Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Jess Willard's Last Stand" -vs- Floyd Johnson & Luis Firpo 1923

Willard -vs- Floyd Johnson and Luis Ángel Firpo 1923
16mm Transfer & Restoration
10 Minutes, Silent & Sound

Jess Willard was one of those rare champions who manifested greatness in the single most important fight of his career. (Buster Douglas is another example that comes to mind.) Willard’s otherwise modest record crested on April 5, 1915, when he faced the seemingly unbeatable Jack Johnson for the heavyweight championship in Havana, Cuba.  After taking everything Johnson could throw for 12 rounds, the towering 6’6” Willard never lost his cool, and wore the champion down, knocking Johnson out in the 26th round.
During the four years that followed, Willard was, unfortunately, a complacent champion. He defended once in 1916 against contender Frank Moran, but otherwise chose to be inactive during the First World War and did not to fight again until July 4, 1919. In that historic match, challenger Jack Dempsey gave Willard the beating of the century; most of it in the first three minutes. It became the second fight Willard is remembered for. 


Willard’s career didn’t end there, however. The former champion had two more important prizefights, both of them four years later during his long forgotten comeback. On May 12, 1923, promoter Tex Rickard hosted the opening of Yankee Stadium with a huge boxing card that included heavyweight contenders Luis Ángel Firpo, Floyd Johnson and others, including Jess Willard. Jess had been lured out of retirement by Rickard with the prospect of a return match with Dempsey. “What people forget about Willard,” Rickard said before the bout, “is that he can punch.”

The event was a title eliminator and Floyd Johnson was matched with Willard. Burning with comeback fever, Willard shed 20 pounds, trained seriously, and appeared leaner than he had since his championship days. Still, the media was not impressed, and Johnson was favored to win easily. Not to be upstaged, Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns even announced ahead of time that Floyd Johnson would likely be Dempsey’s next opponent.

The fight did not go as planned. From the opening bell Willard fought aggressively and dominated the action. By the middle rounds, the 41-year-old Willard appeared to tire, but he rallied back and dropped Johnson briefly in the ninth. Late in the 11th round, Willard scored again, decking Johnson with a smashing uppercut. Johnson got up and returned to his corner, but he was bloody and hurt and unable to continue.

Jess Willard, the Comeback Kid, had won on a TKO. It was sweet redemption, spoiling the party for Jack Dempsey’s next opponent.

"Youth,” wrote Damon Runyon in the New York American, “take off your hat and bow low and respectfully to Age." 

The Last Stand 

Willard was then matched with Firpo, who had knocked out Jack McAuliffe in three rounds on the same card. Two months later on July 12, 1923, at Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey, Willard faced “The Wild Bull of the Pampas” with the winner to meet Dempsey for the heavyweight championship. Firpo, however, was a wrecking machine. Since arriving in the U.S. in 1922, the 6’2” powerhouse from Argentina had blown through the ranks, leaving a trail of knockout victims. For seven rounds Jess held his own (allegedly with a broken hand), but Firpo clubbed Willard to the canvas in the eighth and Jess failed to beat the count. 

The Films 

The Jess Willard-Floyd Johnson fight was filmed, but the knockout footage was either lost or never captured. The existing footage is raw and unedited, perhaps shot by a newsreel crew. I suggest this because the fight sequences are brief, as the photographer stops and start the camera to catch key moments of action. Fortunately the footage itself, taken late in the afternoon under clear skies, is well preserved and remarkably good quality. It shows Willard in good form, looking trim and fighting well against the young contender. I have included photographs of the knockout.

The Willard-Firpo fight, also seen here, took place at night under the stadium lighting. As far as I know, only a highlight of this fight survives.  It was widely distributed in 8mm and 16mm in the Monarchs of The Ring (Official Films) boxing anthology series beginning in the 1940s. The footage includes Firpo training, the referee’s the referee’s instructions, and the 8th round knockout. 

1 comment:

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