On a blistering hot 4th of July in 1919 before the roaring 20s had a chance to kick off, the young challenger, Jack Dempsey, blistered the giant champ, Jess Willard, with 7 Knockdowns in the opening round, a devastation so deadly that has happened in boxing through all these centuries that the officials in charge of the bout literally melted in their moment to become useless. Jack “Doc” Kearns, Dempsey’s manager had foolishly bet $10,000 of Jack’s $27,000 purse on a first round Knockout of the incredibly tough Willard, and of course there was the requisite “Bell malfunction” with the ref becoming so confused as to seemingly signal the bout was over. Dempsey had to be retrieved from his triumphal walk to his dressing quarters to return to the ring for more battle, but sadly the damage to Big Jess was only compounded with interest. Eventually Jess and his corner came to their senses to stop the fight after the 3rd round.
The Backdrop: Before the fight could be made, Willard wisely made Dempsey sign a waiver that his estate would not sue Willard in case big Jess obliterated Jack permanently from the earthly premises, something that had happened against 2 previous opponents. Jess was a wealthy man by then only wanting to look out for his own estate, so not only was it a smart legal move, it also served as an intimidating tool to upend Jack’s confidence in himself.
Jess a mighty man indeed even 100 years later, a 6-7, 240 lb cowboy out of Indian country in Kansas back when men were really men, and that lean, whipcord working man’s physique was naturally attained through much harder and more dangerous work than today’s coddled candied generations can imagine. Dealing with unpredictable, free range, half wild horses and cattle sometimes weighing in the thousands of pounds requires the highest attention, reflexes, instincts, strength, durability, and an outright ornery nature that can scarcely be imagined much less overstated. This weren’t PlayStation.
Now, Jess may not have looked like the stock in trade, handsome Hollywood cowboy, but he could out wrangle all them Fancy Dans, out fight em, and out F em in other ways as well. Poor Jack was a scrawny 6-1, 185 lbs in comparison, as big a physical mismatch as could ever be conceived, giving up 6″ in height and reach and over 65 lbs in weight.
A few rapid fire chops are starting to level Big Jess closer to Jack’s level.
Early in the fight it’s still fun and games for Big Jess who never lacked for any confidence over his formidable physical talents. He was just getting warmed up and sooner or later Jack is gonna pay bigtime.
The fun and games phase has now passed into a fight for Jess’ survival. A Dempsey left hook has clearly caved in the orbital region of Big Jess’ right side resulting in as much pain as a human can endure. His right jaw line is also swollen with some blood running down his chest. It was alleged he broke his jaw.
Here we see the start of the confusion as Doc Kearns is jumping into the ring thinking the fight is over. As mentioned previously, the Bell malfunctioned, and it wasn’t even electric, a poster child moment for the way the shady boxing business operates when they can’t even get the simplest things right. The ref had to rely on a puny whistle that only got muffled mute from the massive roar out of the monstrous crowd buried in their sea of “strawboaters”, who by the luck of the draw were witnesses to the most destructive bout in history. Ollie Pecord was the ref of record in his first and this was his only fight as a referee.
After the shockwaves of that bout had finally subsided, Willard injuries were greatly exaggerated by the too often drunken press of the day, and in turn, Big Jess claimed Jack was carrying iron bars or that his wraps were plastered, both points refuted in a court of law in a handsome civil settlement and public apology by Time Inc., the media outlet that published the derelict Doc Kearn’s accusations.
Part of that testimony is certain to include Ring owner and editor Nat Fleischer who was still alive and bore witness to Dempsey’s hand being wrapped publically in his corner.
Longtime Heavyweight contender Cleveland Williams was employed by Boxing Illustrated to test the plaster theory on a hot summer day with 5 rounds on a heavy bag, the result being both he and his manager concluded the steaming mess of crumbles would have proven worthless in a fight.
Dempsey would go on to more big gate records as the most exciting heavyweight in history. Her he was literally pushed out of the Ring by the Wild Bull of the Pampas, Luis Angel Firpo, that naturally caused a lot of controversy because all the Knockdowns that proceeded that moment melts all logical thought processes. It was said that two spectators suffered heart attacks and died that day from all the excitement.
Net result was Jack became the biggest sports name in the Roaring 20s, even bigger than Babe Ruth because the heavyweight title is much more international than baseball. Facts are they once did some gentlemanly sparring and were good friends. On July 4th, 1919 Babe was still a pitcher with the Boston RedSox and making his first big splash with the larger sporting public by setting every new Homerun record the scattered press could conjure up that day.
Jack stayed relevant on the boxing scene with his boxing themed restaurant next to the old Madison Square Garden where as a 74 year old stepping out of his cab in front of his restaurant, two young thugs with not enough “cents” to know what they were doing attempted a mugging on the elderly gentleman in his finely tailor suit. Jack flattened them and told the cabbie to go in his restaurant to call the police while he kept em down. Even the clowning charismatic Ali had to check out that mighty left hand that left so many down and out.