Throughout boxing history many champions have risen and fallen. Synonymous with the career of these great warriors are the memories they left behind. Each fighter is left with a legacy, however great or small. With this legacy, comes a label that places the champion in the annals of boxing history. Some are known for their power, some for their speed, but in the end boxing historians label all these fighters off their prowess in the ring.
In this instance, many champions do not receive the acclaim they deserve, because at some point their talent was overshadowed by the exposing of an unforgivable flaw in the squared circle. One such champion, was the “Pottawatomie Giant,” Jess Willard.
At 6’6 and weighing over 240 lb., Jess Willard was a giant by anyone’s standards. He was originally discovered by boxing promoter Tom Jones, who was looking for a white fighter to derail Jack Johnson’s reign. Willard’s sheer size was impressive enough to put his boxing career in motion.
In less than a year, Willard made his pro debut against Louis Fink. He was quickly met with his first set back, as a result of a disappointing DQ loss for hitting in a clinch. It didn’t matter, however, the wheels were in motion to propel the inexperienced fighter to the top. In his first 20 fights, the “Pottawatomie Giant” compiled a record of 16-3-1. Willard fought every man that was put in front of him. Win or lose, he gained valuable experience in the ring. Soon, Willard’s boxing technique began to come together. Writer Seymour Rothman wrote of the giant: “He was truly equipped to be a champion. He had a long left arm, which held off eager opponents. Both his right hand punches were devastating.”
So devastating was his right hand that in his 21st professional fight, Willard killed a young fighter by the name of William “Bull” Young. The loss of Young had a great psychological impact on the gentle giant. The truth of the matter was, Jess Willard never liked fighting in the first place. Young’s death only drew a greater wedge between him and the sport he participated in. Willard would later say: “It’s easier for me to hit a man after he has hurt me. But with my reach and my movements it takes 7 or 8 rounds before he gets to me at all. When I do go after an opponent I try to finish him off as quickly as possible. I get absolutely no pleasure from punishing a man.”
In his next bout, Willard lost a newspaper decision to George Rodel. It was obvious the death of “Bull” Young was still on the giant’s mind. A week later, Willard was able to pull off a quick 2nd round KO to put his career back on the championship path.
Compiling a record of 23-5-1, promoters sought out Willard to restore pride to the white race, by facing the current champion Jack Johnson. Despite facing a 5 inch height disadvantage, Johnson was a skilled fighter. His experience in the ring closed in on 90 bouts. Facing numerous large opponents, Johnson knew how to dispose of such men.
On April 5, 1915, the “Galveston Giant” faced off against the “Pottawatomie Giant” in the Havana heat of Cuba. The fight, scheduled for 45 rounds, would only see 26 of those rounds. The heat skyrocketed to over 100 degrees as the two combatants squared off. The early go of the fight showed Johnson using his much greater ring experience to attack and land on Willard. The problem was, Willard had his own tricks up his sleeve.
With the added bonus of coming into the fight in great shape, the 6’6 giant plodded forward. Johnson, on the other hand, continued to chop at a tree that refused to go down. Despite a deep cut in his right cheek and blood dripping from his mouth, Willard’s plan and strength of will came together as he began taking control of the fight from the exhausted Johnson. Finally, in the 26th round, a crashing right hand landed on Johnson’s jaw, putting him down permanently. Willard assumed the thrown as heavyweight champion.
Since the time of John L. Sullivan, the championship belt became a meal ticket for anyone who was great enough to grab it. Willard fought twice in 1916, successfully defending his title, but most of his time was spent making his money outside the ring. From appearances to movies to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the champion was making the most of his new found glory. Many modern critics attack Willard for not defending his title nearly enough, but he had the chance to make money and live in fame, while not being subjected to a sport that he did not enjoy in the first place.
While Willard was touring around the country, a hungry young fighter was slowly making noise in the fight community. Through several first round knockouts, that noise quickly turned into beating drums of fight fans calling the champion back to the ring. It soon became evident that Willard would have to defend his title against the ferocious Jack Dempsey.
With the offer of $100,000, the champion was set to fight the young contender on the 4th of July, 1919. Willard took his training very seriously, but didn’t think much of his opponent. Dempsey was a small 187lb. contender compared to the “Pottawatomie Giant’s” 245 lb. frame.
Staged in an outdoor setting, the two fighters met in Toledo, Ohio. Willard had all the confidence in the world, but little did he know what awaited him in the ring. In the first round big Jess was knocked down 7 times. Dempsey never relented his attack until Willard was not able to make the bell for the 4th round. Sitting with 6 missing teeth, 6 broken ribs and jaw that was broken in two places, the former champion proved his worth, even in his most dire moment.
As quick as Willard gained the title, he lost it, along with glory, fame and his deserved place in boxing history. His style appeared to be that of an awkward giant. He had a great jab, a fierce overhand right and would maximize his height advantage by leaning back on his right foot to avoid oncoming punches. Theoretically, his style is very similar to that of our current champion, Vitali Klitschko.
The fall of Jess Willard has resulted in the diminishing of his legacy. Although he might not have been the best champion, he stands as a fighter who took on two of the greatest champions boxing has ever seen. His defeat of Johnson was quickly overshadowed by his loss to Dempsey. But even in defeat, Willard showed the heart of a true champion, as it was his time to leave the belt behind. Modern day fans want to dismiss him, because they are glued to their heroes Dempsey or Johnson. In the end, Jess Willard had a combination of heart, intelligence and yes skill, which should give him a greater place in boxing history.