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Famous Ring Wars: Dempsey vs. Willard – pt 1

Jack DempseyBy John F. McKenna (McJack): On July 4, 1919 in Toledo, Ohio in one hundred and ten degree heat a legend was born. In probably the most savage beating any fighter every received since the days of bare knuckle fighting ended, twenty four year old Jack Dempsey 6’1, 187 lbs, destroyed thirty seven year old Jess Willard to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. In the opening round as the combatants approached each other it appeared for all the world like a modern day David and Goliath in the center of the ring.


Willard was supremely confident and in fact had confided to close friends that he feared “hurting the boy” as he referred to the challenger. Jess Willard AKA the “Pottawatomie Giant” had reason to be confident against Jack Dempsey AKA the “Mannassa Mauler”. After all he was the “White Hope” who finally defeated Jack Johnson in 1915 by knocking out “Lil Artha” as Johnson was known to boxing fans. The claims that Johnson took a dive against Willard are bogus as can be plainly seen on film (You Tube – Willard vs Johnson). Willard wore down Johnson with his great strength and knocked him out in the twenty sixth round. Willard was quoted years later as saying “If he took a dive I wish he had not waited until the twenty sixth round, it was hot out there!” Willard and Johnson fought on April 5, 1915 under a hot Havana sun.

Jack Dempsey came on the Heavyweight scene like a tornado and eventually his popularity would exceed that of baseball icon Babe Ruth. In the lead up to his title shot at Willard, Dempsey had disposed of one opponent after another viciously and in rapid succession, including an eighteen second knockout over top contender Fred Fulton, who stood 6’6” and weighed 230 lbs. Dempsey closed out 1918 with a two round blowout of “Gunboat” Smith on December 30th and started off 1919 by knocking out five opponents in a row in the first round. At twenty three years old Dempsey was just coming into his own. His style of bobbing and weaving while moving in made him a difficult target to hit especially for larger opponents. His punching power and speed were phenomenal. Dempsey would overwhelm his opponents by using his speed, power and by the sheer volume of his punches. Boxing fans and writers had never seen anything like him in a heavyweight. Larger opponents were unable to cope with his speed and were often puzzled after he quickly disposed of them. He coupled his physical prowess with a granite chin and was most dangerous after he had been stung by an opponent. He frequently snarled and growled at his opponents as he advanced with murder in his eyes. The closest fighter to Dempsey in the savagery and fury of his attack in the modern era is Roberto Duran. Ray Arcel, who trained eighteen champions from Benny Leonard to Roberto Duran said of Dempsey “He should be the only one people think of when talking about the greatest Heavyweight Champion. He was fast, he could box. he could punch, he was fast on his feet and he could take a punch.”


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