The contest between Jack Johnson and Jess Wiliard was scheduled for 45 rounds, effectively making it a fight to the finish. It was the last championship bout that would be fought under such terms. It was actually settled in the 26th round, and boxing had a new heavyweight champion. It was far from a cut and dried affair, however. The end of the Johnson-Wiliard fight has sparked more comment, claim and counter-claim than any in the sport’s history. It is a controversy that continues to engage boxing fans, though inevitably a present-day debate over a fight that took place in 1915 is bound to generate more heat than light.
The eighth man to attempt to wrest the title from Jack Johnson was a 6ft 6in cowboy and a somewhat reluctant fighter. Jess Wiliard was born in Kansas, on 29 December 1881. He had Welsh blood in him on both his father’s and mother’s side, but his mid-west upbringing was in the great American outdoors tradition. The sometime ranch-hand and horse-dealer turned to labouring when his business was adversely affected by the burgeoning motor car industry. It was while wielding a pickaxe as if it were a matchstick that a fellow worker suggested that he ought to consider boxing. ‘I have never had a glove on in my life,’ replied Wiliard. ‘I have no inclination to punch others around.’
His companion undertook to teach him the rudiments of the noble art, and Wiliard found that he could knock men off their feet with consummate ease. He won a number of fairground fights, despite having turned 30, and slowly built a reputation as the man who might reclaim the heavyweight crown from the reviled negro incumbent.
Although he was ponderously slow, Willard’s right hand could do a lot of damage. It was a punch that cost a boxer named Bill Young his life in 1913. Young got caught with a right from Wiliard in the 11th round, and died the following day. His neck had been broken. Wiliard was cleared of blame but vowed never to fight again. In fact, the guilt-ridden lay-off lasted just a few months. He had a few minor bouts where he took things easy, then drifted off the boxing scene for almost a year.
When promoter Jack Curley offered Johnson $30,000 to fight Wiliard, the champion laughed. He was 37 and out of condition, but saw no danger in meeting a man who had only been boxing for four years, and hadn’t stepped into the ring at all for the past 12 months.
Wiliard was tempted by the prospect of fighting for the world title. The fact that the contest was set for 45 rounds convinced him that he could beat Johnson, who was as ring-rusty as himself. The odds were 8-5 on Johnson, but it was Willard’s analysis which proved correct. For 25 rounds he withstood all Johnson’s efforts to knock him out. The champion was streets ahead on points, but that was never going to be a factor. In the 26th round, after more than an hour and 40 minutes under a broiling sun, Willard’s famed right hand caught the champion square on the chin and put him on the canvas. the picture of Johnson being counted out has been reproduced many times, and has become one of the most celebrated and controversial stills in sporting history.
The photo shows Johnson holding his hands over his face, apparently shielding his eyes from the sun. This is a perfectly natural reaction under normal circumstances – but not for a man who had just been laid out and was not supposed to know what day it was. Conspiracy theorists have used this to support the view that Johnson threw the fight. Why would he do such a thing? Years later, Johnson himself fanned the flames by saying that he took a dive in exchange for his freedom to return to the United States, with the charges hanging over his head dropped. In short, he cut a deal.
This is by no means universally accepted as a true account of what happened on that April day in Havana. Testimony from impartial ringside observers said that the unfit champion had simply been battered to exhaustion by the 26th round. Any limb movements from the beaten man were totally involuntary.
The new champion made just one successful defence of his title, against Frank Moran, on 25 March 1916. Moran had been outpointed by Johnson over 20 rounds two years earlier and was no pushover. Wiliard cannily insisted on a 10-round, no-decision contest. He knew he was far too durable for Moran to knock him out over such a distance, and it proved a comfortable, if tedious, defence.
The Moran fight was the only time Wiliard put his title on the line in four years. He preferred to make easy money with the touring circus he’d formed. When he was finally lured back into the ring, it was against a man 5V4 in shorter and 4V2 stone lighter. Wiliard was confident that he could make short work of Jack Dempsey.
Johnson era ends in controversy
End of an era. Johnson is knocked out by Willard in the 26th round. He would later claim that he threw the fight as part of a deal with the US authorities. Right: A huge crowd gathered in Havana, Cuba, for the Johnson-Willard encounter. The fact that it was a 45-round contest fought under a broiling sun stacked the odds in Willard’s favour.
Nickname: ‘Pottawatomie Giant’
Born: St.Clere, Kansas, USA. Dec 29, 1881
Died: Dec 15, 1968
Height: 6’ 6’ Weight: 225-250lbs.
World Heavyweight Champion: 1915-1919
Won 32 (20 Kos) Lost 8 Drawn 5