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Champions I Have Known.by Robert Edgren


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Champions I Have Known.

Robert Edgren

 

Jess Wlllard was a real champion. The day he whipped Jack Johnson at Havana he could have given a tough battle to any man who ever held the title. Like a football team on edge for the big game of the season, Jess was pointed, through five years of preparation, for that fight, and on the afternoon of April 5, 1915, he was invincible. He never went into any other fight with the same grim determination to win, and never before or afterward was in such perfect physical

condition.

 

Unfortunately, Willard was so completely eclipsed at Toledo, where Jack Dempsey knocked him out, that Jess has been regarded as good joke material ever since and his real fighting quality forgotten. Jess was the biggest champion of them all, six feet seven inches tall and perfectly built in proportion. At Havana he was trained down as lean as a greyhound, and scaled 243 pounds stripped the day of the fight. He weighed 265 when he lost the title to Dempsey, and more than that in many other fights.

 

Naturally Peaceful.

 

reach, weight, strength, combined with unusual boxing skill and unusual quickness for a big man, put him in a class by himself among heavyweights. Willard's advantages in height, If he'd had Jack Dempsey's eager aggressiveness no man of his time could have stayed in the ring with him two rounds. But while he had plenty of courage, Willard lacked ring spirit. He was naturally peaceful in disposition. He felt embarrassed because of his size and had no inclination to enjoy putting over a knockout. He preferred to outbox his man and grin, clown it and laugh with the crowd. He never cut loose real fighting except when he was hurt.

 

The first time I saw Willard in a ring was at a. small New York club, where he clambered over the ropes, not through them, and asked the referee to introduce him. He held a huge black Stetson cowboy hat in both hands and wore boots, and the crowd roared with laughter as he grinned amiably and bent low to whisper to the referee. He was introduced as ' 'Cowboy Jess' Willard, come all the way from Oklahoma to New York, looking for a fight." For weeks after that, Willard was introduced regularly to get the laugh that always followed. It was some time, before anyone thought of making the joke funnier by putting him on the bill of fare.

 

Raised On Open Spaces

I had a talk with Jess Willard one night when he got out of the ring. His history was interesting.Born on the edge of an Indian reservation, he had been brought up among the Indians, riding wild horses, hunting in Indian style and developing craft, speed and endurance.

 

He became a plains teamster. One day he drove his six horse team and loaded wagon into a small town in Oklahoma and found everyone wildly excited over the defeat of Jim Jeffries by Jack Johnson, news of which had just come in. Willard listened. He felt just a little disturbed that the great Jeffries had lost the championship to a black man.

 

But there was no surge of race feeling in Willard. The landlord of the hostelry where he took his meals and stabled his horses came up gesticulating and red faced. “Jess” he said “why the hell don’t you lick that nigger? You’re big enough”

Willard quietly put up his horses. As he worked he indulged in the usual process of thinking. Jess finished his job and hunted up the landlord. “ I will “ he said That was all. Jess had the habit of not wasting words. He turned in his team and rode to Tulsa, looked up the proprietor of a gymnasium where small bouts were put on, explained to the promoter that he wanted to become a fighter and fight Johnson. Amused, the gentlemen sent Jess to the gymnasium and told him to go ahead.

Wlllard started, alone and friendless, asking questions of the few boxers he could find and grinning in friendly fashion when they laughed at him, but he quickly picked up skill. Willard knocked out several local heavies and then went to Chicago and trained in Mullen's gymnasium, meeting better boxers and learning every day. He knocked out three men in small bouts, and went to New York.

 

Could Hit Like Pilcdrivcr

 

As I explained above, Jess was a joke in the big town. Until he was given a chance. First, he fought a 10-round no-decision bout with Arthur Pelky, a rugged heavyweight developed in a Tom O'Rourke white hope tournament. Three weeks later, Luther McCarthy, who had just knocked out Al Palzer and come on to New York, was given Willard at the Garden, Jess being picked as a good punching bag for McCarthy. McCarthy had everything, including contempt for the big fellow being thrown to him. He ran straight at Willard at the first bell and posted big Jess furiously through most of the first round. A hard right raised a reddened bruise under Wlllard's eye.

