Friday, January 10, 2014

"The Trouble with Harry" Harry Wills vs Firpo, Madden, Uzcudun, and Newsreels including Jack Dempsey

Rare footage casts a shadow on a Black Light

Myth-making is a large part of boxing. It raises the sport above statistics and enhances the historical narrative. The fact that boxers engage today under many of the same rules as those a century ago links boxers and fans generations apart as one community. And because boxing is staged in a theater setting, where the action is clearly displayed, it was naturally a focus of early motion pictures. Fight films have enabled past events to be preserved and witnessed from one generation to the next.  Some boxer’s legacies have grown despite the lack of surviving footage. The most notable is that of Harry Greb, who remains among the all-time greats, though no film of Greb’s fights have been seen for decades. Another boxer whose reputation has grown, despite a limited film record is the African-American heavyweight contender, Harry Wills.

The Black Panther

Born in 1889, Harry “The Black Panther” Wills began boxing professionally in 1912. He was among the youngest of the one-generation phenomenon of African-American boxers sometimes called “The Black Lights,” who unofficially dominated much of boxing’s elite fighters during the first two decades of the 20th century. Even today, Wills looks impressive in photographs. At 6’2” (or taller, depending on the record) Wills was a lean, imposing, chiseled 210-pound heavyweight. His victories over greats like the aging Sam Langford are often noted, and from 1917 through 1922 Wills had an amazing string of victories. It established him as a top contender.

Wills’ personal story, along with his rival Jack Dempsey, also represents one of boxing’s most famous unfinished chapters.  It’s a tale about race in post-war America and about Harry Wills—an African-American caught in the bitter tail wind of Jack Johnson divisive legacy—who took every public and legal measure available to him to secure a title fight with champion Jack Dempsey, but to no avail. Wills never got to fight Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship, in essence because he was black. Because of the unjust circumstances, there’s always been a question of who would have won. Profiles of Wills describe him as either a footnote or an uncrowned champion, depending on the biographer. Hearsay and speculation has fueled debate for decades. In any case, it’s clear that Harry Wills was a genuine force in the division. 
I’ve always wondered how good Harry Wills actually was, and the real story of his quest to fight Jack Dempsey. Going back to the records, I searched firsthand accounts. What I discovered was not simply a challenger who was turned away, but a convoluted trail of claims, counter-claims, public demands, court battles, reluctant investors, lawyers, feuding business interests, fearful politicians, and two boxers trying to earn a living.

Harry and Jack Sign the Dotted Line

After the success of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in 1921, boxing exploded into the mainstream and Jack Dempsey’s career as world heavyweight champion soared to great heights. Then it stalled. Dempsey didn’t defend his title for the next two years, during which time Wills and other prospective challengers were considered and reconsidered. Dempsey has been criticized for not fighting enough during his reign. He in fact wanted to stay active, but his manager Doc Kearns and promoter Tex Rickard insisted on “saving him for the big fights.” This was a profitable career strategy for managers, but rust-inducing for boxers. 
In early 1922, a national poll placed Harry Wills as the preferred next challenger for Dempsey, just edging out contenders Tommy Gibbons and Bill Brennan. It suggested that the public was ready for an African-American to fight for the heavyweight title once
again. Negotiations began. Dempsey himself lobbied for the fight, writes Roger Khan in the biography A Flame of Pure Fire, and his handlers relented, but conditionally. On June 11, 1922, Dempsey and Wills put pens to contracts. But the powerful New York Commissioner William Muldoon did not want the fight to take place in New York. To complicate matters further, Muldoon and promoter Tex Rickard clashed over, of all things, ticket prices. Muldoon wanted 40,000 tickets fixed at $2.00 for the “working people.” Rickard refused. In retaliation, Muldoon blocked the Dempsey-Wills fight from taking place in New York, even threatening to halt all heavyweight fights until prices came down. Frustrated, Rickard traveled to several states—even north to Montreal—to find a welcoming venue. None wanted the fight or had the money to host the event. When the contract deadline ran out, Wills sued. From then until 1926, as the legal proceedings dragged on, a potential Dempsey-Wills fight was often in the news as either under consideration, being planned, or “scheduled for next year,” but never became a done deal.

