Jess Willard

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Jess Willard
Jess Willard 1915.jpg
Real nameJess Myron Willard
Nickname(s)Great White Hope[1]
Pottawatomie Giant[2]
Height6 ft 6 1/2 in[3]
Born(1881-12-29)December 29, 1881
Pottawatomie County, Kansas
DiedDecember 15, 1968(1968-12-15) (aged 86)
Los Angeles, California
Boxing record
Total fights34
Wins by KO20
No contests0

Jess Myron Willard (December 29, 1881 – December 15, 1968) was an American world heavyweight boxing champion billed as the Pottawatomie Giant[2][4] who knocked out Jack Johnson in April 1915 for the heavyweight title. Willard was known for size rather than skill, and though held the championship for more than four years, he defended it rarely and was in person reserved. In 1919, when he was 37 years of age he lost the title in an extremely one sided loss by declining to come out for the fourth round against Jack Dempsey, who became a more celebrated champion. Soon after the bout Willard began accusing Dempsey of using something with the effect of a knuckle duster. Dempsey did not grant Willard a return match, and at 42 years old he was KO'd, following which he retired from boxing, although for the rest of his life continued claiming Dempsey had cheated. Ferdie Pacheco expressed the opinion in a book that the surviving photographs of Willard's face during the Dempsey fight indicate fractures to Willard's facial bones suggesting a metal implement, and show he was bleeding heavily.[5] The matter has never been resolved, with contemporaneous ringside sports journalist reporting by the NYT that Willard spat out at least one tooth and was "a fountain of blood" increasingly discounted in favor of a view that he had only a cut lip and a little bruising.

Early life[edit]

Jess Myron Willard was born on 29 December 1881 at Saint Clere, Kansas. In his teenage years and twenties he worked as a cowboy.[2] He was of mostly English ancestry, which had been in North America since the colonial era. The first member of the Willard family arrived in Virginia in the 1630s.[6][page needed]

Boxing career[edit]

A powerfully built 6 ft 6+12 in (1.99 m) and 245 lb (111 kg), Willard did not begin boxing until the age of 27, but proved successful, defeating top-ranked opponents to earn a chance to fight for the Championship. He said he started boxing because he did not have much of an education, but thought his size and strength could earn him a good living. He was a gentle and friendly person and did not enjoy boxing or hurting people, so often waited until his opponent attacked him before punching back, which made him feel at ease as if he were defending himself. He was often maligned as an uncoordinated oaf rather than a skilled boxer, but his counter-punching style, coupled with his enormous strength and stamina, proved successful against top fighters. His physical strength was so great that he was reputed to be able to kill a man with a single punch, which unfortunately proved to be a fact during his fight with Jack "Bull" Young in 1913, who was punched in the head and killed in the 9th round. Willard was charged with second-degree murder, but was successfully defended by lawyer Earl Rogers.

Willard in 1913

Jack Johnson fight[edit]

On April 5, 1915, in front of a huge crowd at the new Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, he knocked out champion Jack Johnson in the 26th round to win the world heavyweight boxing championship. Johnson later claimed to have intentionally lost the fight, despite the fact there is evidence of Willard winning fairly, which can be seen clearly in the recorded footage, as well as the comments Johnson made to his cornermen between rounds and immediately after the fight, and that he bet $2500 on himself to win.[7][page needed][8][page needed][9] Willard said, "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there." Johnson later acknowledged lying about throwing the fight after footage of the fight was made widely available in the United States. Shortly after the fight Jack Johnson had actually accepted defeat gracefully saying "Willard was too much for me, I just didn't have it."[10][page needed]

Johnson found that he could not knock out the giant Willard, who fought as a counterpuncher, making Johnson do all the leading. Johnson began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th-round knockout. Johnson's claim of a "dive" gained momentum because most fans only saw a still photo of Johnson lying on the canvas shading his eyes from the broiling Cuban sun. No films of the fight were allowed to be shown in the United States because of an inter-state ban on the trafficking of fight films that was in effect at the time. Most boxing fans only saw the film of the Johnson-Willard fight when a copy was found in 1967.

Willard fought several times over the next four years, but made only one official title defense prior to 1919, defeating Frank Moran on March 25, 1916, at Madison Square Garden.

