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The Destruction Of A Giant
How I Beat Jess Willard
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Doc continued jabbing verbally at Willard until Jess finally decided to speak up, countering with, “Kearns is just talking off the top of his head. This will be one of the easiest bouts I ever had! What good fighter gets knocked out in the first round? I hope he comes rushing at me. I’ll fix him good!”
Many fans didn’t care too much for Jess, thinking in terms of what ring history supports—that the best heavyweights are never extra big, only big enough. Some even felt that a big man was frequently not mean enough or fast enough. And the underdog always appeals to the crowd. For some reason the most cheers are usually reserved for the smaller man, even though the bigger one may be the true underdog.
By the time Willard arrived in Toledo on a Saturday, I was firmly established with the locals. Everyone was waiting at the edge of town for Willard, but many of them were talking about me. When he pulled into town he found that his training grounds hadn’t been completed and that he lacked such necessities as downy quilts to lay under the canvas in the ring, rubdown lotions, and tapes.
Now that Willard had arrived, publicity was split right down the middle with tales, countertales, and rumors. One said that Jess had gotten so fat that he could hardly move. Another said that I had had a fight with Doc and was packing my bags and leaving camp. One absurdity after another.
My sparring partners were Jamaica Kid and Bill Täte, a Senegambian whose wife was the camp’s cook. (She wrapped cooked meat in toweling to drain off the fat and grabbed my hand to make sure I didn’t touch any roughage.) My two sparring partners were probably the finest I ever had.
Doc made sure everything ran smoothly. He was as capable as if he had had at least ten champions under his belt already. Surprisingly enough, Willard showed up without a manager. He was apparently trying to save money, but being his own mouthpiece certainly didn’t help. He just didn’t seem to fire the public spirit and imagination.
Jess was altogether different from me. He’d gone through all the hullabaloo before, and he wasn’t touched by it. Reportedly, he was a suspicious man who hated crowds. He was more retiring, more reticent, and of course much older and more weathered. When he wasn’t training, he preferred to stay quietly in a fine rented house on one of the best streets in Toledo. It had a large lawn with flowers and shrubs and—unlike my own quarters, which lacked the barest necessities—it had everything. But that was Jess. I guess I was a victim of an American syndrome: If anything’s too easy, then it can’t be any good. It’s got to be rough to be worth anything.
Doc and Tex were my biggest boosters. I absorbed it all and basked in whatever attention came my way. They agreed that I had all the makings, that I was going to be the next champ, and that they had made the right decision. They patted each other on the back and treated each other with the utmost courtesy—that is, until after the fight, when I was relieved to see them once more aiming for each other’s jugular.
Day after day I trained, up at six, then seven to ten miles of jogging followed by a hot and cold shower and a rubdown until breakfast, which consisted of meat and vegetables. After breakfast, a quick nap and then off again, sprinting a few miles. I just couldn’t believe that the crowds that jammed the roads were there to see me!
My typical afternoon consisted of exercising and sparring, which could be watched by anyone willing to shell out two bits. Afterward, more sprinting until dinner. At night everyone settled down to chewing the fat or playing gin rummy. No drugs, no drinks, and no women were allowed on camp grounds. Those were the rules.
That June was the hottest and most uncomfortable I can remember. Even the lakeside breeze didn’t seem to affect the temperature, which hovered around 104°.
Gossip raced between my training camp and Willard’s. Willard’s “secret service” even accused Doc of having visited Willard’s training grounds incognito and having had the nerve not only to spy, but to mingle with the crowd, paying the four bits admission fee. Normally I wouldn’t have put this past Doc, but we both knew that with so many members of the press around, he’d never take the risk of being recognized—or for that matter of bumping into Willard, who still detested Doc with a passion.
Willard, who scoffed at the very idea of Jack Kearns in his training camp, nevertheless said, according to friendly sources, that if I really wanted to send someone, I should send my sparring partner, Bill Tate. Big Talk on Jess’s part. Everyone knew Willard didn’t want any black sparring partners, no matter how good they were or what kind of reputation they had. Since his win over Jack Johnson in Havana, Willard had been so ridiculed and abused by Johnson’s fervent fans that he had allegedly developed an intense dislike for the entire race. This came out when Harry Wills, a good black heavyweight, applied to join Willard’s camp and was flatly refused. Subsequently, Ray Archer, Willard’s on-and-bff manager who had turned up by then, made for New York to get some other sparring partners and was severely criticized along with Willard. Archer lashed back and said something to this effect:
“I can’t hire everyone who asks tobe taken on; you can’t tell what some of them might do. I’d stake my life on the boys I’ve got with me.”
He was obviously referring to Willard’s close pal, chief advisor, and sparring partner, Walter Monaghan, who was on a forty-day Army furlough, and Jack Lavin, a fat Cleveland heavyweight who looked like he couldn’t fight, but could.
Not only did Willard lack adequate sparring partners, but he acted as his own trainer as well, figuring he knew his own condition better than anyone else. Why should he pay good money for some outsider’s system?