- Historic Sites
The Destruction Of A Giant
How I Beat Jess Willard
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
William Harnson, better known as Jack, Dempsey, a bruising heavyweight prize fighter from Manassa, Colorado, had been fighting for eleven years when, in igiff, he managed to get a crack at the world championship title. Under the ßamboyant and often unscrupulous management of Jack “Doc” Kearns, Dempsey had piled up an impressive string of wins—often first-round knockouts—and Jess Willard, the mountainous, 36-year-old champion, had finally been cajoled and bullied into defending his title against the aggressive 24-yearold. Today, Jack Dempsey, eighty-one years old, tells the story ofthat historic and brutal fight and of a time when boxing was rougher and seamier than it is now. His new autobiography, Dempsey, from which the following excerpt is adapted, has been written with the help of his stepdaughter, Barbara Piattelli Dempsey, and will be published by Harper & Row this month.
The fight for the championship was held in Toledo, Ohio, in the heart of the Midwest, bordering the western shore of Lake Erie and the Michigan line to the north. In those days, 1919, the city was a haven for prominent gamblers and hustlers who were on the lam. Once in a while local authorities would crack down and the crap games would cease until new locations were found.
Tex Rickard, who promoted the fight, managed to construct his arena with the best new lumber he could find—which was a mistake. The hotter the temperature became, the stickier the seats got as the sap oozed out. He was so proud of his beautiful arena that he would take walks around it, praising it like a newborn baby. He even had it inspected by the building inspector.
The Overland Club, where I trained, was located on the shore of Maumee Bay in Toledo. From the moment we arrived, the air was tense with excitement. Newspapermen were all around and Doc Kearns took full advantage of their presence.
“We’ve got to move fast, talk fast and hope that the odds’ll change.”
People seemed to be coming from all over, and private homes in the area rented out rooms and offered home cooking. The favorite pastimes were speculation, prediction, and contradiction; journalists excelled at all three. Otto Floto of the Denver Post and Scoop Gleeson of the San Francisco Bulletin came out for me before any of the others.
Damon Runyon, who wrote for the Hearst papers, was very busy in the weeks before the fight and proved to be an invaluable friend. He had become one of my favorite people. I always felt that if I ever fell down, I could safely land on either Damon or Gene Fowler, who was working then for the New York American . Damon would sit and talk with me for hours, listening to my ideas, my plans, and my outrageous Kearns-like philosophies. He was the most patient man I knew. He went through ups and downs like everyone else but kept his problems to himself, not wanting to inflict himself on others.
“You know, Jack, people don’t really give a hoot about what you’re saying. Most of them are just sitting there waiting for you to pause so that they can interrupt and retread the conversation back to their favorite subjects—themselves.”
He told me that a man of few words is, as a rule, more respected than one whose words foam in his mouth. Damon used to laugh at some people because of this; seems that every time he clammed up (which was often), others would start babbling furiously, as if they felt the necessity of talking for two. Because of his friendship with me, and because he was privy to littleknown information, Runyon was frequently resented by the other newspapermen—some of them the same ones who had slammed their doors in my face several years before.
I was training in Toledo long before Willard arrived. My trainer, Jimmy De Forest, an incredible dynamo, dedicated himself to me morning, noon, and night. He and Doc, as always, disagreed on all but one thing: Neither of them wanted me to overtrain and go stale, so they had me alternate one week of training with one week of rest. The rest weeks always seemed to be too long, but the locals who came to see me kept me occupied. Kids would take turns sitting on my lap or at my feet while I told them tales of wild bears and moose. I could play baseball on the beach with friends or I could run the hundred-yard dash. In short, I could do anything I wanted to do that week except train.
In addition to training, I would lay off food one day a month to give my body a rest. It seemed strange doing such a thing out of choice, when a few years ago I didn’t eat out of necessity.
Moods in training camps can always be felt from the very beginning. In mine, monkey business and shenanigans were kept to a minimum and morale was high. Sure, we had the usual hangers-on, kibitzers, and experts—everyone did—but mine were unique. Some of them were to hang on tightly for the next fifty years.
Doc lashed out at Willard every opportunity he got. It was easy since he wasn’t around to defend himself.
“Beat Willard? Why, I’d like to take a crack at that big stiff! A cinch, nothing to it! After this is over, I’m going to try and sign Jack with Georges Carpentier, who I hear is fighting again. If he won’t come here, why, then, we’ll go to France. Or Britain!”
He knew just what to say and, what’s more, he thoroughly enjoyed reading what he said afterward.
“The challenger is ready to go into the ring and he is in condition to box all night against any man in the world!”
Box all night? For a moment he really threw me, but then I remembered he’d say anything.
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?
One afternoon, while sparring in the ring, Willard accidently knocked his pal Walter out cold, causing a great deal of commotion. In a fight camp, then as now, everything is blown up and, no matter how insignificant, becomes newsworthy—especially when the press is tired of rehashing all the well-worn statistics and has run out of things to write about. So the next day, Walter Monaghan’s statement made the news.
