- Historic Sites
The Destruction Of A Giant
How I Beat Jess Willard
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
The arena’s seats weren’t selling quite up to Tex’s expectations. He’d priced the reserved ringside seats at $60—an exorbitant sum at a time when many people made only $10 a week. The general admission seats were $10 and the cheapest seats $2. Not many people were ready to fork out sixty bucks for this bout, so the scalpers and the sharks took turns standing by the gates, approaching anyone they saw, even women. Rickard’s arena had a special women’s section—a first—but many people griped about the innovation.
Outside the arena, near the scalpers, stood a somewhat stocky, sprucedup guy with a curled mustache and carrying a fancy cane: Bat Masterson, the former lawman, an avid fan of Jess Willard and Otto Floto’s archenemy. He had appointed himself official collector of all spectators’ guns and knives. His assistant was a balding Wyatt Earp, who had been referee for the Bob Fitzsimmons-Tom Sharkey fight. Between the two of them, they got things done. At first all the confiscated equipment was placed neatly in piles, but by fight time the guns and knives were in a disorderly heap. Some of the rowdier boys refused to relinquish their six-shooters without a scuffle.
Bat Masterson was a master of all trades as well as a gentleman. He’d been everything from buffalo hunter and scout for General Nelson Miles during the Apache uprising in '86 to card dealer, wrestling promoter with Otto Floto in Denver, and lawman. Now he was a sports writer and boxing authority for the Morning Telegraph . He was a sharp observer of the world around him, right up to the day he died about two years later, with the following quote in his typewriter:
“There are many in this old world of ours who hold that we all get the same amount of ice. The rich get it in the summertime and the poor get it in winter.”
At three o’clock in the afternoon I was told that there were about forty to fifty thousand paid admissions. Whatever the number, Rickard’s go,ooo-seat arena was far from filled, despite the fact that all roads led to Toledo! Bay View Park was clogged with cars, bicycles, and people. Rickard, not wanting to take too big a loss, managed to sell the arena to the American Wrecking Company for $25,000 and felt better, even though it had cost over $100,000.
Suddenly it was time. Willard’s camp sent Walter Monaghan and another of his men, Ike O’Neal, over to supervise the taping of my hands. Two of my men were in Willard’s dressing room as well, while Doc ran around feverishly. Jimmy De Forest taped my hands and then slapped me on the back to wish me luck. It was a big moment for him, too.
“Willardwas theßve-to-four favorite and was pretty damn cocksure. He even had the nerve to approach Doc for legal immunity in case he killed me.”
Before I left the dressing room, Doc walked in and told me of the bet he’d put on me with its ten-to-one odds. Among my well-wishers were the sports writers Grantland Rice and Ring Lardner, Boxing Commissioner William Muldoon, the cowboy actor Tom Mix, Governor James A. Cox, and, last but not least, Damon Runyon. De Forest had his hands full keeping people out.
Three forty-eight in the afternoon. I was straining to go, having been cooped up in the dressing room for an hour and a half while we waited for the end of an eight-round semifinal bout and an exhibition of bayonet work and marching by a Marine drill team.
Time. Out of the dressing room and quickly through the aisle to the ring. Waves of heat rose from the ground. Ringside was surrounded by a sea of straw boaters and white short-sleeved shirts. I had never seen so many people gathered for a fight before. Not for one of my fights. The crowd stood up and cheered as I sprinted down the aisle accompanied by Doc, Jimmy De Forest, and Bill Täte.
A large umbrella was set up in each of our corners. Willard’s was paperbag brown while mine was plastered with advertising from the local merchants. (Doc had made sure to tap anyone who had a buck.) In the ring, a second supporting canvas had been laid down and fastened.
When Willard stepped into the ring the crowd roared its salute. I stared at this crowd, at first seeing absolutely nothing. I danced and pulled at the ropes automatically, but I was conscious of only one man—Willard. There he was, a standing giant with what seemed to be an expression of boredom and stupidity on his face. His look of annoyance in turn annoyed me. He even made noises and faces whenever he turned his back to me. His hair was plastered with some kind of goo which flashed in the hot sun. Of course, I didn’t look that great either; I hadn’t shaved in three or four days, and I was burnt the color of dark cork. I hoped I looked mean and tough enough.
Rapid gum-chewing Ollie Pecord was the referee. It was his first championship fight and he was agitated. Funny, it was my first, and I wasn’t agitated—I was downright scared.
Tex Rickard was judge on one side and Major Drexel Biddle judge on the other. In my corner were Doc, Bill Tate, Jimmy De Forest, and my brother Bernie. Ray Archer and Walter Monaghan were the main people in Willard’s corner.