The Dempsey – Willard Fight: July 4th, 1919

The Fourth of July: a date that once upon a time ago meant a huge boxing match; a “Fight of the Century.” This was back in the 1900s, the 1920s, and legends such as Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey featured in massive events the whole world watched (or listened to, or read about). July 4 saw Johnson crush Jim Jeffries in one such “Fight of the Century,” while July 4 saw Dempsey destroy Jess Willard to become the heavyweight champion.

This fight, from today in 1919, remains one of the most brutally one-sided prize fights of all-time. So much has been written about the fight, about the carnage. And many myths persist. Dempsey, despite giving away both weight (around 45 pounds) and height (over 5-inches) proceeded to smash the bigger but slower man to the canvas seven times in the opening round. Willard suffered broken teeth, a broken cheekbone, cracked ribs and, most painfully, a broken jaw.

Willard somehow fought on until the end of the third round, when he was pulled out. Dempsey was the new king and he had ushered in the new era of professional fighting. Dempsey’s raw aggression, his non-stop attacking, punching approach terrified many an observer.

Now to the myths:

Was Willard really as severely beaten up and damaged as the reports say he was? According to a report that came out just a few days after the fight, Willard showed “no trace of any damage other than a couple of bruises (as per Wikipedia). So, either Willard was an incredibly fast healer, or the injuries he suffered at the hands of Dempsey were not as severe as history tells us.

And if Dempsey DID inflict all the damage on Willard he is said to have done, could he have done so without the aid of a loaded glove? Myth #2 says Dempsey had either a knuckleduster in his glove, or his hands were covered in plaster. This claim will never be proven, nor will it ever be disproven. It all makes for great conversation.

But when we watch the film (remarkably good quality as it is considering it is 102 years old), it looks for all the world like Dempsey is close to killing Willard. Dempsey’s vicious blows smack into Willard’s head and jaw, into his sides, time and again, with plenty of these punches thrown with nothing but sheer venom, many of them travelling only a short distance. Willard soaks it all up but he is a beaten, broken man. But how badly his facial bones and his ribs were broken, we will never know. To his dying day, Willard claimed Dempsey cheated, that he had something in his glove or gloves.

And myth #3: Dempsey didn’t even know he had won the fight until a newsboy told him he had! This one is interesting. According to Dempsey himself, in his 1940 autobiography, Dempsey got to bed very late on the night of July 4, 1919, and he had a terrible and unshakable nightmare in which he himself was knocked out in the fight:

“I didn’t get to bed until two o’clock,” Dempsey writes in 1940. “That night, I dreamed I had been knocked out. It was a strange sort of nightmare. When I woke up, I couldn’t get to sleep again. I dressed and went out into the street. Newsboys were still hollering their extras, ‘all about the new champ.’ I called to one of them and said, ‘Say, Buddy, who won the fight?’ He said, ‘Dempsey. Say, aren’t you Dempsey? You ought to know.’ I was so ticked off I gave him a dollar and went back to my room and read all the accounts all through three or four times, convincing myself that at last I was really the champion.”

So, is this a nice little story Dempsey came up with for his book, or is it actually true? Again, we will never know. It is worth remembering, however, the strange dream Sugar Ray Robinson had before his June, 1947 fight with Jimmy Doyle, in which Robinson dreamed he killed his opponent in the ring – this of course sadly coming true. Fighters have a unique kind of mind, so maybe Dempsey did have his own weird dream?

Again, it all makes for great conversation between boxing fans. Happy Fourth of July!