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Jess Willard-Jack Johnson: 100 years later

04
Apr
Willard-Johnson program

Image courtesy of Jessie Gibbons/Tommy & Mike Gibbons Preservation Society/www.tmgps.com

 

 

For more than six years, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson tormented opponents and oppressors with sublime skill, acidic words delivered with a golden smile and a defiantly lavish lifestyle that included fast cars , stylish clothes and a trio of interracial marriages. Ever since capturing the title from Tommy Burns on Boxing Day 1908, Johnson, the first of his race to hold the “greatest prize in sports,” was, according to documentarian Ken Burns, “the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.”

One century ago today, his enemies’ seemingly interminable nightmare finally came to an end. During the early afternoon hours of April 5, 1915 at the Oriental Park Racetrack in Marianao, Cuba (six miles southwest of Havana), Willard’s crushing right hand drove the overweight and exhausted champion to the mat. Shading his eyes from the scorching sun, the semi-conscious Johnson experienced the final moments of his historic reign by way of referee Jack Welsh’s count. When he finished, the 6-foot-6 1/2-inch former cowboy was instantly transformed from Hope to hero.



Willard’s 26th round knockout brought down the curtain on a deeply polarizing and often shameful chapter in sports history, although the larger issues with race relations would continue to rage. The desire to unseat Johnson was so intense that multiple strategies were employed. At first, boxing’s powers-that-be tried to seize the title inside the ring but the first wave of “White Hope” challengers – Victor McLaglen (in an exhibition bout), Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Tony Ross and Al Kaufman – were turned away by Johnson. Then, power-punching middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel was summoned and though he scored a knockdown in round 12, an angered Johnson pole-axed the far smaller man just seconds later. After Ketchel fell, long-retired former champion James J. Jeffries was asked to save “the honor of the white race.” Reluctant at first, Jeffries eventually accepted the challenge, sweated off nearly 80 pounds and reported to the ring in what appeared to be superb condition. But in the end, Jeffries’ chiseled 227 pounds was trumped by two other numbers – 35 (his age) and six (the years of his layoff).

Johnson’s TKO victory – which could have ended much earlier than round 15 had Johnson chosen to do so – sparked deadly race riots and moved Congress to pass legislation in 1912 that banned distribution of all fight films across state lines, a prohibition that held firm for the next 28 years before being repealed. The hatred for Johnson was visceral and violent and the combative Johnson did his best to give as good as he got. He provoked the white establishment by flaunting his considerable wealth, enraged it by marrying three white wives and exasperated it by spewing invective even during the heat of competition. But worst of all for his antagonists, Johnson almost always walked out of the ring a winner – a swaggering, brazen and unrepentant winner.

When it became clear that Johnson was going to remain on top for the foreseeable future, his opponents tried to unseat him through the legal system. In October 1912 he was arrested and accused of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” When that case fell apart, he was arrested a second time under the same statute. This time, the charges stuck and after an all-white jury convicted him, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Unwilling to bend even an inch to his antagonists, Johnson skipped bail, met his Caucasian companion in Montreal and fled to Europe. In Paris, he retained his title against fellow African-American Battling Jim Johnson (D 10) in Dec. 1913 and Frank Moran (W 20) in June 1914 before embarking on an exhibition tour. In Dec. 1914 in Buenos Aires, he stopped Enrique Wilkinson and Jack Murray and in January, he halted Vasco Guiralechea before arriving in Cuba to defend his title against the latest “Hope” – Jess Willard.

The Kansas native turned to professional boxing at age 27, not out of a burning desire for athletic excellence but rather as a means to make a better living. He certainly had the size to succeed; at 6-feet-6 1/2 inches, he was six inches taller than Johnson and his 83-inch wingspan translated to a nine-inch advantage. A counterpuncher by nature, Willard utilized an upright and painfully stiff style but when he uncorked his right hand, either as a cross or an uppercut, the results were deadly – literally. On Aug. 22, 1913, a right uppercut to the head of William “Bull” Young not only scored an 11th round knockout but also caused a cerebral hemorrhage that resulted in Young’s death the following day. Willard was charged with second-degree murder but lawyer Earl Rogers successfully argued that his client wasn’t liable.

According to the 1985 RING record book, Willard entered the Johnson fight with a record of 21-4-1 (19) and four no-decisions while Johnson was 58-5-11 (33) with 13 no-decisions and one no-contest. Willard’s sixth-round KO over George Rodel took place the previous April 28 while Johnson’s last official fight was staged three months earlier. In terms of ring age, the 33-year-old Willard was far younger than the 37-year-old champion, an 18-year ring veteran whose once-lithe 205-pound body had been softened considerably from too many party-filled nights and too few workouts inside the gym. Add to that the mental stress of his years in exile and one had reason to believe that “The Galveston Giant” was ripe to be picked by the former Kansas farmer.

All of these elements were much in evidence when the weigh-in was conducted inside the ring just before the 12:30 p.m. start as Willard was a fit 238 1/2 while Johnson was a thicker-than-usual 225. Still, Johnson, who two days earlier had fought a dreary six-round exhibition with old foe Sam McVey, announced himself as being in perfect condition.