Of Mice, Men and Money

Dempsey, Wills, and their managers did not create the nation’s racial problems. They were caught up in it. And the timing could not have been worse. They were mired in the aftermath of Jack Johnson, the oppressed first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915). Johnson’s victory over champion Tommy Burns was an upset, and a racist campaign began to drive Johnson out of boxing. First unsuccessfully beating Johnson in the ring, and then by prosecuting Johnson in the courts. But Johnson fueled the fire as well. He didn’t try to change people’s minds. His behavior out of the ring unfairly stereotyped African-Americans, and with one exception, he even refused to give the other great black boxers of his day a chance to fight for the title. During the five years after the Johnson-Jeffries fight, the heavyweight championship franchise, perhaps the richest in all of sports, was reduced to Johnson and his nomadic entourage, or as Tex Rickard harshly stated, a championship that “…ain’t worth a nickel.”

Rickard has been singled out as the culprit for blocking the Dempsey-Wills fight, and there’s no question that he did not want a black man to fight for the heavyweight championship again. Rickard was a businessman above all, and evidence suggests that he simply didn’t want to be involved in another controversial title fight for legitimate reasons. The motivation for Rickard’s reluctance stemmed from his experience promoting the Johnson-Jeffries fight in 1910. That year, he had pulled every available financial and political string to make the historic fight happen, even moving the event from California to Nevada when California’s governor barred the match. His reward was to witness race riots following the event and to be among those blamed. He abandoned boxing for the next six years.

It’s easy for us to look 90 years into past and cast judgment.  And are we so superior today with boxing in its post-decline? Not to mention the four years waiting for an African-American champion to grant a Filipino his rightful challenge? Big as boxing had become in 1921, Rickard and the promoters were still at the mercy of political winds. Even if the fight ended fair and square for either boxer, race relations were bad enough so that no one knew what the public reaction might be. There was a lot at stake, a great deal of money to lose, a social and political cost, and possibly jail. Race riots were not going to be an option.

Harry Takes the High Road in Low Country

Though Wills was black, he was not without means, money and popularity. Suing your way into a fight without promoters may have been like suing the stock market for not going up, but it got Wills’ case on record. In the meantime, there were many other fighters other than Wills in competition for Dempsey’s title, and the contenders battled one another for position. But Wills and his manager Paddy Mullins choose not to fight and thus eliminate any of his leading rivals including Tommy Gibbons, Billy Miske, Georges Carpentier, Jim Maloney, Harry Greb, Young Stribling, and Jack Delaney, none of whom drew the color line. Even Gene Tunney offered in 1925. Rickard may not have wanted to take chances, but Wills didn’t want to take chances either. By helping to keep Dempsey in court instead of the ring—Wills also sued to stop both the Dempsey-Firpo and Tunney fights—Wills may further have dimmed his own prospects.

Shelby and The Wild Bull

1922 came to a close without a Jack Dempsey fight.  Money was being lost and the champion and his manager Doc Kearns got fed up. They traveled west in 1923 to promote a title fight without Rickard, and far from the legal melee. Montana businessman Roy J. Molumby, offered Dempsey and Kearns a $100,000 cash advance for a fight between the champion and the contender Tommy Gibbons. The infamous Dempsey-Gibbons fight got Dempsey back in the ring, where he won a 15-round decision. But the event resulted in a financial bust, sending the town of Shelby into bankruptcy. Lesson learned, Dempsey and Kearns returned to New York.

Meanwhile, the Argentine heavyweight, Luis Angel Firpo, had come to the U.S. and replaced Wills as top contender with a string of savage knockouts. Firpo was a wrecking machine in the ring and his knockout of former champion Jess Willard had created a sensation. Firpo was matched with Dempsey and the champion prevailed in their historic two-round war at the Polo Grounds in New York City, September 14, 1923. In the months following the fight, Dempsey broke relations with manager Kearns, acquiring yet another legal adversary. For the next three years, champion Jack Dempsey was a celebrity, a court defendant, and a mismanaged boxer.

Wills and Firpo

In 1924, Wills was offered a golden opportunity. He accepted an offer to fight the feared Luis Firpo, who had nearly dethroned Dempsey a year before. Promoted by Tex Rickard, Wills and Firpo met at Boyles Thirty Acres, New Jersey, on September 11, 1924. Jack Dempsey was at ringside. This intriguing matchup has largely been lost to history.

Both Wills and Firpo were knockout artists of roughly the same size. Firpo was slightly heavier and an inch taller than Wills. The Times Daily reported the odds at all but even on the day of the fight. The fight went the full 15 rounds to end in a no-decision contest. The newspapers including the Quebec Daily Telegraph hailed Wills as a winner who “took almost every round and in the second round floored his opponent.” In front of an audience 75,000, it was the highest profile fight of Wills’ career. But while the fight put Wills in the spotlight, it also put him under the microscope. After three years campaigning as top contender, some witnesses were not impressed. The Milwaukee Journal headlined, “Harry Wills No Match for Champion Dempsey. Wills general ability as a fighter would not be sufficiently high to stand the champion off.  Firpo not only telegraphs his wallops, but sends a letter of warning…but Dempsey doesn’t telegraph. His punches come from a short distance and behind them lurk oblivion.”

