Famous Ring Wars: Jess Willard vs Jack Johnson

By John F. McKenna - 02/11/2024 - Comments

It is unfortunate that the only perception and memory most boxing fans have of Jess Willard was that the massively huge heavyweight champion was the victim of the most savage beating ever endured by a prize fighter in the ring.

On July 4th 1919 Willard was destroyed in three rounds by Jack Dempsey arguably the most savage heavyweight who ever lived.

Jess Willard however was a pretty good fighter. Willard was a working cowboy from Kansas, born on December 29, 1881. He began his boxing career at the late age of 27. Jess’s nickname was “The Pottawatomie Giant”. Pottawatomie was the name of the town in Kansas that Willard hailed from.

Jess’s main attributes were his size 6’6 ½”, 245 pounds, his strength and his incredible stamina. He had a good left jab and with a reach of 83” he was difficult to get to. Willard had a powerful right hand and a murderous right uppercut. He also had the ability to absorb great punishment.

Until his fight with Dempsey at the age of 37, Jess had never been off his feet. Willard’s right hand was responsible for killing “Bull” Young who he caught flush with the punch in 1913. In short, Jess Willard was a powerful and formidable opponent.

Jack Johnson AKA “Lil Artha” (Arthur was Johnson’s middle name) and “The Galveston Giant”. He was born on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. Both of Johnson’s parents were former slaves.

Johnson was knocked out early in his career on May 25, 1901 by veteran fighter Joe Choynski. Choynski was given the nickname “Chrysanthemum” Joe because of his bright blond hair. The two became fast friends while they were in jail after their fight. Choynski had a great impact on the career of the young Johnson and imparted his boxing knowledge on him. Choynski also became a sparring partner for Johnson and helped to develop his scientific style of fighting. “Lil Artha” was decades ahead of his competition and frequently toyed with his overmatched opponents, even going so far as to have conversations with ringsiders while engaged in a fight. He had the ability to analyze and adapt to opponents, frequently “holding them up” in order to give the white paying customers a show. He quickly became a defensive genius and seemed to enjoy tormenting and annoying his adversaries, while making no effort to KO them.

Johnson won the “World Colored Heavyweight Championship” in 1903 in a bout with “Denver” Ed Martin which went twenty rounds. At the time any thought of a black fighter challenging for the biggest prize in sports, the heavyweight championship, was taboo.

Finally on December 26, 1908 Johnson was able to corner heavyweight champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia after chasing him half way around the world for two years. The fight was so one sided in Johnson’s favor that the police entered the ring in the 14th round to stop it.

From that point on the hunt was on for a “White Hope”. Even former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries was lured out of a five year retirement to fight Johnson. Jeffires weight had ballooned up from 220 pounds to over 300 pounds during his retirement. The fight was held on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada before 20,000 fans in a stadium constructed for the event. Of course Jeffries had had no chance against Johnson who enjoyed tormenting him and the white audience in attendance. The referee stopped the fight in the fifteenth round after Jeffries, who had never been floored before, was knocked down twice. After Jeffries defeat race riots broke out in cities all across America and the search for a “White Hope” intensified.

Finally after a number of “White Hopes” had failed miserably in their attempt to defeat Johnson, a match was arranged to take place in Havana, Cuba on April 5, 1915. Willard had trained hard for a long fight. His handlers had asked for a 45 round bout and that is what the challenger got. Willard’s strategy was to use his great strength and endurance to wear Johnson down.

From the 2nd round on Johnson attacked Willard with a savage fury, trying to cut down his huge challenger. Johnson hit Willard flush on the jaw with a savage right hand that buckled his knees. Willard pulled himself together and refused to go down. Big Jess acquitted himself well, absorbing many of Johnson’s punches on his arms, elbows and shoulders.

In the 8th round Johnson, well ahead on points, went for the knockout reigning punch after savage punch on his seemingly outclassed foe. The end seemed imminent. But again Willard called on an inner reserve of strength to carry him through. Meanwhile “Lil Artha” was expounding energy.

After 15 rounds Johnson was ahead by a wide margin, but in the 16th round he showed evidence of tiring. By the 18th round Johnson was clearly running out of gas.

In the 20th round Willard’s corner was telling him to go after Johnson, who was now on the defensive. Willard was gaining confidence with each passing round and becoming increasingly more aggressive.

In the 26th round Willard, who was now in complete control caught Johnson with a tremendous right hand stretching him out on the canvas. Johnson was counted out and all of the work Willard did in training camp paid off.

Years later Johnson made the bogus claim that he had taken a dive. But as can be seen on film, Johnson was clearly knocked out. (Willard vs Johnson – YOU TUBE).

Upon hearing Johnson’s claim that he had taken a dive Willard responded that he wished Johnson had not waited until the 26th round, citing the 100 plus temperature in Havana.

Willard was on the winning and losing end against two of the 20th century’s ring giants Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey. History however, remembers him only for his loss to Dempsey.

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