Boxing Across the Nation: Kansas – Jess Willard: “Pottawatomie Giant” Lives in Boxing History
Boxing has been apart of the American sports scene since the 1700s by way of England. It started by infiltrating the larger port towns before eventually working its way into the lexicon of America. Now it showcases some of the most talented combat sports athletes in the world. We will embark on a 50 part saga exploring the best boxers representing the United States. Some states will have more athletes to choose from than others but the journey will be quite the ride. Let’s embark on the journey looking at an interesting fighter or bout from each state. Our 16th entry is the state of Kansas.
Check out the 15 states we have covered by clicking below:
Kansas, the 34th state to join the Union, touches down next on our list. Ranking 36th as far as the states go in population, the state has actually sent a handful of boxers to compete in the Olympic games. The state just recently held their first world title fight card in May 2018, when home-state Olympic medalist, Nico Hernandez, won the vacant IBF flyweight championship. Though it’s recent history for the state to host a world championship fight, they have given birth to an early-history world champion. The man to dethrone the infamous Jack Johnson to become the eighth lineal world champion, Jess Willard. “Pottawatomie Giant” was born in the small community of Saint Clere, which is located in the northeast section of Kansas.
Early Life of the “Pottawatomie Giant”
Jess Willard was born on Thursday, December 29, 1881, in Saint Clere, Kansas. Saint Clere is located in the county of Pottawatomie, thus the origins of the giant’s nickname. The give you an idea of the point in history in which Willard was born, earlier the same year, Kansas became the first state to prohibit alcoholic beverages. James Garfield became president along with the infamous American shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. In the boxing world, the first lineal world heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan, would not be crowned until Willard was four years old.
Beginning of Hall of Fame Career
Towering over his foes at nearly 6’7″ and 245lbs, Willard began boxing later in life at the age of 27. In just two years later, Willard began his career in February 1911 by suffering a loss to Lewis Fink in Oklahoma by disqualification in the 10th round. The disqualification was due to Willard striking while in the clinch. Willard wanted a return bout and got it just two bouts later, knocking out Fink this time in the third round. After the initial loss, Willard tore up the Oklahoma scene winning his next six fights in the row spanning five months. He ended his first year of action with a loss to Joe Cox. Willard continued marching along in his career and made his venture out west to the boxing capital of San Fransisco.
Later going on to earn a total of 81 career victories, Gunboat Smith, battled the giant Willard in just his third professional fight in May 1913. Both fighters went the full 20 rounds and Smith was announced the winner. According to the San Francisco Call May 22, 1913, edition. many fans were in support of a draw or even leaning toward Willard as the victory.
On August 22, 1913, Willard would have an unfortunate encounter in the ring with Bull Young. The event took place in Vernon, California, and saw Willard win by devastating first-round knockout. So devastating in fact that Young would die in surgery the next day while doctors were attempting to relieve pressure off of his brain from a cerebral hemorrhage. Eight fights and seven months later, Willard would earn his shot at the heavyweight championship, a victory that would put him in the boxing history books forever.
Jack Johnson Fight
On Monday, April 05, 1915, Jack Johnson entered the ring on a six-year reign as the world’s lineal heavyweight champion. 20,000 fans packed the Oriental Park Racetrack in Marianao, Cuba. In October 1912, Johnson was subject to arrest for violating the Mann Act, which is “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” Johnson fled to Europe then to Cuba, which is why this mega-fight did not happen in one of the large American stadiums.
During weigh-ins, Willard weighed in at a solid 238.5 pounds for his 6’6″ frame. Johnson was coming off of a six-round exhibition bout with Sam McVey and weighed in at a bit heavier than normal 225lbs. Despite the weigh-ins, Johnson was still the 8-to-5 betting favorite. The bout was set for 45 rounds and would see the end of Johnson’s run as flamboyant champion.