Jack and Harry Sign Again

There’s no doubt that Wills deserved a title fight, and even Dempsey expressed his regrets at not having the fight to set the record straight. The two respected each other. It was an injustice to Wills and to history. But while Dempsey’s persona was larger than life, control over his career was with Kearns and Rickard. It wasn’t his decision to make. He deferred to his managers for nearly all business matters, and if Dempsey lobbied, as he did to fight Wills in 1922, Rickard would talk him out of it. There is no indication in any testimony that Dempsey was afraid of Wills. No better proof of this came than when Dempsey and Wills signed to fight for the second time.

By March 1925, the New York Commission had reversed its position on sanctioning a Dempsey-Wills match. The Commission now declared Wills as Dempsey’s mandatory challenger and threatened to place Dempsey on the ineligible list if he did not comply. The Associated Press reported on July 17, 1925, that Dempsey appeared before the New York Licensing Commission and formally accepted Wills’ challenge.  With Kearns now out of the picture, Dempsey was managing himself. On his own, with a new promoter, Dempsey made a genuine good faith effort to be matched with Wills.

Show Me The Money

Midwestern promoter Floyd Fitzsimmons, who had produced Dempsey-Miske fight in 1920, proposed a Dempsey-Wills fight to be held in Michigan City, Indiana. Dempsey was guaranteed $1,000,000 for the fight with $300,000 due upon signing. Dempsey accepted the offer. On September 28, 1925, Wills, Dempsey, the promoter and investors met for the contract ceremony. The event made headlines. Wills received a check for $50,000. Fitzsimmons told Dempsey he would get his check the following day. The next morning, Dempsey accompanied Fitzsimmons to the bank, ready to receive the down payment. Fitzsimmons handed Dempsey a check not for $300,000 but only $25,000. “It’s all I got right now, but there’s plenty more where that came from,” said Fitzsimmons. Still willing to proceed, Dempsey asked for cash instead: “I want to see this in green…and when you give me the other two-seven-five, I’ll give you the contract. Signed.” As the tellers counted out the cash, the issuing bank was called and reported back that the Fitzsimmons account was empty. The check bounced. Fitzsimmons couldn’t even deliver one dime of a down payment. Dempsey walked. Not only had the fight fallen through again, but now Dempsey was no longer licensed to fight in New York.

The Panther Cries Wolf

The heavyweight division continued to shake out; Tunney, Maloney, Delaney, Wills, Sharkey, Uzcundun and others were now in contention. In early 1926, Wills was offered $250,000 to fight Gene Tunney in a title eliminator, with the winner to meet the champion. Wills turned it down. Wills believed that fighting Dempsey was now a matter of entitlement. It was fateful decision. A Wills-Tunney fight may have changed the course of events. In any case the Tunney-Dempsey match was then scheduled.

Still there seemed no end to the claims, even as the Dempsey-Tunney fight approached. On August 6, 1926, the Evening Independent reported that a Chicago matchmaker, Doc Krone, announced that a $300,000 check was waiting for Dempsey in a Chicago bank. On August 22, the Telegraph Herald reported that Wills’ manager Paddy Mullins tried to bluff Dempsey once more into a contract, and then reportedly “failed to come forward with $150,000” saying, “We’ll post the money immediately if Dempsey will sign to fight Wills before September 23.” It was all too late. The public wanted Dempsey back, and he was in the ring with Gene Tunney three weeks later.

Then everything changed. Dempsey lost in an upset to Tunney, who then became champion. In October, Wills himself returned to the ring. At Brooklyn National League Park, a young and hungry Dempsey-esque heavyweight named Jack Sharkey brought Wills’ winning streak to an end. According to Time magazine, “Sharkey chopped and hacked at Wills, closed his eye, made his mouth bleed; all through the fight.” Wills reportedly backhanded, butted, and hit Sharkey during the breaks in an effort to discourage his opponent. After numerous warnings by the referee, Wills was disqualified in the 13th round. Wills soldiered on for several more fights, but retired from boxing in 1932 and became a successful real estate investor.

