- Don Stradley
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Yankee Stadium is in its final day of service and sports fans have spent the summer reminiscing about the on-field drama that made the old shrine legendary. But while The Babe, The Mick, and Joltin' Joe deserve their accolades, it was a fighter who helped set the tone for the stadium's larger-than-life aura in the early going.
No, it wasn't one of the superstars of the day -- not Harry Greb or Benny Leonard -- but rather it was one of boxing's most misunderstood and reluctant warriors: Jess Willard.
The stadium's first boxing show was a benefit for the mayor's milk fund, but promoter Tex Rickard was hyping it as a heavyweight carnival, with hopes that someone on the card could be groomed as a challenger for champion Jack Dempsey.
Rickard pulled together a sketchy lineup that included Tiny Herman, a 280-pound fighter who had chosen the wrong profession, and Fred Fulton, a towering southpaw whose chief claim to fame was that he'd knocked the great Sam Langford into partial blindness. Also on the card was Luis Angel Firpo, the big Argentine who had distinguished himself by kayoing Bill Brennan at Madison Square Garden in 1923.
Then there was Willard, the Pottawatomie Giant.
A fighting chance?
Nearly five years had passed since Dempsey blasted him out in Toledo. Still, Rickard had a hunch he was willing to play -- Willard's 1918 bout with Dempsey had become a part of Americana, a bout that would be immortalized on postcards and paintings and in books for decades.
Bringing Willard to Yankee Stadium was like bringing Goliath back from the dead for a rematch with David.
After shuffling some names around, Rickard matched Willard with Floyd Johnson, an aggressive, young fighter who had lost only twice in 40 bouts. Dempsey's manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, told the New York Times that Johnson was already penciled in as Dempsey's next challenger. Kearns even wagered $1,000 that Johnson would topple Willard.
No one took Willard seriously -- except Willard. He set up camp in Excelsior Springs, Mo., and pushed his 41-year-old body to the limit. When he arrived in Yonkers a few weeks before the bout, he had dropped 20 pounds and looked chipper. But when the press observed his sparring sessions, the 6-foot-6 Willard looked terrible. "It seemed as if it was an effort for the big Kansan to move his arms and legs," reported the Times.
The story on Willard, that he was just an overfed Kansas rancher with no taste for fighting, was only partly true. He didn't take up boxing until he was 29, when he became part of the "Great White Hope" search that swept America during Jack Johnson's reign. Willard was less concerned with white America than he was with making money to support his young family.
Despite his lack of polish, Willard was a good fighter that afternoon in Havana when he won the championship. Jack Johnson's claim years later that he "threw" the fight was to cover his embarrassment at losing to the raw Willard: Films of that bout show Willard landing a monstrous overhand right that would've stopped any opponent cold.
Johnson even swallowed a couple of teeth during the fight, being too proud to spit them out.
But if Willard answered America's cry for a white heavyweight champion, he was surprisingly an unpopular one. He made two dull defenses of the title and spent most of his reign performing rope tricks in circuses and western shows.
By the time Rickard brought Willard to Yankee Stadium in 1923, Willard was still attracting bad press. Except for some unimpressive exhibitions in 1921, he'd been largely inactive, focusing on business interests in California.
"What people forget about Willard, is that he can punch," Rickard said before the bout.
One of Willard's early opponents, "Bull" Young, died from injuries received in their bout. Indeed, Dempsey wrote in his 1977 autobiography that Willard hurt him badly in the second round of their tussle, and that was after Willard had been all but destroyed in the first round. But even if he was as strong as legend would have it, the mountainous Willard was ancient by the standards of the day.
If Rickard's heavyweight lineup was less than stellar, Rickard outdid himself on the promotional end, hiring nearly 700 New York police officers and 370 ushers for what he called his "new outdoor boxing club."
And what a club it was -- 16,000 square feet of sod, 35,000 cubic yards of concrete, plus 135,000 steel castings and a million brass screws for the grandstand. To ballyhoo the event, Rickard added an additional 10,000 seats on the field. He even hired a band to play between fights.
Rickard's hard work paid off on the balmy afternoon of May 12, 1923, when nearly 63,000 patrons turned out, almost as many as had come a few weeks earlier for the Yankees' home opener.
By the time Willard and Floyd Johnson came to the ring at approximately 5 p.m. ET, the skies had gone from cloudy to clear. It was "a setting that could scarcely have been more picturesque had it been painted by a master's brush," noted the Times. But when Willard's weight was announced at 248, the customers burst into laughter.
The laughter would soon stop, for old Jess was about to put on a command performance.
Willard's grand slam
Time and again Willard caught the incoming Johnson with right uppercuts. Willard's style was to keep his guard low, inviting opponents to come at him, and nail them with blows to the heart or chin. The strategy worked for a few rounds -- until Willard began blowing like a tired horse.
By the eighth round, Johnson had taken over, banging Willard on the head with roundhouse shots. "Willard was showing symptoms of an old man," reported The Associated Press. "The steam was gone out of his punches, and the flesh on his legs was throbbing."
Willard had to be lifted from his stool by his handlers to begin the ninth. Then, after taking a beating for most of the round, Willard threw a desperation haymaker, dropping Johnson just before the bell. There was still some grit in the old horse trader, even if he looked like he might collapse from exhaustion.
At the end of the 11th, using what one reporter called "the brute strength of primitive man," Willard socked Johnson to the canvas again. The younger fighter, by now groggy and bloody, had to be carried back to his corner, where the fight was immediately stopped.
"Youth, take off your hat and bow low and respectfully to Age," Damon Runyon wrote for the New York American. "For days and days, the sole topic of conversation in the world of sport will be Willard's astonishing comeback."
Willard made news again that summer during the Chickasaw River flood in Ponca City, Okla. As massive rains caused $5 million worth of damage, Willard rescued several women and children, carrying them on his back to safety. The United Press headline roared, "Big Jess Willard -- Hero of High Water!"
But Willard's new celebrity status was short-lived. When Rickard proposed the next Yankee Stadium show would feature a main event pitting Willard against Firpo, Willard was refused a boxing license because of his age. The bout was moved to New Jersey, where nearly 90,000 people witnessed Firpo club Willard down in eight rounds. "Willard, never a favorite with the mob when he held the championship, appeared to have captured their affections fully, as he made his final, unsuccessful bid for victory," The Ring's George Tickell wrote 10 years later.
Willard's metamorphosis from disgraced ex-champion to sentimental favorite began the day he beat Floyd Johnson at Yankee Stadium. Not only did he help launch the Bronx edifice as a boxing venue, he turned it into his own house of redemption.
And if you were wondering, a ringside seat for Willard's miraculous transformation cost only 20 bucks.
Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.
Don Stradley says "farewell" to Yankee Stadium by looking back at Jess Willard's heroic win over Floyd Johnson in 1923.