In round 26 (a distance far from any boxing bout you will see again) Willard landed the blow that dropped Johnson. The TKO stoppage was called at 1:26 into the 26th round. At first, Johnson was gracious in defeat telling the New York Times, “It was a clean knockout and the best man won. It was not a matter of luck. I have no kick coming.” Nine months later though, Johnson would have a change of heart and claim he threw the bout. This came after RING publisher Nat Fleischer paid Johnson $250 for a written/typed confession of what happened. According to Willard, “If Johnson throwed it, I wish he throwed it sooner. It was hotter than hell down there.”
Jack Dempsey Fight and Controversy
Willard’s career was at the very tail end when he won the lineal championship. Only four fights remained in his career after the Jackson bout. It would be almost a full year before Willard defended the title for the first time, which was against Frank Moran. Willard won the bout by a “newspaper decision” setting up a massive matchup that would take place over three years later. On July 04, 1919, over three years since his March 25, 1916, title defense, against one of the sport’s all-time legends in Jack Dempsey.
July 04, 1919, saw nearly 20,000 fans pack the Bay View Park Arena in Toledo, Ohio for Willard’s second title defense. The ringside temperature at bout-time was 110 degrees at 4:09 pm, and the action inside the ring was just as hot. Across the way was the much shorter, but equally as touch, Jack Dempsey. It was a rough start for Willard, eating a left hook that dropped him, going down for the first time in his career.
There would be a total of eight knockdowns on Dempsey’s part in the first round alone. The rules were a bit different and did not require the fighter to move to the other side of the ring. Dempsey would hound over Willard and knock him off his feet as quick as he could get back to them. During the third round, Willard’s corner called for an end to the fight, crowning Dempsey as the new undisputed champion.
Over 40 years later, Willard stated in an interview that Dempsey’s used “loaded gloves” to defeat him. He stated Dempsey held a metal bolt in the palm of the glove, using it to cause cuts and bleeding. In the January 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack Kearns, Dempsey’s manager, stated Dempsey’s wraps were treated like “Plaster of Paris,” but Dempsey was unaware. The memoir was published after Kearns death and it should also be noted that Dempsey and Kearns had a big fallout at the end of his career, never reconciling. Dempsey has always denied claims of cheating.
End of Career
Many believed Willard to have been retired after the Dempsey bout. Four years had passed since the loss and Willard was only active in exhibition bouts. Promotor Tex Rickard was promoting fights in a new building known famously worldwide as “Yankee Stadium.” On May 12, 1923, nearly 63,000 fans packed this new stadium for what was believed to be an easy win for challenger Floyd Johnson. After losing the majority of the fight, Willard landed a big knockout in the ninth round and eventually again in the 11th round, leading to the TKO stoppage and victory for Willard. Willard would give the dice a roll one more time just two months later.
In the matchup known as “The Battle of the Giants,” Willard entered the ring for the last time, but against a foe nearly as massive on July 12, 1923. One of Argentina’s all-time greats, Luis Firpo, would share the ring with Willard in front of 75,000 fans in Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey. Firpo would end up knocking out Willard in the eighth round while taking the majority of the rounds on the scorecards anyway.
Post-Boxing Career and Death
Willard would go on to have an acting career, appearing in several boxing-themed movies. The biggest movie he appeared in was alongside fellow boxer Max Baer in The Prizefighter and the Lady. The movie was released in 1933. The movie’s writer, Frances Marion, was nominated for an Academy Award for the “Best Writing” category. Along with Baer, Willard appeared with fellow boxers Dempsey and Primo Carnera.
Making it to the ripe age of 86, Willard passed away from congestive heart failure on December 15, 1968. At the time of his death, he was the longest-living world champion, only to be outdone by career foe Dempsey, who died in 1983 at the age of 87.
I am a life-long MMA fan who has been a fan since UFC 1. I was born in Illinois but raised in South Louisiana, home of many great mixed martial artists. I started martial arts at the age of 4 and continued into my adult years where I served nearly 10 years in law enforcement. I feel my job is to convey the stories of the MMA fighters we enjoy to watch and share their stories with the world.
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