Discovering The Films

For decades, the only surviving public footage of Wills in action was the short, and incriminating, film of his 4th-round knockout by Paulino Uzcundun in 1927. Issued by Official Films as part of a series called Monarchs of The Ring, the 38-year-old Wills is seen clubbed to the canvas in what was his last fight as a contender. It’s no measure of his skills. I’ve interviewed several leading film collectors about additional surviving footage of Wills, but nothing had been verified for many years. However, I did locate several newsreels highlighting footage of Wills posing for the cameras before the Firpo fight. They provide a glimpse of his size and stance, but little else. Then, a rare breakthrough. Footage recently surfaced of Wills and Firpo in mid-fight, plus training footage, and 1st-round action against Irish Bartley Madden in 1924.

The Restoration
Though only a few minutes long, the footage of Wills and Luis Firpo is remarkably well preserved, and while the film of Wills-Madden is poor, the action is clear. The Wills-Firpo footage suffers jump cuts and gate slipping. I re-edited the shots into a new sequence and adjusted the speed and exposure. The Milwaukee Journal’s assessment that Dempsey need not “be cautious about meeting Wills in the ring” turns out to have some validity. The footage shows Wills’ defensive style, but without Jack Johnson’s speed or ability to control a fight. Wills’ greatest assets may have been his size and strength. Though Firpo was strong, and slightly larger than Wills, he displays none of the tenacity he did against Jack Dempsey. Firpo throws, with little accuracy, one overhand right after the other. Wills slips them with ease, but otherwise has no tactical answer of his own, and the two spend most of the time dragging one another around in clinches. The footage also includes the much-noted 2nd-round knockdown where “Wills floored Firpo with a right to the jaw. When Firpo arose Wills swarmed him with a flock of rights” reported United Press. The film tells its own version. The knockdown actually comes as Wills hits Firpo on the break. Firpo is more surprised than hurt and recovers quickly, as the two struggle for punching room. Wills was 35 years old, (Firpo was 30), but even a 35-year-old healthy, trained and experienced boxer will show flashes of youth for the first few rounds. This 1st- and 2nd-round action suggests that Wills was either a very slow starter, or as Firpo said, he was “more of a wrestler than a boxer.”

In the second film, Irish veteran Bartley Madden, who had also fought Harry Greb, Gene Tunney, Fred Fulton, and Tommy Gibbons, brought respectable ring experience. He was good enough to draw with Bill Brenan, and I show clip of his KO of George Christian in 1923. The Wills-Madden fight footage is dark and lacks detail, but the picture is steady, and the action is clear. Wills won a 15-round decision. But even in this losing effort, Madden exposes some of Wills’ weakness. Wills, the much bigger man, stalks aggressively, but Madden, who was only 5’11”, appeared able to close the distance and hit Wills with relative ease. This would have been fatal against Dempsey.

Dempsey and Wills were a lot closer in size than has often been suggested. At approximately 210 pounds, Wills was about 20 pounds heavier on average than Dempsey, but only one inch taller. In an article I wrote for (“A Duel in the Sun”) is a film of Jack Dempsey sparring with Big Bill Tate in 1919. Hired by Doc Kearns in 1918, Tate had become a chief sparring partner in the Dempsey camp, where he remained until 1927. At 6’6”, he was vital in preparing Dempsey to fight Jess Willard. Tate was an African-American who was also an experienced contender, and his experience included five fights with Harry Wills, including one DQ win, two close decision losses and a draw. In viewing the clips of Wills and Tate, it’s striking how similar in style and technique they were. Had a Dempsey-Wills fight actually gone forward, Tate would have provided a great tactical advantage. And one has to wonder, what does it say that one man’s opponent is another man’s sparring partner?

A Panther in Winter

In Roger Khan’s excellent biography of Jack Dempsey, he observes that while the skills of Georges Carpentier have dimmed over the decades, the skills of Harry Wills have grown. He also quotes Trainer Ray Arcel in describing Wills as “a very good journeyman.” Arcel, who had apprenticed with Wills’ trainer Dai Dollings, also told referee Arthur Mercante, “Wills was big and none too fast. It was a terrible injustice that Wills never got a title shot, but those big, slower guys were made to order for Dempsey.” The sportswriter James P. Dawson, who wrote for The New York Times, testified after Wills’ loss to Sharkey, “None who saw last night’s battle can doubt that Dempsey would have annihilated Wills four years ago, three years ago, or a year ago.”

Roger Kahn “A Flame of Pure Fire”
Jack Cavanaugh “Tunney – Boxing’s Brainiest Champ”
Arthur Mercante “Inside The Ropes”
The New York Times
Time Magazine
The Times Daily
Alton Evening Telegraph
The Evening Independent
The Milwaukee Journal
The Quebec Daily Telegraph
The Telegraph-Herald
Rochester Evening Journal
The Border Cities Star