On July the 4th, 1919, a truly memorable and brutal heavyweight championship prize fight occurred in Toledo, Ohio. The reigning heavyweight king, Jess Willard, who had become known as “The Great White Hope” in the months leading up to his successful challenge of the controversial Jack Johnson, was to make his first defense against the much smaller Jack Dempsey. What followed was a performance by Dempsey that revolutionized professional boxing.
To think, Jess Willard was actually the betting favorite going into his bout with Jack Dempsey. Never had the bookies got it more utterly wrong. The fight, staged on July 4th, 1919, turned into one of the most savagely one-sided and brutal beatings ever seen in a prize ring. What was witnessed under the blistering Toledo sun was a style of fighting that, quite simply, didn’t exist before. “The Manassa Mauler,” Dempsey, revolutionized the sport of boxing with his all-out aggressive fighting approach.
Tearing at his opponent like a man possessed, Dempsey was frighteningly bewildering. Savage was the only word on many observers’ lips, as it was clear the “Noble Art” had changed dramatically. No longer would the bolt upright fashion of boxing – as used by defending champion Willard – where pugilists would “Settle it like men,” be the norm. Jack Dempsey had transformed everything. Boxing had truly entered the modern era.
Slight favorite Willard, at age 37, much the older man (Jack was only 24) had a hard time stopping himself from smiling during the pre-fight introductions. He had absolutely no idea of the pain and humiliation in store for him. Standing six foot, six inches tall, Jess, nicknamed “The Pottawatomie Giant,” figured the much smaller and lighter man in Dempsey, had no chance of hurting him – hence the pre-fight good mood. Willard had total belief he would soon be emerging victorious against his perceived over-matched challenger. The terrifying beating he was to have administered to him was as shocking to him as it was almost everyone else. Never before – or arguably since – has a man favoured to keep his heavyweight title been so brutally relieved of it.
The action started uneventfully. Jess came forward, while the fifty-plus pounds lighter Dempsey darted in and out – looking for openings. The 245-pound Willard used his strength to tie Dempsey up whenever he got close, whilst going on the offense only infrequently. But then, with 90 seconds gone, the raw power of Jack revealed itself. Fighting out of an advancing half-crouch, he suddenly exploded with both hands – dropping the champion with a vicious left. The crowd was electrified at the sight of the huge Willard being smashed violently to the canvas. But there was more carnage to come – much more.
With no neutral corner rule to obey back in 1919, Dempsey was free to hover over his man and pounce as soon as his gloves left the floor. Willard bravely attempted to resume fighting – while almost certainly separated from his senses – and Dempsey went back doing what he’d started. Chopping away with both fists, he soon had Jess down again. During this time the hulking Willard was pounded back onto the canvas for a third knockdown – and then a fourth! The fight had rapidly turned into a slaughter. Showing immense courage, Jess tried his best to hold on to his wrecking machine of an opponent. But it was no use – he was driven across the ring by the marauding challenger, before being sent to the canvas for a fifth time.
By now, completely helpless, Willard tried hoisting himself up with the ropes – simply to be blasted back down again when offering a semi-upright target. Then, mercifully, the bell rang. Jack Dempsey was the winner and new heavyweight king!
Or was he? Well, not quite yet. Erroneously thinking the fight was over – and therefore about to collect his winnings from the wager he had made earlier – when he’d predicted his winning in a single round – the dismayed Dempsey was informed that the bell had saved the champion. The fight was not finished yet. Somehow, the busted up Willard managed to make it through two more rounds. This despite the damage he’d sustained. Broken bones and teeth were aplenty, that’s for sure. Jess finally quit in his corner at the end of round three. Who could have possibly blamed him? And then Dempsey was officially crowned the new ruler.
Legendary status, and, in time – after at first having the ignominious label of draft dodger hurled at him – immense popularity were bestowed on the new champion throughout the coming years. In fact, next to Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey is more than likely THE most beloved heavyweight champion in history.
He and his savage style of fighting may have been ahead of their time, but the hearts of fight fans the world over soon warmed towards “The Manassa Mauler.”