- Historic Sites
The Destruction Of A Giant
How I Beat Jess Willard
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
“And after that I’m going to New York to negotiate picture deals, and after that to my land which is a sand strip next to where they’ve just discovered oil. I’ll be very busy where the big money is. No stage appearances for me!”
By the time my brow gash had healed, I had been on a five-day layoff and was impatient to get moving again. I had everyone on their toes, particularly Jamaica Kid.
My twenty-fourth birthday rolled around and Doc went all out to celebrate. Everyone packed away as much booze as was humanly possible—prohibition was just about six months away. Everyone was talking about it, how they had started hoarding some time back, and screw the authorities. Doc laughed.
“Me worried? Nah. Pay enough and you’ll get enough. If any of you get stuck, come and see the Doc. He’ll fix you up good.”
That was Doc, confident as always. The press liked Doc despite his having to be in command at all times. He was the master of one-upmanship. When he was with writers, he could write; with actors, he became the biggest ham; with the press, well, he’d show them what was meant by good copy.
June, 1919. That month dragged. The days passed quickly enough but the nights were long. I couldn’t sleep and I would wander around camp in the early morning hours. Sometimes I could hear Doc and the others in the distance, talking and laughing. It annoyed me. I was irritable and anxious, but dared not show it. With everything on the line, I felt a weight in my gut.
The only person that mattered who didn’t think I had a chance against Jess Willard was my own father. His Harry, as he called me, was a gogetter, but he was no champion. He supported Willard right up to the finish. Then he changed his mind.
A prefight party, with wall-to-wall people, was held in the run-down farmhouse that was part of camp. I put in a brief appearance and then hit the sack to the faraway strains of curses, arguments, and songs.
While Doc gave his party, Jess Willard met with Tex Rickard to discuss plans for the future. According to some of the boys present, Willard downed an entire bottle of gin. Even Tex was surprised; after all, the fight was the following day. Rickard apparently asked him if the booze wasn’t pretty potent medicine. Jess reportedly replied that it wouldn’t do him any harm since meeting me in the ring would only be exercise.
That night I, William Harrison Dempsey, known as Jack, young aspirant to a world heavyweight crown, slept with my eyes open.
Morning finally dawned, a dawn I was to remember for the rest of my life. Doc came over to see how I was doing. I was aware of his presence but I couldn’t take in his words. I seemed unable to shift my concentration away from the coming events of the day.
He told me that Willard was still sleeping, since he didn’t want to strain himself unnecessarily before the bout. Why should Jess worry? Fighting me was going to be a snap.
I worked harder that morning than ever before, punching bags, throwing and catching the medicine ball to strengthen my stomach muscles, pulling weights, and doing some lastminute sparring before the weigh-in.
“Don’t show no emotion, no anxiety, no nothing, Kid. The press is just waiting for you to crack—it’d be good copy. Be careful!”
Doc had a point. I made sure that I didn’t even look into Willard’s face for fear my eyes would give me away. Staring at my own feet was safer. I couldn’t take a chance on being psyched out.
I weighed in at 187 pounds and Jess Willard at 245. Almost sixty pounds and five inches separated us. Jess was like a mountain; he was even bigger close up, in those blue trunks of his. I ignored him and he sneered. We weren’t to meet until 4 P.M.
Willard was the five-to-four favorite and was pretty damn cocksure. He even had the nerve to approach Doc for legal immunity in case he killed me. For Doc this was the last straw. He wouldn’t tolerate any more of Willard’s snide remarks. He’d been waiting for this moment as long as he could remember, and he told Willard off good.
By noontime the temperature in Toledo was about 106°, causing the pitch and resin really to flow out of the new wooden seats in the arena. Tex had enjoyed telling one and all that not only had the construction taken two months and 520 men, but if the boards were placed end to end, they would reach from New York to Chicago. The cushion and umbrella sellers were the only ones who had no complaints that day. Those who hadn’t purchased a cushion either faced the alternative of ruining the seat of their pants or standing for the duration of the fight. Drink vendors declared a liquid catastrophe—they were sold out in an hour. The ice cream vendors didn’t have a scoop in sight, and sandwich stands were stuck with gooey, unsold stock.
Bat Nelson had gotten up early that morning. Because it was a special occasion, and July 4 as well, he had decided to take a bath whether he needed it or not. One of the more enterprising concessionaires, obviously anticipating a great rush, had moved several barrels of lemonade into a hog shed located near the arena. As luck would have it, Bat had come across the hog shed and mistook the tubs of lemonade for water. He jumped in, cake of soap and all, and had his bath. Because no one and nothing went unnoticed in camp, word spread like a brush fire. The lemonade went completely untouched by those who knew. Tough luck for those who didn’t.