100 Years Ago: Johnson-Willard and the End of Boxing’s “Great White Hope” Era

Although the general public’s interest in boxing as declined to the point where it currently enjoys only a cult following, the sport’s rich history will always remain intact, with the controversial Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight being a perfect example. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, Willard’s 26th round knockout over Johnson was significant in sports history, as it not only ended Jack Johnson’s six and a half year reign as the World’s Heavyweight Champion, but also terminated the relentless quest to wrest the title away from boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, or, as it was described at the time, the search for the “great white hope.” But to understand the public’s mindset towards Johnson, and the need for his defeat, one has to go back 30 years, to the beginning of boxing’s modern era.

When John L. Sullivan won the heavyweight title in 1882, most bouts were still fought under London Prize Ring Rules, which meant bare-knuckles and an unlimited number of rounds. It was during Sullivan’s 10 year reign that the sport transitioned to gloves and three minute rounds, conditions that John L. favored. But while Sullivan can be credited with helping modernize the sport, he also began another tradition…drawing the “color line.” Although Sullivan was known for bragging he could beat “anyone in the house,” he also made it quite clear he would never face a black man in the ring. “I’ve never fought a negro,” Sullivan simply stated…”I never have, and I never will.” The “negro” Sullivan probably had in mind when he issued this statement was Peter Jackson, a black Australian fighter of considerable skill, who many felt stood a better than even chance of beating Sullivan. But actually, Sullivan’s refusal to meet Jackson or any other black opponent was not thought to be very unusual in its day, as blacks were denied opportunity in most areas of American society at that time, and boxing’s heavyweight title was considered by most whites as too prestigious to fall into the hands of a black athlete, even by those who felt boxing should be banned altogether.

In 1892, Sullivan lost his crown to Jim Corbett, and although Corbett had previously had fought Peter Jackson to a 61 round draw, he had no intention giving Jackson a rematch now that he held the title. Sullivan’s “color line” remained intact as the title passed from Corbett to Bob Fitzsimmons to Jim Jeffries. It was during Jeffries’s title run (1899-1905) that John Arthur Johnson, an African American from Galveston, Texas, began to climb the heavyweight ladder. Jeffries, citing the prevailing custom, refused to fight Jack Johnson, and pretty much defused any speculation of him doing so by retiring undefeated in 1905.

By 1908, the heavyweight championship had fallen into the hands of Tommy Burns, a 5’7 Canadian who proved to be much more interested in money than tradition. Accepting a guarantee of $30,000, Burns defended his title against Jack Johnson in Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. Johnson gave Burns a beating, and was awarded the championship in the 14th round. The sporting public was now saddled with grim reality that the world’s heavyweight championship was now in the hands of a black man. The search for a “white hope” had now began.

The mere fact that Jack Johnson was black was bad enough, but in the eyes of many, his personality made things much worse…he wore fine clothes, drove fast cars, and ran around with white women, eventually even marrying one. Reporting from ringside at the Johnson-Burns fight, famed writer Jack London unofficially started the “white hope” frenzy by stating that the golden smile of Johnson needed to be wiped off Johnson’s face. But London already had a particular man in mind to defeat Johnson, writing, “Jeff…it’s up to you.”

Inactive since 1904, Jim Jeffries was lured back into the ring by promoters, who promised him $100,000 plus a share of what figured to be lucrative revenue from the bout’s film. On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, in what was the biggest sporting event up to that time. Johnson easily dispatched of Jeffries, a result that unfortunately triggered race riots throughout the United States. Jeffries’s loss only intensified the search for a white man talented enough to beat Johnson, and soon the heavyweight ranks swelled with fighters like Gunboat Smith, Frank Moran, Carl Morris, Luther McCarty, and a huge guy from Kansas named Jess Willard.

But while Johnson seemed unbeatable in the ring, the U.S. government saw some vulnerability in his private life, and charged him with violating the Mann Act, a law that prosecuted those who transported women across state lines for immoral purposes. After a sham trial (all of Johnson’s violations of the law occurred before the Mann Act was in effect) Johnson was convicted in June of 1913 by an all-white jury and sentenced to a year in prison. Instead of going to jail, Johnson skipped the country, eventually ending up in Paris, where he performed in night clubs, fought exhibitions and defended his title twice. But in 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, denying Johnson of any more financial opportunities in the region. By early 1915, the high living Johnson was badly in need of money, and was also homesick.

At about this time, a group of promoters, led by Jack Curley, figured Johnson’s crown was ripe for the taking. Johnson was turning 37 years of age, and reportedly was not in the best of condition. Curley began to negotiate with Johnson the terms for a major title defense back in the Western Hemisphere. Since Johnson could not enter the U.S. without being arrested, Havana, Cuba was selected as the site for the April 5th prizefight. As for Johnson’s opponent, it was Jess Willard who promoters chose over the large field of white hopes, probably due to Willard’s 6’6 height and ability to absorb punishment. Receiving a $30,000 guarantee, Johnson accepted the offer to meet Willard, and also agreed, to his later regret, for the fight to be scheduled for 45 rounds…what else was agreed to still a matter for debate.

