- Historic Sites
The Destruction Of A Giant
How I Beat Jess Willard
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Doc was fairly twitching from nerves, which had caused his feet to swell in his shoes. Bernie was no better, having suddenly developed an uncontrollable itch. Bill Täte sweated oceans, and even Runyon, who could be spotted from my corner, was said to be unable to sit still for more than a count of five.
Scoop Gleeson, my old supporter and new pal, sat on the Willard side with Otto Floto. From the time I’d met Scoop in Frisco he’d become quite the expert on me. In addition to being a good newspaperman, he was also an effective publicist. A couple of years earlier, he had handled press relations for a colorful and dynamic dentist whose name was Parker. Before Scoop was through with him he’d convinced him to change his name legally to Dr. Painless Parker.
In the sky above there were grand goings-on as well. First, Lieutenant Locklear, the aviator, changed planes in mid-air. Then the Army balloon filled with photographers almost had a disaster, one cameraman falling into Maumee Bay. He was soon rescued, but his camera and film were lost forever.
Willard and I were called to the center of the ring to pose for pictures. I saw Ollie Pecord’s lips moving and couldn’t hear or understand a word he was saying. All I knew was that a towering Willard was standing in front of me. As we returned to our corners, something my father had once said flashed through my brain: “Son, when you find stumbling blocks in your way, use ‘em boy—as stepping stones. If you can’t go over ‘em, around ‘em or under ‘em, then goddamn it boy, go through ‘em!”
I didn’t know whether I was going to be in a fight or a foot race. Until this moment, Doc had almost convinced me that I’d be able to put Jess out in the first round, but now I wondered. When Willard raised his massive arms over his head, a kind ./f desperation overcame me and I knew I would have to use every ounce of strength I had—and then some. Not wanting anyone to suspect these emotions, I scowled fiercely and bared my teeth.
I planned to wear Willard down—in any way that was humanly possible. I had to; this moment had taken me eleven long, hard years to reach. Once our gloves were slipped on, we stepped toward each other to shake hands. As Willard moved away I realized I wasn’t just fighting for a title, I was fighting for my life.
Clang! Jesus Christ, this was it! For about thirty seconds, neither one of us led. He landed a few blows and seemed surprised when I managed to hook a left to his stomach. I missed a right and a left, and Willard slugged me again. Then I feinted with my left. Willard’s guard came down just when I smashed a left hook to the head. He went down. I saw the look of amazement in his face as he scrambled to his feet. I had Jess Willard down on the floor seven times in that first round. No one could believe what was happening. Willard was a groggy mess, his face was red and cut, he was all pink patches and welts.
Ollie Pecord started counting. Reaching ten, he counted Jess out. The crowd went wild; everyone was screaming. Doc was convinced that we’d just won the bet, despite Jimmy De Forest’s telling him to wait a minute. Willard’s being counted out didn’t correspond with De Forest’s stop watch.
“There seems to be something wrong with the bell !”
“Shut up! For $100,000 who the hell cares if there’s something wrong with the bell! Pecord! Pecord! Raise Jack’s hand! Raise his hand! He’s the new champ!”
And Ollie raised my hand, grinning. I was stunned. Doc rushed up to me, threw his arms tightly around me and told me to get out of the ring. I did, as people started to climb into the ring. Jimmy told me to move faster. We were just about by the press seats when Jimmy half turned and saw that the ring was in a state of chaos. Doc, half in and half out of the ropes, was frantically waving me back. Ollie had told him that the fight wasn’t over, and Warren Barbour, the official timekeeper, screamed over the confusion that if I didn’t get back into the ring I’d be disqualified. The bell rope had, as he called it, “fouled.” No one had heard the bell; Willard had been down only seven seconds when the round ended.
So back I went. I’d been champion for less than a minute and had no idea what it felt like. All I knew was that I was once more the contender and that Doc had lost his bet.
Tex O’Rourke, an old trainer of Willard’s, some time later blamed the foul-up squarely on the Marine drill team who had marched in the ring before the main event. He insisted that when the second canvas had been laid for the marchers, a workman must have put the holding rope over the bell, muffling its sound. [This explanation for the inaudible bell has generally been accepted as correct.]
Whatever the reason, I was back in that ring just in time for the second round. I had almost wrenched my shoulder punching Willard hard enough to drop him; now I was grimly determined to put him away. I couldn’t even understand what Doc was yelling.
Willard was a sorry sight. His face was swollen and bruised. His right eye stared at me glassily and he could hardly talk through his cracked lips. I pelted him with more blows, including a hard left to his eye, partially shutting it. He was getting bloodier and he spat out a tooth. His defenses were just about gone, and he was staggering with his tremendous arms outstretched as if to keep me at a distance.
All at once he managed to steady himself and landed a left to the chin. I clinched, holding on—it was a pretty powerful blow. When we broke away, I rained blows on him. Twice Jess managed to use short uppercuts in clinches, rocking me. I landed another on his chin. Clang! Round two was over