Dempsey and Willard: The Worst Beating in Boxing History
by B. R. Bearden
It is 1919 and the heavyweight champion of the world is a giant named Jess Willard. The 6'6 ½", 245 pound Willard had taken the title from an over-the-hill Jack Johnson, ending the search for a "great white hope" to dethrone the great but unpopular black champion. His newest challenger is a savage fighter out of the west by the name of Jack Dempsey, who at 6'1" and 187 pounds seems to belong to a weight class several places below Jess. The fight is set for the 4th of July in Toledo, Ohio and thousands of fans have paid to sit in a sweltering heat and watch the contest.
Prior to the start of the fight, promoter Tex Rickard visits Dempsey and his manager Jack "Doc" Kearns in his dressing room. Kearns had to all but beg Tex to set up a fight between his man and the giant Willard, a battle that seems a mismatch on size alone. "Every time I see Willard he looks bigger and every time I see you, you look smaller," a worried Rickard says to the lean, hard Dempsey. He urges Jack to stay down if Willard knocks him down; he doesn't want to be associated with a murder in front of thousands of witnesses.
Dempsey growls there's nothing to worry about. He has no fear of Willard, or any other man. In the dark thoughts of The Manassa Mauler, Willard's size represents a bigger target, not a threat. There's a fire smoldering in Dempsey, a hunger burning since his days as a hobo who fought in the back alleys behind bars for the price of a meal. From the time he was 15 he's fought grown men, often giving up fifty or more pounds; sometimes taking a terrible beating. No, he doesn't fear Willard.
In the ring the champion appears calm and confident. He towers over the smaller man but anyone looking at the sun bronzed frame and tightly packed muscles of Dempsey can see the contrast. Willard is bigger but he's not in the shape of the challenger. He looks soft whereas Dempsey looks like a coiled spring without an ounce of fat, his hair shaved close on the sides of his head only adding to the fierce aspect of the man. It's a look Mike Tyson will emulate 65 years later.
The bell rings and Dempsey comes after the champion as if he's hated him all his life. He is savage, he is relentless, he is a demon in boxing gloves. Willard goes down from a terrific punch and The Mauler stands over him. The neutral corner rule won't be introduced to boxing until seven years later, time Willard doesn't have, and Jack stands over the fallen man. By the rules of the day he's allowed to hit the opponent as soon as his knees are off the floor. Many fighters step back, give their foe a chance to rise, but not Dempsey; in the ring he has the instincts of a natural killer. Jess rises and Dempsey pounces, raining lethal blows upon his head, driving his gloves to the wrists in the big man's belly.
Dempsey has bet his entire share of the purse at 10-1 odds that he will knock Willard out in the first round and it appears he means to do it even at the cost of Willard's life. There's a snarl on the face of Dempsey that reminds those at ringside more of a blood-mad tiger than a man; decades later old men who were there that day will still comment on the bared teeth and blazing eyes of the Mauler as if recalling some nightmare never forgotten. The primal fury of Dempsey is not to be denied. Before the round ends Jess is down seven times. His body is covered in ugly red welts, he's bleeding from a shattered nose and mashed lips. Barely he beats the bell and is helped to his corner. So sure is Demsey that the contest is over that he leaves the ring. But Willard doesn't want to quit and the referee won't gainsay the champion; Dempsey is called back to the ring just in time to make the bell. The beating continues.
Two more brutal rounds and more trips to the canvas for Willard. He is hit with uppercuts, left hooks, overhand rights; thudding, painful blows from every angle. When he holds onto the ropes to rise Dempsey smashes him with punches, when he tries to hold Dempsey tears free and pummels him. Jess is literally beaten from post to post and even the crowd who paid to see this are shouting for it to be stopped. Somehow Willard survives the second and third rounds, but on his stool after the third the champion is near-dead and his second throws in the towel. Even then, Willard disagrees and wants to continue; he sets the bar by which a champion loses his title to a height as tall as himself. But there won't be a forth round and perhaps Jess's life hinges on that respite.
Dempsey's hand is raised in victory as Willard is helped from the ring. Those supporting his tortured frame hear him mutter to himself, over and over, "I have a farm in Iowa and a hundred thousand in the bank. I have a farm."
The doctors tend to the ex-champ, amazed he withstood such a beating without dying. His injuries resemble the result of a bad car crash more than a boxing match; nose completely smashed, cheek bone cracked, jaw broken in seven places, four front teeth somewhere back in the ring, broken ribs, partial loss of hearing in one ear. Someone remarks that one more round and he'd be dead; he is already on the verge.
Later there would be allegations of loaded gloves on the part of Dempsey, based on the words of a disgruntled member of his camp and the opinion of boxing experts, and Willard, that no man could hit so hard. It's claimed he wrapped his hands in bandages soaked in Plaster-of-Paris. The inventor of the product comes to the US to testify to the impossibility of using Plaster-of-Paris without breaking all the bones in the hands. It would be like striking a cement wall with bare hands. Doc Kearns adds fuel to the fire, and angers Willard, by joking, "Naw, I didn't use plaster of Paris on the bandages. It was cement."
A study of the film gives the explanation to the injuries. A big, overmatched fighter is hurt by the first solid punch and for three rounds plays the part of a human punching bag. The lack of a neutral corner rule allows Dempsey to hit him while he's rising or hanging on the ropes, when his body isn't prepared for the impact. Just as Houdini would die after taking an unexpected punch which ruptured his appendix, Jess Willard's body absorbs a greater degree of force than he would were he ready for the punches. The shock of impact of Dempsey's blows isn't lessened by rolling with the punch or allowing the force to push the man back, it's taken in its totality by the big body of Willard and something has to give. Bones break and teeth crumble and Jess Willard survives by the margin of minutes, perhaps only seconds, one of the worst beatings in the history of prize fighting.