 

The punch didn't daze him, but it hurt him, and Jess handed Luther a good pasting. Then he grinned again, but he met McCarthy's rushes with jabs and uppercuts, and though there was no decision at the end of 10 rounds, I, for one, wrote that Willard had won.

 

Jess knocked out Sailor White in one round, and then was given Soldier Kearns, a replica of old Tom Sharkey. Jess clowned and laughed until the eighth round. Then Kearns jammed swinging punch wrist-deep into Willard's solar plexus. Willard got mad. Kearns had jumped back fully eight feet. Somehow Willard hurled himself forward. His right fist landed on Kearns' chin, lifted him clean off his feet and whirled his 208 pounds through the air like a pinwheel. He fell on top of his head. That punch gave Kearns a "glass jaw" and finished him as a fighter.

 

Willard won more fights, but dropped a 20-round decision to Gunboat Smith in San Francisco In a later fight, Willard knocked out Bull Young in the eleventh round at Vernon Cal., and Young unconscious was rushed to a hospital Young died almost immediately and Earl Rodgers, Willards attorney, developed so much of a question about what really killed Young that Willard was promptly acquitted of the charge of manslaughter.

 

But that incident nearly finished Willard as a fighter. He told me later, when he fought a rotten 10 round no decision bout with Carl Morris in new York, in which both men seemed afraid to lead, that he couldn’t hit because “every time I wanted to let a punch go I saw Bull Young there in front of me instead of Morris, and I didn’t dare to “

 

His heart “ out of the game” big Jess grew fat and slothful, but he fought occasionally. However he was offered the Johnson fight, in Mexico. Johnson, escaping a jail sentence in Chicago, had skipped to Paris. He couldn’t come back to the United States without being jailed again, but he was willing to fight anywhere else.

 

Willard trained for several months under the direction of his manager Tom Jones. He was training at El Paso when johnson refused to land in Mexico after coming by way of South America. Johnson had been told he’d be seized and held for ransom by Mexican bandits. He landed at Havana, and the fight was transferred.

In Perfect Condition

 

I never saw a fighter in better condition than Willard was at Havana in the last month of his training and for once his temper was waspish. The night before the fight I was suddenly taken sick. I told Tex O’Rourke I must see Willard before sending my story by cable, and O'Rourke brought Jess to my room. I said to Jess: "You can't, be worrying about the fight or you'd be in bed by this time, trying to sleep." "I've nothing to worry about," smiled Jess. "This is the big chance I've been working for these five years, and I could fight all day and not tire

I've never been knocked down or hurt much by a blow and I don't believe Johnson could knock me down. I know his only chance will be in the first few rounds. He has gone back and I've come up to my best. I will fight him at his own game—make him lead He'll have to, or there'll be no fight I have all afternoon. I'll wear him down and knock him out. He'll shout everything he has in five to .seven rounds and he won't be dangerous after that. I'll play on the defense and take care of myself until the time comes, and I'll never cut loose until I know I have him helpless. Then I'll knock him out. He may last 20 rounds, and I don't care If he lasts more than 20—the end will be the same.

 

So Willard described the fight to me the night before. And so it came out, except that Johnson didn't break so quickly, and was still dangerous up to the twentieth round. Willard boxed carefully, wore Johnson down round by round. The last few rounds, I could sec Jim Savage, seconding Willard, urge him to finish It, and each time Willard shook his head. At the beginning of the twenty-sixth, Savage said to Willard. 'it's over. Finish him now." Wlllard looked across the ring and nodded, "You're right, he said to Jim, "I'll finish him now." At the bell Willard leaped at Johnson and swept him back with a savage body blow, brought Johnson's instinctive guard of crossed arms down a few inches with a light body jab, and shot over the finishing right. Johnson fell at full length. Five minutes after the count out his seconds had to almost carry him from the ring.

 

"I'll never fight again," Willard told me that night. "My job was to knock out Johnson, and I've done it. I'll always be remembered as the man who brought the championship to the white race — that's enough." Willard did box 10 rounds with Frank Moran Later he fought Dempsey

but that's another story.

End

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