Panorama of Willard's title fight against Jack Johnson in Havana, Cuba, 1915

Jack Dempsey fight[edit]

Willard and Dempsey before the World Championship Bout

At age 37, Willard lost his title to Dempsey on July 4, 1919, in Toledo. Dempsey knocked Willard down for the first time in his career with a left hook in the first round. Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times in the first round—although it should be remembered that rules at the time permitted standing almost over a knocked-down opponent and hitting him again as soon as both knees had left the canvas. At one point Dempsey left the ring mistakenly thinking the fight was over, and under the rules could have been disqualified, but Willard had economised by not employing professional cornermen and they failed to insist on application of the regulations. Dempsey won the title when Willard was unable to continue after the third round. In the fight, Willard was later reputed to have suffered a broken jaw, cheekbone, and ribs, as well as losing several teeth. His attempt to fight to the finish, ending when he was unable to come out for the fourth round, is considered one of the most courageous performances in boxing history. However, the extent of Willard's injuries have been highly disputed and are now unclear since multiple independent reports only a few days after the fight said that there were no traces of any damage other than a couple of bruises:

Willard (left) taking a punch to the chin from Jack Dempsey (right).

To take only one representative account, according to a reporter for the Topeka Daily Capital, July 16, 1919, p. 8, who interviewed Jess when he got back to Lawrence, "The ex-champion didn't have any black eye, nor any signs that he was injured in any way."[11]

Jess Willard
Concealed metal object theory

When interviewed by Harry Carpenter of the BBC Sport in the 1960s at his house in California, Willard said to the reporter, "I'll show you, how I was beaten." He then drew a metal bolt from a cardbox, saying that Dempsey held the bolt in his hand, not within the glove but at the palm of it, attached to the thumb sideways, and used the bolt rather for cutting-and-slicing-like moves to inflict blood-spilling cuts and pain, relinquishing it just as the bout was stopped, and according to Willard, the bolt was found on the floor of the ring at the end of the fight and he kept it. Mike Tyson, who studied the case in-depth and very thoroughly, later joined Carpenter to discuss the subject. Tyson, a great admirer of Dempsey, admitted that "he just did whatever Jack Kearns told him to do," and "in those days anything could have happened" for that there was no agency or other legal authority at the time, which was officially empowered to oversee and protect fighters from violations of such kind. However footage before the fight shows Dempsey putting on his gloves with no additional objects and in full view of Willard, his team and the crowd. [12]


After losing his title fight with Dempsey, Willard went into semiretirement from the ring, fighting only exhibition bouts for the next four years.[2] On May 12, 1923, promoter Tex Rickard arranged for Willard to make a comeback, fighting Floyd Johnson as part of the first line-up of boxing matches at the newly opened Yankee Stadium in New York City.[13] 63,000 spectators attended the match, which the 41-year-old Willard was widely expected to lose.[13] However, after Willard took a beating for several rounds, he came back to knock down Johnson in the 9th and 11th rounds, and Willard earned a TKO victory. Damon Runyon wrote afterward: "Youth, take off your hat and bow low and respectfully to Age. For days and days, the sole topic of conversation in the world of sport will be Willard's astonishing comeback."[13]

Willard followed up this victory by facing contender Luis Ángel Firpo on July 12, 1923.[13] The fight was held at Boyle's Thirty Acres in New Jersey, in front of more than 75,000 spectators. Willard was knocked out in the eighth round, and then permanently retired from boxing.

Later years[edit]

Advertisement for The Challenge of Chance (1919)

Willard parlayed his boxing fame into an acting career of a sort. He acted in a vaudeville show, had a role in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and starred in a 1919 feature film The Challenge of Chance.[14] In 1933, he appeared in a bit part in a boxing movie, The Prizefighter and the Lady, with Max Baer and Myrna Loy.[14]


Willard died on 15 December 1968, in Los Angeles, California, from congestive heart failure. He had been admitted to a hospital a week earlier for a heart condition, but left against a doctor's advice. He returned again after suffering a stroke and died 12 hours later.[15]

Having died at age 86, Willard was the longest-lived heavyweight champion in history until he was surpassed by his old foe Jack Dempsey (who died in 1983, aged 87), then by Jack Sharkey (who died in 1994, aged 91), and finally by Max Schmeling (who died in 2005 at the age of 99, making him the longest-lived heavyweight champion in boxing history).

