dempsey knocked Willard down for the first time in his career with a left hook in the first round. Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times in the first round, winning the title when Willard was unable to continue after the third round. In the fight Willard was later reputed to have suffered a broken jaw, cheekbone, and ribs, as well as losing several teeth. His attempt to fight to the finish, ending when he was unable to come out for the fourth round, is considered one of the most courageous performances in boxing history.

File:Panorama of Willard - Johnson fight, Havana, Cuba.jpg

Panorama of Willard's title fight against Jack Johnson in Havana, Cuba, 1915

Considering that Willard was the favorite and the much larger man out weighing Jack by 60 pounds, the beating was to such a severe extent as to lead many to question whether Dempsey's gloves were loaded.[8] This was the subject of a 1964 Sports Illustrated article which contained an interview with Dempsey's manager. Jack Kearns, who claimed that he had placed a bet on the fight and coated Dempsey's hand wraps with plaster of paris;[9] however, Kearns made this statement after he and Dempsey had had a falling out. In 1964 heavyweight contender Cleveland Williams tested the theory by coating his bandages with plaster of paris, toasting them for 35 minutes, and punching the heavy bag five times. The plaster of paris had disintegrated.[10]

Nat Fleischer, later founder of The Ring Magazine, was there when Dempsey's hands were wrapped: "Jack Dempsey had no loaded gloves, and no plaster of paris over his bandages. I watched the proceedings and the only person who had anything to do with the taping of Jack's hands was Deforest. Kearns had nothing to do with it, so his plaster of paris story is simply not true. Deforest himself said that he regarded the stories of Dempsey's gloves being loaded as libel, calling them 'trash' and said he did not apply any foreign substance to them, which I can verify since I watched the taping."[11] Historian J. J. Johnston ended all discussion when he pointed out that "the films show Willard upon entering the ring walking over to Dempsey and examining his hands. That should end any possibility of plaster of paris or any other substance on his hands."[12]


Jess Willard


After losing his title fight with Dempsey, Willard went into semi-retirement from the ring, fighting only exhibition bouts for the next four years.[3] On May 12, 1923, promoter Tex Rickard arranged for Willard to make a comeback, fighting Floyd Johnson as part of the first line-up of boxing matches at the newly-opened Yankee Stadium in New York City.[13] 63,000 spectators attended the match, which the 41-year-old Willard was widely expected to lose.[13] However, after Willard took a beating for several rounds, he came back to knock down Johnson in the 9th and 11th rounds, and Willard earned a TKO victory. Damon Runyon wrote afterward: "Youth, take off your hat and bow low and respectfully to Age. For days and days, the sole topic of conversation in the world of sport will be Willard's astonishing comeback."[13]

Willard followed-up this victory by facing contender Luis Ángel Firpo on July 12, 1923.[13] The fight was held at Boyle's Thirty Acres in New Jersey, in front of more than 75,000 spectators. Willard was knocked out in the eighth round, and then permanently retired from boxing.

Later years[]

Willard parlayed his boxing fame into an acting career of a sort. He acted in a vaudeville show, had a role in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and starred in a 1919 feature film The Challenge of Chance.[14] In 1933, he appeared in a bit part in a boxing movie, The Prizefighter and the Lady, with Max Baer and Myrna Loy.[15]

On his passing in 1968, Jess Willard was interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

In 2003, he was inducted posthumously into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.[16]

See also[]


  1. Jess Willard Succumbs, Ocala Star-Banner. December 16, 1968. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  2. Jess Willard HTML at Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Cyber
  4. IBHOF Website, International Boxing Hall of Fame, accessed 2010-04-14.
  5. Jess Willard HTML at East Side Boxing (.com) website
  6. Fleischer, Nat, 50 Years At Ringside (Fleet Publishing Corporation, 1958), pp. 88-89.
  7. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named WhiteHope
  8. {{cite web |url= Were Dempsey’s Gloves Loaded? You Decide!, by Monte D. Cox with John A. Bardelli, Bob Caico, Jeff Cox, Dan Cuoc, Chuck Johnston, Clay Moyle, Frank Stallone, and Miles Ugarkovich, December 1, 2004, accessed July 11, 2012.]
  9. Boxing Illustrated (.com), May 1964, pp. 20-24, 66.
  10. "Boxing Illustrated 1964, pp. 20-24"
  11. Fleischer, Nat, 50 Years At Ringside, p. 118.
  12. ""
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 "Willard Helped Raise the Roof at Yankee Stadium". Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  14. Jess Willard at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)
  15. Jess Willard at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)
  16. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named HOF

External links[]