Jess Myron Willard (December 29, 1881 – December 15, 1968) was an American world heavyweight boxing champion billed as the Pottawatomie Giant who knocked out Jack Johnson in April 1915 for the heavyweight title. Willard was known for size rather than skill, and though held the championship for more than four years, he defended it rarely and was in person reserved. In 1919, when he was 37 years of age he lost the title in an extremely one sided loss by declining to come out for the fourth round against Jack Dempsey, who became a more celebrated champion. Soon after the bout Willard began accusing Dempsey of using something with the effect of a knuckle duster. Dempsey did not grant Willard a return match, and at 42 years old he was KO’d, following which he retired from boxing, although for the rest of his life continued claiming Dempsey had cheated. Ferdie Pacheco expressed the opinion in a book that the surviving photographs of Willard’s face during the Dempsey fight indicate fractures to Willard’s facial bones suggesting a metal implement, and show he was bleeding heavily. The matter has never been resolved, with contemporaneous ringside sports journalist reporting by the NYT that Willard spat out at least one tooth and was “a fountain of blood” increasingly discounted in favor of a view that he had only a cut lip and a little bruising.
Jess Myron Willard was born on 29 December 1881 at Saint Clere, Kansas. In his teenage years and twenties he worked as a cowboy. He was of mostly English ancestry, which had been in North America since the colonial era. The first member of the Willard family arrived in Virginia in the 1630s.
A powerfully built 6 ft 6 1⁄2 in (1.99 m) and 245 lb (111 kg), Willard did not begin began boxing until the age of 27, but proved successful, defeating top-ranked opponents to earn a chance to fight for the Championship. He said he started boxing because he did not have much of an education, but thought his size and strength could earn him a good living. He was a gentle and friendly person and did not enjoy boxing or hurting people, so often waited until his opponent attacked him before punching back, which made him feel at ease as if he were defending himself. He was often maligned as an uncoordinated oaf rather than a skilled boxer, but his counter-punching style, coupled with his enormous strength and stamina, proved successful against top fighters. His physical strength was so great that he was reputed to be able to kill a man with a single punch, which unfortunately proved to be a fact during his fight with Jack “Bull” Young in 1913, who was punched in the head and killed in the 9th round. Willard was charged with second-degree murder, but was successfully defended by lawyer Earl Rogers.
On April 5, 1915, in front of a huge crowd at the new Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, he knocked out champion Jack Johnson in the 26th round to win the world heavyweight boxing championship. Johnson later claimed to have intentionally lost the fight, despite the fact there is evidence of Willard winning fairly, which can be seen clearly in the recorded footage, as well as the comments Johnson made to his cornermen between rounds and immediately after the fight, and that he bet $2500 on himself to win. Willard said, “If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he’d done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there.” Johnson later acknowledged lying about the throwing the fight after footage of the fight was made widely available in the United States. Shortly after the fight Jack Johnson had actually accepted defeat gracefully saying “Willard was too much for me, I just didn’t have it.”
Johnson found that he could not knock out the giant Willard, who fought as a counterpuncher, making Johnson do all the leading. Johnson began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th-round knockout. Johnson’s claim of a “dive” gained momentum because most fans only saw a still photo of Johnson lying on the canvas shading his eyes from the broiling Cuban sun. No films of the fight were allowed to be shown in the United States because of an inter-state ban on the trafficking of fight films that was in effect at the time. Most boxing fans only saw the film of the Johnson-Willard fight when a copy was found in 1967.
Willard fought several times over the next four years, but made only one official title defense prior to 1919, defeating Frank Moran on March 25, 1916, at Madison Square Garden.Panorama of Willard’s title fight against Jack Johnson in Havana, Cuba, 1915
At age 37, Willard lost his title to Dempsey on July 4, 1919, in Toledo. Dempsey knocked Willard down for the first time in his career with a left hook in the first round. Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times in the first round—although it should be remembered that rules at the time permitted standing almost over a knocked-down opponent and hitting him again as soon as both knees had left the canvas. At one point Dempsey left the ring mistakenly thinking the fight was over, and under the rules could have been disqualified, but Willard had economised by not employing professional cornermen and they failed to insist on application of the regulations. Dempsey won the title when Willard was unable to continue after the third round. In the fight, Willard was later reputed to have suffered a broken jaw, cheekbone, and ribs, as well as losing several teeth. His attempt to fight to the finish, ending when he was unable to come out for the fourth round, is considered one of the most courageous performances in boxing history. However, the extent of Willard’s injuries have been highly disputed and are now unclear since multiple independent reporting only a few days after the fight said were no trace of any damage other than a couple of bruises.