“How Jess can hit when he is in earnest! We were only fooling around this afternoon, but you saw how that right came over, didn’t you? I saw it coming, and accustomed as I am to boxing with him, I could not get away from it. You can imagine how the big fellow will hit when he gets into the ring July 4. Say, if he hits Dempsey on the jaw with the old right, they will probably pick up Jack Kearns’s hope in the ten-dollar seats somewhere.”
This infuriated Doc.
“Fooling around? Why, that Willard doesn’t have the brains to fool around. That entire camp is beginning to give me a real pain. If Monaghan has any more comments, he should come directly to me. Why, Jack'11 put Willard away in the first round!”
This in turn annoyed W’illard, so he invited me to watch him train anytime I wanted. Naturally, his offer was turned down. Doc didn’t want to risk my getting anxious, especially since he’d placed a bet on me—which he didn’t tell me about until I was ready to step into the ring. It seems that Doc had approached John “Get Rich Quick” Ryan, a gambler around town. Doc asked Ryan what the odds on a first-round knockout were, for a good friend. Ryan gave him ten to one. That sounded pretty good to Doc, as well as to Damon Runyon. who was along.
Ryan asked Doc, “How much does your friend want to bet?”
The bet was on. Doc and Runyon then hustled around for the dough. It took them all night. Now, if I put Willard away in the first, we would stand to make S 100,000 in addition to our guarantee.
Personally, Doc didn’t think Willard had ever been judged accurately as a fighter. Around the time of the Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight in Havana, a law was passed prohibiting interstate shipment of fight films. It was only a good many years later that the film of the fight was seen and analyzed, revealing an even contest between Johnson and Willard for twenty rounds before Jack Johnson was apparently knocked out. Doc had somehow seen the fight film and was convinced that Jess Willard was far from a natural fighter. To Doc, he lacked the animal instinct, the inner fury, and the all-important lust for battle.
Jess Willard might not have been a natural fighter, but he sure was confident—confident enough to worry about killing me.
The heat in Toledo was mounting, affecting moods and tempers. It seemed to get hotter and muggier from hour to hour. In the training camp, we found we appreciated as many laughs as we could get, so a man named Max Kaplan appointed himself camp comedian and told old jokes. On a few occasions, Max, Jimmy De Forest, and I entertained the camp, strutting through the grounds with a huge banner proclaiming ourselves to be “The Great and Grand Maumee Bay Band.” We would sing, dance, and take turns blowing on the kazoo. Kids would trail after us as if we were pied pipers. Anything for a laugh. That is, until Max sang his medley of old Yiddish songs. Then everyone cried and cursed Max for making them blubber. We were like one great big family—for the first and last time.
Doc, like everyone else, had his good days and his bad days. He seemed to have difficulty in finding suitable outlets for relaxation. He drank a lot and spat words out like bullets until I’d get worried and speak to him. Then he’d go dry. Just like that. Cold. With no hangover, nothing. The man was truly unique. The only times he would get really sore at me were when I’d take the wheel of the Stutz (borrowed on credit) and go for a drive with Doc sitting beside me. As he saw it, I was now a large investment, and investments shouldn’t drive.
Doc could usually be found with the newspapermen and photographers who swarmed around both camps. One of the unforgettable people in this group was the former lightweight Oscar Matthew “Battling” Nelson, who had been assigned by the Chicago Daily News to cover the fight. Instead of staying with the other reporters, Battling Nelson set himself up in a pup tent by the arena, which was a fair distance away from the training activities. It was his big assignment and he didn’t want to chance missing the fight. Once, at two o’clock in the morning, someone suggested paying Bat a visit. When they got to the tent he was sleeping soundly. Within seconds the pup tent’s pegs had been pulled, leaving poor Bat all tangled up in the tent. By the time he emerged, there was no one in sight.
The days wore on. I trained, I rested, and I thought. I was seldom inactive—inactivity led to laziness, and laziness led to a dead end. No, thanks.
Once, while I was sparring with Jamaica Kid, a gash opened over my right eye. Doc panicked. I assured him it’d be okay by fight time. Someone suggested my wearing a headgear. Doc couldn’t see the “practicality of the damned thing,” but I could, and I insisted on wearing it. The headgear protected my brows and kept my ears from getting knocked in. As soon as Willard’s men saw this, they suggested that maybe he should consider wearing one also. He scoffed at the idea. Newfangled junk, he called it. If he didn’t think of something first, then it wasn’t worth a plugged nickel. He told a few people that, strange or otherwise my training methods would end for good on July 4.
“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.
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.
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
“As Willard moved away I realized I wasn ‘t just ßghtingfora title, I was fighting for my life.”
By now I was feeling exhausted and my body was throbbing. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine going the scheduled twelve rounds. The heat had started to get to me; I kept sucking in air, but I felt as though I wasn’t getting any.