Willard's body was buried at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.[16]


In 2003 he was inducted posthumously into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.[4]

Cultural references[edit]

Willard and a dispute he had with Harry Houdini is the topic of Andy Duncan's Nebula Award nominated novella "The Pottawatomie Giant."[17] In 2020, a television program Antiques Roadshow - Crocker Art Museum (Season 24, Episode 8, Part 2), showed a photograph from his 5 April 1915 championship winning match, and the commemorative pocket watch Willard carried which was estimated to be valued between $15,000 and $50,000.

Professional boxing record[edit]

Professional record summary
35 fights 22 wins 6 losses
By knockout 20 3
By decision 2 2
By disqualification 0 1
Draws 1
Newspaper decisions/draws 6

All newspaper decisions are officially regarded as “no decision” bouts and are not counted as a win, loss or draw.

No. Result Record Opponent Type Round, time Date Location Notes
34 Loss 22–5–1 (6) Argentina Luis Angel Firpo KO 8 (12), 1:55 12 Jul 1923 United States Boyle's Thirty Acres, Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.
33 Win 22–4–1 (6) United States Floyd Johnson TKO 11 (15) 12 May 1923 United States Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York, U.S.
32 Loss 21–4–1 (6) United States Jack Dempsey RTD 3 (12) 4 Jul 1919 United States Bay View Park Arena, Toledo, Ohio, U.S. Lost world heavyweight title
31 Win 21–3–1 (6) United States Frank Moran NWS 10 25 Mar 1916 United States Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York, U.S. World heavyweight title at stake;
(via KO only)
30 Win 21–3–1 (5) United States Jack Johnson KO 26 (45), 1:26 5 Apr 1915 Cuba Oriental Park, Havana, Cuba Won world heavyweight title
29 Win 20–3–1 (5) South Africa George Rodel KO 6 (10) 28 Apr 1914 United States Orpheum Theater, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
28 Win 19–3–1 (5) United States Dan Dailey KO 9 (10) 13 Apr 1914 United States Broadway Auditorium, Buffalo, New York, U.S.
27 Loss 18–3–1 (5) United States Tom McMahon NWS 12 27 Mar 1914 United States Grand Opera House, Youngstown, Ohio, U.S.
26 Win 18–3–1 (4) South Africa George Rodel KO 9 (20) 29 Dec 1913 United States Casino, New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
25 Win 17–3–1 (4) United States George Davis KO 2 (10) 12 Dec 1913 United States Broadway Auditorium, Buffalo, New York, U.S.
24 Win 16–3–1 (4) United States Carl Morris NWS 10 3 Dec 1913 United States Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York, U.S.
23 Win 16–3–1 (3) United States Jack Reed TKO 2 (10) 24 Nov 1913 United States Princess Rink, Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.
22 Loss 15–3–1 (3) South Africa George Rodel NWS 10 17 Nov 1913 United States Elite Rink, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
21 Win 15–3–1 (2) United States Bull Young KO 11 (20) 22 Aug 1913 United States Pacific A.C., Vernon, California, U.S.
20 Win 14–3–1 (2) United States Al Williams TKO 8 (10) 4 Jul 1913 United States Moana Springs Arena, Reno, Nevada, U.S.
19 Draw 13–3–1 (2) United States Charley Miller PTS 4 27 Jun 1913 United States Dreamland Rink, San Francisco, California, U.S.
18 Loss 13–3 (2) United States Gunboat Smith PTS 20 20 May 1913 United States Eighth Street Arena, San Francisco, California, U.S.
17 Win 13–2 (2) United States Jack Leon KO 4 (10) 5 Mar 1913 United States Princess Rink, Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.
16 Win 12–2 (2) United States Frank Bauer TKO 5 (10), 1:50 22 Jan 1913 United States Princess Rink, Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.
15 Win 11–2 (2) United States Soldier Kearns KO 8 (10) 27 Dec 1912 United States Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York, U.S.
14 Win 10–2 (2) United States Sailor White KO 1 (10) 2 Dec 1912 United States Miller's Hall, Buffalo, New York, U.S.
13 Draw 9–2 (2) United States Luther McCarty NWS 10 19 Aug 1912 United States Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York, U.S.
12 Win 9–2 (1) Canada Arthur Pelkey NWS 10 29 Jul 1912 United States Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York, U.S.
11 Win 9–2 United States Bull Young KO 5 2 Jul 1912 United States South Chicago, Chicago, U.S.
10 Win 8–2 United States Frank Bauer TKO 3 (6) 29 May 1912 United States Irwin Hall, St. Charles, Missouri, U.S.
9 Win 7–2 United States Bull Young KO 6 (10) 22 May 1912 United States Princess Rink, Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.
8 Loss 6–2 United States Joe Cox TKO 5 (10) 9 Oct 1911 United States Landers Theatre, Springfield, Missouri, U.S.
7 Win 6–1 United States Mike McKimminsky PTS 10 10 Aug 1911 United States Hammon, Oklahoma, U.S.
6 Win 5–1 United States Frank Lyons PTS 10 4 Jul 1911 United States Elk City, Oklahoma, U.S.
5 Win 4–1 United States William Schiller KO 4 (15) 15 May 1911 United States Maize Theatre, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.
4 Win 3–1 United States Al Mandino PTS 4 (10) 14 Apr 1911 United States Benevolent A.A., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.
3 Win 2–1 United States Lewis Fink KO 3 (15), 1:13 24 Mar 1911 United States Benevolent A.A., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.
2 Win 1–1 United States Ed Burke KO 3 (10) 7 Mar 1911 United States Jackson's Pavilion, El Reno, Oklahoma, U.S.
1 Loss 0–1 United States Lewis Fink DQ 10 (15), 0:45 15 Feb 1911 United States Sapulpa Air Dome, Sapulpa, Oklahoma, U.S.