Over 17,000 spectators made their way into Oriental Racetrack on the day of the fight where ringside temperature was reported to be 100 degrees. Willard entered the ring at 230 lbs., the best shape of his career, while Johnson, at around 220, appeared a dozen lbs. overweight. Johnson started with uncharacteristic aggression, pounding away at Willard in the opening rounds, and intensifying the attack between rounds 10 and 15. Although Johnson was winning most of the rounds, he did not seem to be hurting Willard very much, and by the 20th round, the fight was beginning to sway Willard’s way. Johnson, tiring from the heat, started to fade, and after the 25th round, asked that his wife be escorted out of the arena. In the 26th, Johnson, after taking a wicked body shot, was nailed by a Willard overhand right, causing him to desperately attempt to cling to Willard before falling to the canvas. As seen in Jack Johnson Knocked Out by Jess Willardthe iconic photo, Johnson took referee Jack Welch’s ten count while seemingly shading his eyes from the sun. The large crowd erupted in celebration as Willard’s hand was raised in victory, a joy that was no doubt duplicated around the globe as news of Johnson’s defeat was circulated.

But soon after the fight, Jack Johnson began to muddy the waters as only he could. Johnson claimed that he was assured by the promoters that a loss to Willard would result in his Mann Act conviction being dropped, allowing him entry into the U.S. without having to spend time in prison. Anxious to go home, Johnson said he agreed, for an extra $20,000, to throw the Willard fight, and was now speaking up because the promise of the charges being dropped were not being met. Promoter Jack Curley laughed off Johnson’s accusation, saying that he did not have the political pull to offer Johnson any kind of clemency, and Johnson was never promised anything of the kind. In any event, Johnson continued to claim he took a dive in the Willard fight for the rest of his life, although most boxing historians are skeptical.

In 1920, Jack Johnson crossed the Mexican-U.S. border into Texas, surrendering himself to U.S. officials. After a stretch in Levenworth, Johnson resumed is boxing career in 1921, hoping to get a title shot against the current champ, Jack Dempsey. But the “color line” had been reinstated after Johnson’s loss to Willard, and would not be until 1937 that another black man (Joe Louis) would get a chance to fight for the championship, not that a 45 year old Johnson posed much of a threat anyway. Johnson boxed until age 50, then bounced around through various endeavors, until he died in 1946 when he fittingly, at age 68, lost control of the speeding car he was driving in North Carolina, in route to the Joe Louis-Billy Conn rematch.

Is there a possibility that Jack Johnson went into the tank against Jess Willard? At this point, there is no way to know for sure, but my personal opinion is that he did not. It’s my guess that Johnson, after losing legitimately, truly thought that since he was no longer heavyweight champion, the U.S. government would interest in his case, and the conviction would be reversed. When this didn’t happen, I think an angry Johnson lashed out at everyone he could…plus his ego might not have accepted losing to Jess Willard, who Johnson thought of as a second rater. If Johnson did intend to lose the fight, why wait 26 rounds? He could he be sure Willard would not wilt under the many punches he landed on Jess long before the fight’s ending? As Willard later remarked, “if Johnson really did throw our fight in Havana, I wish he had done it sooner…it was hotter than hell down there.”

Note: The Johnson-Willard fight, at 26 rounds, was the longest heavyweight championship fight in the modern era, and last title bout to be scheduled for 45 rounds. During Willard’s and later Jack Dempsey’s reign, the duration at title matches ranged from 10 to 15 rounds. By the 1930’s, 15 round championship fights became the norm, and remained so until the 1980’s when title fights were shortened to 12 rounds.

11 thoughts on “100 Years Ago: Johnson-Willard and the End of Boxing’s “Great White Hope” Era”

  1. I thought you were retired. Someone said there was a sighting of you going into the Cap library to play Strat-O-Matic.

  2. I thought you were retired. Someone said there was a sighting of you going into the Cap library to play Strat-O-Matic.

  3. I thought you were retired. Someone said there was a sighting of you going into the Cap library to play Strat-O-Matic.

  4. Sonny: Whenever a big fight was scheduled for 45 rounds, it was really conveying to the public that the bout would have a conclusive winner…no one really expected it to go that far. Another example was the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight, which was also billed as a 45 rounder…A 20 round battle could easily result in a decision…in a huge fight, fans wanted a knockout.

  5. Brian – I recall that fight and everyone thought that Jess truly won that fight. He was a sore loser but was a true champion, even if he didn’t live up to his fame.
    Dave from Dayton

  6. Omg!
    26 rounds? That’s soooo crazy! I don’t think I could watch all that slamming on each other!
    Good info .. Thnx Brian :)

    1. DIana: Actually, long distance fights in that era were not exactly brawls…lots of clinching, circling of each other and standing around…that’s how they could go 26 rounds.

  7. Didn’t Chuck Berry get caught by the Mann Act too? Transporting women across state lines for an immoral purpose? Sounds like a nice, vague law to trap inconvenient targets.

    Great article. How many times did Johnson defend his title during his 6.5 year reign?

    1. Buck : Johnson had eight successful title defenses, although a few of them were 6 round no-decision bouts, including one with a young Victor Mclaglen, who later became a great character actor. It’s too bad the Johnson-Jeffries fight didn’t take place around 1906, as Big Jeff was, at that point, only two years away from the game…A 20 round fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries from 1905-1907 probably goes the distance, and no referee in the country would have rendered a decision in favor of Johnson.

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