Jess Willard had a worse time of it. He had trouble finding his corner; he couldn’t seem to see straight or to hold himself up. Spectators were shouting for Pecord to stop the fight.
When the bell sounded for the third round, my arms felt like lead weights. Willard was now an object of pity, completely at my mercy. He was spent and he made no attempt to fight back. I pounded rights and lefts to the head and the body while he tried unsuccessfully to cover up. He threw a left uppercut, but it was too late. The weaker he looked, the stronger I felt. I knew it was almost over. I hit him again and he staggered, about to go down, when he was saved by the bell. I went back to my corner on legs that felt like rubber. I looked over toward Willard. His face was distorted by a broken cheekbone and he was having trouble holding his head up. I felt sick. I hadn’t realized that my inner fury could do so much damage.
I couldn’t wait for this massacre to end; I was sapped both mentally and physically. I looked at Willard again—I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off him. He was a broken man now, he had nothing left. Willard’s people called the referee over and told him that Willard couldn’t make it out for the fourth. Ike O’Neal and Walter Monaghan then threw in the bloodspattered towel.
I won. I won. My God, I won! I made it! I was the new champion!
Hoots and jeers greeted Jess’s decision. Shouts of “Quitter” were heard through the overall noise. I knew it must have hurt. But Willard was no quitter; any man who stood up to take what I had given him was no quitter in my book. Willard had been the people’s White Hope. He had “brought back” the title from Jack Johnson. Now, at about thirty-seven years of age, he appeared all washed up. Jess congratulated me and wished me luck and everything that went with the championship.
All hell broke loose. Benches were smashed, telegraph poles pulled down. Hats flew into the ring, and thousands—or what seemed to me to be thousands—were tumbling into the ring to congratulate me, to touch me, to tell me off. Bernie and Rickard tried to get my attention at the same time, and I was almost pounded to the floor with all the backslapping. The crowd surged forward, pushing security guards and policemen aside. I was lifted up in the air, hoisted onto a cushion of shoulders, and carried to my dressing room. The dressing room itself was so crowded that I had difficulty taking a shower. Everyone stared at me as I dressed. Everyone wanted to shake my hand. It felt swell.
Doc was delirious, but I found it difficult to grasp what had happened. Tex said I was great, that I packed quite a wallop. Now, he said, I had to learn certain things all over again as champion. I didn’t know what he meant. All was not smooth with Tex. He bitterly criticized the United States Railroad Administration, saying that he had gotten reports that as many as twenty thousand people had been kept away from the Bay View area because the Government was refusing to place more coaches at the fans’disposal.
We went back to the hotel accompanied by God knows how many people. Doc and I were interviewed and it looked like it would be an all-night affair. Around ten o’clock I thankfully hit the sack. Doc stayed below to celebrate.
Some said that Willard was ignored after the fight. Allegedly, he told members of the press to leave him alone—and leave him alone they did, after he made a few statements to the effect that I must have had something in my gloves and that we were nothing but a bunch of manipulating gangsters, Kearns being the ringleader. One day, he vowed, he’d write a book and tell all.
We ignored him. He was acting the part of a sore loser who didn’t know what he was talking about. The only thing in my glove was my fist. He took his defeat bitterly, and some of his hangers-on, for fear of being contaminated by a loser, disappeared. Gene Fowler told me some time later that Jess had dressed himself in his usual ill-fitting clothes and stumbled halfblind along a fence, looking for an exit, when a friend recognized him and took him in hand until they found Ray Archer. Archer then drove Willard home. Reportedly, the porches of neighboring houses were packed with women wiping their eyes as if there had been a death in the area. Apparently Mrs. Willard was glad that Jess had lost because it meant they would finally be able to live in peace as private citizens along with their five children. She despised the butchering that went on in the fight game.
That night was to remain vivid in my mind for a long time. I managed to peel off my clothes and flop into bed—where I dreamed the fight all over again. In my dream, Willard knocked me out. I woke up in a cold sweat, confused. I climbed out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom, turning on the overhead light. I peered at my face and saw some small dried patches of blood on it. I felt paralyzed. Pulling on my pants and shirt, I rushed out into the hall. The night clerk was busy. Not realizing I had forgotten to put my shoes on, I ran outside, my heartbeat sounding in my ears. A newsboy was hollering “Extra, Extra! Read all about it !”
“Ain’t you Jack Dempsey?” the newsboy asked.
I grabbed a paper. There it was, my name in big, bold headlines. I was the Heavyweight Champion of the World. All of a sudden, standing barefoot on the street with a newsboy at my side, I felt the full impact of my victory. I had the impulse to yell “Look at me! I did it!” but held myself back. I reached into my pockets to give the kid a buck but found my pockets empty. I told him to pick it up in the morning from the room clerk.
“You don’t owe me nothin’—Champ!”