Given Willard’s immense durability, the conventional wisdom going in was that the Kansan’s best chance of victory would occur if he took Johnson into the later rounds. With this in mind, Willard’s manager Tom Jones requested a scheduled distance of 45 rounds, more than twice the length of Willard’s longest bout to date. Stunningly, Johnson and promoter Jack Curley accepted. Perhaps they remembered that Johnson had engaged in two previous 45-rounders against Jeffries and Fireman Jim Flynn and scored knockouts in 15 and 11 rounds respectively. Also, a subsequent fight against Flynn was the last unlimited length fight in boxing history and there, Johnson won by ninth-round disqualification when Flynn – driven to madness by Johnson’s constant holding – repeatedly, wildly and deliberately rammed the top of his head into Johnson’s face. Finally, even a past-his-prime Johnson possessed more ring craft than Willard could ever hope to have and he probably thought that asset would see him through no matter what the scheduled distance.

The previous day in Marianao had been cool and pleasant but such was not the case on April 5 as the sun shone brightly and the mercury soared toward triple digits. Spectators began arriving at the racetrack as early as 7 a.m. and more than a few brought sack lunches to help them through the long day ahead. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people – including at least 1,000 women – poured into the venue while thousands more viewed the fight from the surrounding hills.

Betting action was surprisingly light given the importance of the contest. While Johnson’s backers offered 6-to-5 odds in favor of their man and Willard’s people peddled even longer odds of 9-to-5, the official odds settled on 8-to-5 for the champion. According to a New York Times article published the day before the bout, there was little – if any – talk of a fixed fight. Johnson was read the receipt of his $30,000 purse in the ring while Willard had to wait until the amount of his 25 percent share of the net receipts was determined.

Willard said before the fight that he expected to take a beating for the first 10 or 15 rounds and had trained specifically for that scenario. Johnson tried his best to make it come true.

The bout opened with both fighters facing one another with gloves at their waists and hoping their head, shoulder, foot and hand feints would force the other man out of position. Johnson easily stepped away from a lunging left/right to the body, smartly smothered a prospective jab to the head and landed a quick counter right over the top. Most of the fight was waged at long range with each fighter striking a defensive upright posture with the majority of their weight on the back foot. While Willard did most of the leading, Johnson did the majority of the scoring with singular thrusts and occasional headlong rushes. When he chose to punch – which wasn’t often – Johnson’s quick and damaging blows enabled him to build a big early lead. That said, Willard soaked up the punishment Johnson dished out with nary a flinch.

The 12th saw Johnson unleash a furious burst that drove Willard to the ropes but, once again, the challenger shook off the damage and resumed his patient, jab-heavy boxing. The tenor of the fight began to turn in the 17th when Willard stepped up his forward movement as well as his work rate. Most of his one-twos fell short of the mark or were muffled by Johnson’s open gloves but Willard’s proactive attitude sent a forbidding message to the champion: “I am still strong and you still have nearly 30 more rounds of fighting to do.”

Johnson regained a semblance of control in the 18th, thanks to his occasional charges. At round’s end, Willard draped his huge left arm around Johnson’s shoulder before beginning his walk toward the corner. Willard was decidedly less friendly in the 19th, for now it was he who began and ended most of the skirmishes and his nimble semi-circling stood in stark contrast to Johnson’s flat-footedness. All the while Willard fired ramrod jabs toward Johnson’s face and followed with rights to the body or the jaw. It clearly was Willard’s best round thus far and given the difference in energy level, more trouble was in store for Johnson – much more.

The fusion of Willard’s strength, his own lax conditioning and the searing conditions forced Johnson to confront the reality that his championship reign was in peril. He always had realized that he lacked the stamina needed to complete 45 rounds but he thought Willard’s perceived clumsiness and inexperience would eliminate the possibility of a long fight. Now that he had one, Johnson had no choice but to step out of his defensive shell and gun for the finish.

Willard continued to jab effectively during the first two minutes of round 20 but the challenger’s right hand to the side of the head ignited a fury within the champion. His flashing fists bulled Willard across the 20-foot ring and while Johnson’s punches landed accurately, they lacked the power that had left the mighty Jeffries in a heap five years earlier. The rally was short-lived, as was the one Johnson produced in the next round after another Willard right to the temple stoked his fire. This time, however, Willard answered with his own assault in the round’s final minute that caused several ringsiders to leap joyously to their feet.

From that point forward, Johnson barely had the energy to hold up his gloves, much less hold off a 238-pound giant. Suddenly, the once-invincible Johnson appeared far older than his 37 years.

“Time had done its work,” the Associated Press reported. “It had been the opinion of Johnson and many of his friends that he did not have to be in the best of condition to whip Willard, underrating the latter’s splendid condition and youthful stamina.”

According to a New York Times account, Johnson asked Curley following round 22 to “Tell my wife I’m tiring and I wish you’d see her out.”

