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The Only Contender
Harry Wills might have been heavyweight champion of the world. But the world wouldn’t let him.
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
That idea didn’t at all suit the people around Dempsey. “Persons with whom he had discussed the contest,” promoter Tex Rickard said, had advised against it for “the racial feelings that a bout between a white man and a colored boxer might engender.” High officials in Washington said no, Rickard explained. “Color line,” said the champion’s manager, Doc Kearns. So Dempsey fought others, appeared in vaudeville for a couple of thousand a night, made movies, went on the stage, and went to Europe to take on three or four amateurs a day. Wills meanwhile plodded on, his manager Paddy MuIlins placing full-page ads in Ring magazine saying, “The one and only contender for Jack Dempsey’s crown, Harry Wills, extends Yuletide greetings to his many well-wishers. Ignored by Jack Dempsey, Harry Wills is recognized throughout the world as the only logical contender for the titleholder.”
In New York there was the black vote to consider. The State Athletic Commission ordered Dempsey to defend against Wills or forfeit his boxer’s license. However, the commission said, the fight could not take place in New York for fear of race riots if Wills won. A Michigan promoter offered big-money guarantees. Wills took fifty thousand dollars as down payment, but when three hundred thousand couldn’t be gotten up for the champion, the fight went down the drain. It was whispered that the whole proposition was a concealed bribe to keep Wills quiet.
For six Roaring Twenties years it went on, vague stories that Far West people were offering two million for a meeting in Los Angeles, that interests in Tijuana, London, Berlin, and Jersey City were ready to go ahead with the fight. Wills throughout remained as dispassionate as his black-fighter’s style. “It’s all bunk, this talk about the menace of colored supremacy if I meet Jack Dempsey and lick him,” he told Collier’s magazine in early 1926. If either of them, or both of them together, he said, entered the ring against a gorilla or a mule, the gorilla or mule would be champion. What did that prove?
Later in that year, 1926, Dempsey for the first time in three years fought a real opponent. Gene Tunney stabbed him silly. A few weeks later at the Ebbets Field ballpark of the Brooklyn Dodgers it was seen that the years had left behind another great fighter whose day had passed. Fighters age early; it happens to all of them. The future heavyweight champion Sailor Jack Sharkey butchered Harry Wills. One fight later, again at Ebbets Field, the Basque Woodchopper, Paulino Uzcudun, put him away in four.
So it was over. He had saved his money, lived with his Sarah in a commodious apartment of the thirty-unit rental building he owned in Harlem. A fight fan born when he died will have in the thirty-five years since then seen, with the proliferation of titles offered by the World Boxing Council, the International Boxing Federation, and the World Boxing Association, the heavyweight champions Patterson, Liston, AIi, Frazier, Foreman, Spinks, Holmes, Berbick, Tubbs, Witherspoon, Tucker, Smith, Dokes, Tyson, Douglas, Holyfield, Bowe, Lewis, and maybe a few others whose names escape memory—all black, like the man to whom it was never granted that he be given a title shot. Some people, it is said, are born too late. Then there are those born too early.