Jess Willard: Heavyweight Champion of the World
by Arly Allen with the assistance of James Willard Mace
300 pp. $35.00
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Not a lot has been written about Jess Willard. Part of the reason for that is because his championship reign was bookended by two champions who not only are considered all time greats, but who were also very colorful figures. It is unfortunate the Willard story has not been told as it is a very interesting one. That oversight has now been rectified with the very detailed account of the Pottawatomie Giant’s life written by Arly Allen. Mr. Allen was fortunate to have had the assistance of Mr. Willard’s grandson James Willard Mace. He also had access to Jess Willard’s unpublished autobiography. The result is a lively story about a man who, while preferring a peaceful life, was repeatedly finding himself in controversial situations.
Willard only had 22 bouts in his 23 year career, but at least two of those bouts are still argued about by boxing historians to this day. Arly Allen digs deep into the details of both those bouts, the title winning knock out of Jack Johnson and Jess’ loss to Jack Dempsey. Mr. Allen has strong views on both of these fights and he presents plenty of evidence to back up his conclusions. Whether or not he changes minds remains to be seen. He certainly has added much to the discussion. Did Jack Johnson take a dive in the 26th round of the bout in Havana? Were Jack Dempsey’s gloves loaded in Toledo? There isn’t a boxing historian on the planet who doesn’t have an opinion on these controversies. Agree or not, they should all enjoy reading this book.
Jess was born in Kansas in 1881. The young Willard was tall and lanky and was an excellent athlete who excelled at swimming and running. He was also an excellent horseman. The easy going Kansan hardly seemed the type to go in for boxing. In fact, he didn’t really care for the sport, but did get caught up in the search for a Great White Hope to defeat Jack Johnson. Willard’s size, six foot six and a half coupled with his agility got him noticed. His lack of a killer instinct was also picked up on. It seems Jess found it difficult to throw the full force of his body into punches unless he was hit hard first. He also had an aversion to fighting men smaller than he was as he was afraid he would cause them serious harm. Indeed, Willard did kill a man in the ring. His bout with another big man, William “Bull” Young ended in tragedy when Young died the day after his fight with Jess. Willard was devastated by this event but continued to pursue a career in boxing.
Mr. Allen’s research comes up with many interesting facts about Willard’s life. He was repeatedly ending up in court because of boxing in places where the sport was illegal or not clearly defined, because of financial disputes, and the Young situation where he was charged with manslaughter of which he was acquitted. It becomes clear that Jess was an honest man who, and with good reason, didn’t trust anyone around him. This distrust led him to enter the ring against Jack Dempsey without having solid people in his corner to watch out for him. If he had, the results of that bout may have been different.
In an interesting story leading up to the Dempsey fight Mr. Allen relates how there were three people who thought Jess might very possibly kill Jack that afternoon in the ring. They were Jess, Tex Rickard, and Jack Dempsey himself. Jack wouldn’t make eye contact with Willard when he entered the ring. There is much more and it is all very thought provoking.
From the time Jess won the title in 1915 until his loss to Dempsey in 1919 he only defended the title one time. He did, however, make quite a bit of money by making personal appearances, putting on exhibitions, and investing in a traveling circus. Willard made and lost fortunes over his life time.
Willard’s blunt manner often got him into trouble. Mr. Allen relates the time Jess was booked for an appearance in Boston. He was to be paid $2,000.00 for one evening, a very substantial amount of money for that time. His visit also coincided with the running of the Boston Marathon. When Jess was asked to appear at the finish line he refused saying that if people wanted to see him they would have to pay. Needless to say, this left a bad taste in the mouths of Bostonians and only a small crowd showed up for his paid appearance. There is a similar story regarding Jess and Harry Houdini. These tales all make for fascinating reading.
There is much for boxing historians to learn from Mr. Allen’s well written book. For instance, I knew that the actor Victor McLaglen had fought Jack Johnson in an exhibition bout when Johnson was champion. I did not know that he also once boxed Bob Fitzsimmons and that he went four rounds with Willard.
The Jess Willard story is a fascinating one. He was a decent man who managed to get the public to turn hot and cold for and against him. He always felt he could beat Dempsey and even when nearing the age of forty he campaigned for a rematch. That bout would have happened if he had not been stopped by Luis Firpo. An interesting note, the Firpo bout was held at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in New Jersey, the site of the Dempsey v Carpentier bout. The fight drew nearly 100,000 people, approximately 10,000 more than the Dempsey / Carpentier fight. Willard received nearly $210,000.00 for the fight. That is an astronomical amount for the time.
There is so much more to this book. Willard was champ during WW I and during flu epidemic. The stories of his real estate and farming investments, his sixty year marriage to Hattie and the lovely family they raised all make for fascinating reading. Jess Willard deserves the attention of boxing fans and this book is the place to start. He was not just the guy who held the title between Johnson and Dempsey. He was a deeply interesting man.