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The Only Contender

June 2024
5min read

Harry Wills might have been heavyweight champion of the world. But the world wouldn’t let him.

New York was suffering a newspaper strike when Harry Wills died in December of 1958, and therefore not everyone in the city of his residence knew he was gone. Elsewhere the obituaries uniformly highlighted the designation that followed him for more than thirty years: He was the man Jack Dempsey ran away from.

Dempsey never claimed otherwise. “He was gypped out of his crack at the title,” Dempsey wrote in his autobiography. There was a reason. “I never fought Wills … because he was a Negro.” In this regard Dempsey was following the lead of the first recognized heavyweight champion of the world, the Great John L. “I will not fight a Negro,” Sullivan declared in 1892. “I never have and I never shall.” His immediate successors followed his example.

Then, in 1908, Tommy Burns, trailed to Australia by Jack Johnson, gave a black man his chance, a guaranteed payday of thirty thousand dollars proving too much to resist. Burns earned his money. It had been a given in boxing for a century and more that while black boxers opposing one another could fight to kill, against a white man their style must not be too aggressive. Otherwise there’d be no further bouts for them. The accepted modus operandi for a black meeting a white was to fight defensively—slipping punches, blocking, ducking. One won not by doing but by suggesting what one could do, by letting the white man beat himself until, exhausted by his own efforts and sliced up by jabs and weakened by body blows, he eventually succumbed.

Under gray New South Wales skies Johnson showed off his superb defensive skills and restrained hitting power, not trying for a knockout. Lathered in blood running down over his ^ shoulders and staining the canvas, eye discolored, entirely frustrated, Burns cried, “Come on and fight, nigger! Fight like a white man”; Johnson fought his fight, not Burns’s. In an era where referees did not stop bouts so long as each man was capable of moving, it was left to the guardians of the law to end matters. Policemen climbed into the ring. Johnson was champion. There followed the writer Jack London’s appeal to the retired champion Jim Jeffries that he come back. “The White Man must be rescued.” It was one thing for black fighters to hold titles in other divisions, but the heavyweight championship signified supremacy, rulership, the kingship of humanity. Jeff went into training, Caesar against the barbarian, the papers said, a man who had Runnymede and Agincourt behind him opposing one who had only the jungle. But Johnson prevailed with the result that racial disturbances of a scope not seen again until the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., boiled over the country. A very complicated man, highly intelligent, Jack Johnson for his own reasons and needs played to the hilt, and beyond, the role of Bad Nigger: fast cars, diamond stickpin and cuff links, silverheaded cane and fancy clothes, golden teeth—and white women, three of whom he married and uncountable numbers of whom he could “get” whenever he pleased, he told reporters.

White America almost collapsed with relief when Johnson lost to Jess Willard. Big Jess had “restored pugilistic supremacy to the white race,” said The New York Times . Then Dempsey took Willard. It was the golden age of sports, Man o’ War, Bill Tilden, Babe Ruth. In such a world there was a place for Harry Wills—but not in a ring opposing Jack Dempsey.

Wills was from New Orleans, sixfoot-four, 220 pounds, a jockey as a kid when he was light. Then he came north to be a stevedore on the Brooklyn and Hoboken docks, irregularly scheduled work that could be forgone when he got a fight. He traipsed the country, and Mexico and Cuba and Panama and South America, fighting who and where he could, filling the bill in tank-town dance hall or opera house or meeting hall or theater, the ring ropes clothesline and with sawdust or sand underfoot. Against white fighters he managed just barely to win, carrying ham-and-eggers as long as possible so that the largely white crowds had no reason to go home dangerously unhappy. The great black fighters of his day he fought over and over- Sam Langford, the Boston Tar Baby, twenty-three times.

Outside the ring Wills was dignified, articulate, a big majestic-looking man. He had great discipline. Every February he went on a water-only diet to take off any excess weight that had accumulated. He fought King Tut Jackson, Battling Taylor, Kid Cotton, Kid Brown, Soldier Elder, Roughhouse Ware, and moved above them to meet and defeat the top white heavyweights. Against Luis Angel Firpo, who earlier bounced Dempsey to the canvas with practically the first punch he threw, and later knocked him out of the ring. Wills did not lose a round. “Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World” first by virtue of his 1919 victory over Langford, a tasteful and modest dresser entirely unreminiscent of Jack Johnson and his patent-leather-shoe gaudy attire, a devoted husband to his intelligent and likable wife Sarah, always described as “a credit to the game and his race” who lived “quietly among his people in Harlem,” he deserved a title shot, said Ring magazine, the bible of boxing. Fundamental American justice demanded it.

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.

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