Dempsey Defeats Willard

On this day in 1919, challenger Jack Dempsey defeats heavyweight champion Jess Willard in searing heat in Toledo, Ohio, to win the heavyweight championship of the world.

Jack Dempsey was born William Harrison Dempsey on June 24, 1895, in Manassa, Colorado. “The Manassa Mauler” came from a large, poor family of Irish descent. He left school after eighth grade, and then moved from town to town in search of work. Like two of his older brothers, William eventually took up boxing. He called himself Jack Dempsey after Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey, the Irish immigrant who boxed his way to middleweight championships in the 1880s and 1890s. The second and better-known Jack Dempsey became a legend winning bare-knuckle fights in barrooms around the Midwest, where he challenged men to fights for whatever they could wager. In 1917, Dempsey signed with manager Jim Kearns, who set him on a course toward the heavyweight championship. Kearns marketed Dempsey as part-American Indian, which he used to explain his “savage” fighting instincts.

Jess Willard was a 6-foot-7-inch right hander from Pottawattamie County, Kansas, who began boxing not for a love of the science of fighting, but because he needed to feed his family. He turned professional in 1911, and, in a match in Havana, Cuba, on April 5, 1915, knocked out Jack Johnson in the 26th round to win the world heavyweight title. Known as a gentle giant, the popular Willard was heavily favored against the lesser-known Dempsey. But as Willard had little passion for fighting, he chose not to prepare for the fight with Dempsey, who trained as ferociously as he fought.

Forty-five thousand people showed up to Bay View Park in Toledo on a 110-degree day to wait in the sizzling sun for a fight that lasted less than 10 minutes. Although Willard outweighed Dempsey by 58 pounds, he was out of shape and the challenger knocked him down seven times in the first round. The next two rounds were a mere formality–Willard himself later said there was “no reason to continue.”

Dempsey became one of the great stars of the 1920s, admired around the world for his prowess in the ring and his rise to stardom from hardscrabble beginnings. He held the heavyweight title until 1926, when he lost to Gene Tunney in a 10-round decision.

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