Yankee Stadium boxing: Birth of an era
The first Yankee Stadium boxing show was held in May 1923. It was organized by Tex Rickard to find a contender to face champion Jack Dempsey and also served as a benefit
for the mayor’s milk fund. Ringside seats were $20.
Unfortunately for Rickard, there were so few quality heavyweights in that era that he had to resurrect 41-year old Jess Willard, whom Dempsey had destroyed four years earlier for the title. Rickard’s plan was to pit Willard against a young contender named Floyd Johnson, with hopes that Johnson would win and go on to fight Dempsey.
After a less than electrifying undercard featuring the likes of Luis Firpo, Tiny Herman, and Frank Fullton, Willard and Johnson took to the ring for the main event. Yankee Stadium roared with laughter as Willard’s weight was announced at a whopping 248, but the laughter stopped as Willard proceeded to outbox Johnson for several rounds.
Then, as if his comeback wasn’t dramatic enough, Willard’s aging body started to give way. Sensing victory, Johnson took control of the fight with roundhouse swings. An exhausted Willard had to be lifted from his stool by his handlers to start the ninth round, but late in that round he threw a desperate haymaker that sent Johnson to the canvas. There was still some grit left in the “Pottawatomie Giant,” even if he was blowing like a tired horse.
Willard closed the show in the 11th. Using what one reporter called, “the brute strength of primitive man,” Willard pounded Johnson to the canvas again. This time the younger fighter had to be carried back to his corner and the fight was immediately stopped.
The drama of Willard’s comeback victory helped launch Yankee Stadium as a boxing venue and set the tone for many great fights to come.