Jess Willard was a 6th great-grandson (9th generation descendant) of the Massachusetts colonist Simon Willard (1605–1676).


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'Great White Hope' Jess Willard Succumbs". Ocala Star-Banner. December 16, 1968. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  2. ^ a b c d "Jess Willard Biography". Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  3. ^ "BoxRec: Jess Willard". BoxRec.
  4. ^ a b "HOF Website". International Boxing Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  5. ^ Pacheco 2004, p. 17-18.
  6. ^ Mace 1980.
  7. ^ Baker 1988.
  8. ^ Aycock & Scott 2014.
  9. ^ Fleischer 1958, pp. 88–89.
  10. ^ Kent 2005.
  11. ^ Cox, Monte D.; Bardelli, John A.; Caico, Bob; Cox, Jeff; Cuoc, Dan; Johnston, Chuck; Moyle, Clay; Stallone, Frank; Ugarkovich, Miles (December 1, 2004). "Were Dempsey's Gloves Loaded? You Decide!". Retrieved July 11, 2012.
  12. ^ Mike Tyson presents the Heavyweights (Television production).
  13. ^ a b c d "Willard Helped Raise the Roof at Yankee Stadium". 21 September 2008. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  14. ^ a b "Jess Willard IMDB Entry". IMDB. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  15. ^ Kahn, Alex (December 16, 1968). "Jess Willard Dies, Ex-Boxing Champ". The Norwalk Hour. Retrieved 2 May 2021 – via Google News.
  16. ^ Entry for Willard's grave in Findagrave website (2019).
  17. ^ Duncan, Andy (2012). The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories. Hornsea, UK: PS Publishing. p. 308. ISBN 9781848633094.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Allen, Arly (2017). Jess Willard: Heavyweight Champion of the World (1915-1919). McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC. ISBN 9781476664446.

External links[edit]

Preceded by World Heavyweight Champion
April 5, 1915 – July 4, 1919
Succeeded by
Oldest Heavyweight Champion
January 4, 1919 – July 18, 1951
Succeeded by
Preceded by Oldest Living Heavyweight Champion
May 10, 1955 – December 15, 1968
Succeeded by
Preceded by Longest Living Heavyweight Champion
November 18, 1959 – June 11, 1982
Preceded by
Jack Johnson
1.99 m (6 ft 0 ½ in)
Tallest world champion
1.99 m (6 ft 6 ½ in)

5 April 1915 – 26 June 1999
Succeeded by
Vitali Klitschko
2.01 m (6 ft 7 in)