World heavyweight boxing champion from 1915 to 1919, Jess Willard was born on December 29, 1881, and raised in Pottawatomie County, Kansas, but became a pugilist in Oklahoma, where his first eight professional bouts were staged. Willard gained, and lost, the title in two of the most dramatic and controversial heavyweight fights ever. In April 1915 he knocked out Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, in a grueling, twenty-six-round contest in Havana, Cuba, winning acclaim from the mainstream public for restoring the title to the white race. In July 1919 Willard relinquished the championship to Jack Dempsey in the "Massacre at Toledo" when, having absorbed probably the most frightful pummeling ever administered in a heavyweight-title fight, he was unable to leave his corner for the fourth round. At six feet, six inches the tallest heavyweight champion, Willard was nicknamed "the Pottawatomie Giant."
Willard did not enter the ring until he was twenty-nine. First employed as a cattle puncher and horse and mule handler, he had moved to Elk City, Oklahoma, by 1910, where he worked as an overland freighter. On a clothes-buying trip to Oklahoma City late that year, Willard encountered J. D. Brock, who, impressed with his size and strength, encouraged him to consider prizefighting and became his first manager. In 1911 Daily Oklahoman sports editor Charles Brill began publicizing Willard as a "white hope." The "big freighter's" seven consecutive Oklahoma victories started him on the path to contention.
Willard defeated Johnson in the longest heavyweight title bout under Marquis of Queensberry rules. Most ring authorities discount Johnson's claim to have thrown the fight. Willard derived considerable financial benefit from the title by appearing in circuses and Wild West shows, including the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show, but defended the crown only once before meeting Dempsey. Willard's failure to enlist during World War I displeased many.
He attempted a comeback four years after losing the title but retired when Luis Firpo knocked him out. Well into the 1960s Willard charged that Dempsey's gloves were loaded in their 1919 title fight, but few boxing experts believed it. Jess Willard died on December 15, 1968.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Sam Andre and Nat Fleischer, A Pictorial History of Boxing (New York: Bonanza Books, 1989). Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999). Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (New York: The Free Press, 1983). New York Times, 16 December 1968.
Stephen H. Norwood
© Oklahoma Historical Society