The end came shortly before the halfway point of round 26. As the pair maneuvered toward the challenger’s corner, Willard fired a lunging jab followed by a pulverizing right to the jaw. Upon impact, Johnson’s head snapped violently to the side while his hands reached out and tried to take Willard down with him. That effort failed, so his stricken frame slid down Willard’s torso and legs before landing back-first with a thud. As Johnson shaded his eyes from the blinding sun, referee Welsh positioned himself four feet directly behind the champion’s head and tolled the count. Once he reached “10,” he immediately raised Willard’s right arm and walked toward ring center.

“The blow that actually brought the fight to a quick conclusion was a right-hand smash to Johnson’s body early in the last round,” Willard told an Associated Press reporter. “I felt Johnson grow limp in the next clinch and knew I had the championship within my reach. A left to the body and a right smash to the jaw put Johnson down for the count.”

The sudden crowning of a new champion set off a massive celebration inside the arena and dozens poured into the ring before members of the Cuban cavalry escorted the fighters to their respective dressing rooms, then their hotels. As news about Willard’s victory spread, townspeople lined the streets with Willard’s supporters waving white flags while Johnson’s backers brandishing black ones.

As for Johnson, he initially handled the defeat with grace.

“It was a clean knockout and the best man won,” Johnson told the New York Times. “It was not a matter of luck. I have no kick coming.”

Johnson struck a similar tone later that night when the pair was given souvenir gold watches from the “Citizens of Havana.” Johnson also received a loving cup from Willard’s trainers and Curley.

“The best man won,” the ex-champion declared. “I would not belittle another man’s accomplishment and I wish Willard all the luck he would wish himself.”

Nine months later, however, Johnson dramatically changed his tune. On Jan. 2, 1916, Johnson, for a $250 fee paid by RING publisher Nat Fleischer, released a combination handwritten/typewritten confession that he threw the Willard fight in exchange for undisturbed re-entry into the United States and $50,000 in cash. Johnson said the original agreement was to have him end the fight in round 11 once his wife indicated the money was in hand. But when that round came and went, Johnson continued to fight and because he thought he was being double-crossed, he fought to win. Then, after the end of round 24, he said he saw his wife, Lucille Cameron Johnson, give the predetermined signal – one version was the wave of a white handkerchief while another was a nod of her head – and “I let the fight end as it did.”

The controversy was addressed in the Oct. 1956 and Jan. 1969 issues of THE RING. The latter treatment was sparked by the success of the Broadway play “The Great White Hope” that starred James Earl Jones as the semi-biographical Jack Jefferson.

In the confession, Johnson said he informed his wife the morning of the fight of her role in the plot – the collection of the remaining money due him – while Curley paid him his money for the bout before he left the hotel. Johnson told Lucille to watch for his signal to go back to the box office and retrieve the rest of the money from Curley. After doing so, she was to return to ringside and non-verbally inform him that the money was secured.

Johnson said an incomplete count at the box office caused him to delay his surrender but once he received the signal he was seeking, he directed his wife to leave the arena. The fight ended shortly thereafter.

“I was happy when it was all over,” Johnson said in his confession. “I didn’t mind losing as I did so long as I knew that the loss would enable me to see my mother. But it didn’t.”

Johnson later repudiated the confession, saying he was in need of money and had said that no one would have wanted to purchase a statement that declared he had lost honestly. Fleischer said he bought the confession in order to suppress it since Johnson had already confirmed his story wasn’t true. Willard was never implicated in the alleged fix.

“Nobody ever took Johnson’s charges of fakery seriously,” Curley said years later. “He was well past his prime, fat and dissipated, and he was worn down and knocked out by a strong, game and well-conditioned opponent.”

Willard also dismissed Johnson’s story, saying, “if Johnson throwed it, I wish he throwed it sooner. It was hotter than hell down there.”

Johnson remained in exile until July 20, 1920 when he surrendered to federal agents at the U.S.-Mexico border and was sent to the United States Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., where he served nearly 10 months before being released on July 9, 1921. Johnson fought professionally until 1931 and continued to conduct exhibitions until seven months before his death in June 1946 at age 68.

As for Willard, he fought just four more times. He outpointed Frank Moran over 10 rounds in March 1916, after which he froze the title for more than three years. His next ring outing was staged July 4, 1919 under a hellish sun in Toledo, Ohio. The opponent: Jack Dempsey. The result: A savage beating that left Willard with multiple broken bones and forced him to surrender on his stool between rounds three and four. It is interesting to note that Willard’s title reign began and ended under clouds of suspicion; Johnson alleged he had lost the title on purpose while others believe Dempsey’s hands were artificially hardened to enhance his manager’s chances of collecting a $100,000 payoff for a first-round knockout.

Willard launched a two-fight comeback in 1923, stopping Floyd Johnson in 11 rounds in May, then suffering an eighth-round KO defeat to Luis Angel Firpo in July. “The Pottawatomie Giant” lived to the ripe old age of 86 before passing away on Dec. 15, 1968.

Several fighters have worn the mantle of “boxing’s most hated man” but it is highly doubtful that anyone will ever match the white-hot rage inspired by Jack Johnson, whose tumultuous championship reign ended in typically chaotic fashion 100 years ago today.

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Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

 

 

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