Havana, Cuba, April 5, 1915
Fight Highlights and Rare Footage
One hundred years ago today, the World Heavyweight Championship changed hands. On the afternoon of April 5, 1915, for over an hour and a half, champion and challenger battled through 25 three-minute rounds in 100+ degree heat in a ring standing at the finish line at the Oriental Race Track in Havana, Cuba. The pace of the fight was more like a baseball game than a boxing match, but it lacked neither drama nor excitement. By the end of the contest, the 37-year-old champion Jack Johnson had thrown every punch, tried every physical and verbal tactic in his arsenal on his unyielding challenger.
Jess Willard, the 33-year-old, 6’6” giant, a man with limited skills but immense size and strength, would not only withstand an hour of relentless attacks, but stick to his fight plan of probing and leading with long left jabs followed by overhand rights and uppercuts. After 20 rounds, Johnson was leading on points. His lead was due to work rate rather than domination. Willard was never seriously hurt and many of Johnson’s punches were blocked by the challenger’s arms and gloves. As the champion slowed down, Willard drove the once untouchable, unbeatable Jack Johnson into exhaustion and retreat. Shortly into the 26th round, Willard scored with two rights. The first one grazed the champion’s chin, and the second slammed squarely against Johnson’s jaw, dropping him to the canvas where he lay on his back as the referee counted him out. The crowd stormed the ring and Willard was besieged by fans. Johnson was lifted to his feet and led across the ring by his handlers.
After it was over, the New York Times quoted Johnson, the first black man to win and lose the Heavyweight Championship, as saying, “It was a clean knockout and the best man won. It was not a matter of luck. I have no kick coming.” From the Chicago Tribune Johnson continued, “I was sure my experience and generalship would be too much for Willard, but I was mistaken. He gave me a beating, but I took his blows without wincing, and he can hit.” Two days after the fight, in front of a crowd of well wishers, Willard boarded a steamer bound for Key West. Johnson came down to see him off. According to the Toronto World, Johnson shook hands with Willard saying, “I wish you all the luck you could wish for yourself. I hope you make a heap of money. Be sure to save it.” Willard answered gratefully, “I’ll see you in Europe.” Willard had already received an offer to fight contender Frank Moran in London, and Johnson would soon leave for France. It was a rare and brief display of consolation by Jack Johnson. When one considers the well documented racial abuse and injustice Johnson had endured during his reign from the public, the press and from the boxing community, his gesture of respect toward Willard was testament to the strength of his character. But détente sailed away with Willard’s steamer. In the months that followed, a series of events would spark controversy over the knockout, calling into question the legitimacy of the finish and the reputation of both boxers.
A Picture Tells A Thousand Lies
Photographs of the fight were widely published. Both the press as well as audience members captured numerous images of the fight. The single most enduring image, however, was taken a moment after Johnson hit the canvas. Johnson is seen lying on his back with his arms over his head, while Willard, who was walking away, appears instead to be standing stoically over the fallen champion. But this image of the defeated black champion became Johnson’s last laugh. Despite all reports of the knockout, Johnson would soon announce that he had faked the finish for a $30,000 payoff. The proof of fake, Johnson insisted, was in the photo. Once on the canvas, Johnson’s arms flung up over his head. Johnson insisted that this action was deliberate and he was consciously shading his eyes from the sun. The claim was never substantiated, and the whole story never added up. Why wait 26 rounds to throw a fight? Not to mention that Johnson’s eyes were not shaded in the photograph. The author of the book Unforgivable Blackness, Geoffrey C. Ward, wrote that Johnson had already been paid in full the morning of the fight, and then promptly left the promoter’s office to place a bet on himself. Johnson’s claim of fake went viral anyway. Jack spent the rest of his life profiting from the story and embedding it into boxing lore.
The Film Nobody Saw
There was great anticipation by the public to see the actual films of the fight, and if the footage proved Johnson’s story or not. The Johnson-Willard fight had not only been filmed, but it was the most photographed prizefight of its time. Hollywood actor and director Fred Mace partnered with promoter Jack Curley to film and photograph the fight from multiple angles, including from ringside. This had never been done before. To capture a boxing match this way was a huge undertaking compared to the customary single camera shoots going back to the 1890s. A camera platform was built on the racetrack adjacent to the ring for the primary angle, facing east, away from the sun. A second camera was placed for a wide shot facing north toward the grandstand, and finally, a ringside camera was stationed near Willard’s corner. Those are the views we see in the film. It was a near perfect setting for the cameras. The day had begun overcast, but the air was hot, and the temperature rose to 100+ degrees. The fight started an hour behind schedule—apparently someone had forgotten to bring the “gong.” As the fight progressed through the afternoon, the sun appeared, casting long shadows in the ring.
Johnson came to the fight as confident as ever. For Johnson the showman, the ring was his grand stage. He bantered with hecklers, laughed, chatted and joked with the audience. He baited, taunted and frustrated his opponents. Johnson used his strength and defensive skills to control nearly every aspect of a fight, including how long they would last. Up to this fight, Johnson had relished every moment in the ring. The champion had reigned for seven years over a depleted division of white boxers who were either too small or too old to be a challenge. Johnson could have fought more worthy challengers among the league of gifted black heavyweights, but none was given the opportunity. Johnson wasn’t satisfied being the first black Heavyweight Champion, he wanted to be the only black heavyweight champion.
Once inside the ropes with Willard, and faced with the reality of Willard’s size, Johnson became intimidated. Years earlier, in the first round of Johnson’s fight with Champion Tommy Burns, Jack immediately knocked Burns to the canvas to establish dominance. In his first round with Willard, the films shows Johnson trying the same tactic, but his punches had no effect. In the second round, and most unusual for the champion so early in a fight, Johnson tried to knock Willard out. Johnson rushed Willard to the ropes with looping lefts and rights. Jack wanted to get this one over with. Again the punches had no effect. Through the next dozen rounds Johnson was often the aggressor, and attacked Willard more often and with more intensity than in any of his previous title defenses. Through it all, Willard blocked many of Johnson’s punches and kept Johnson at bay with a long left jabs and rights to the head and body.
By the 14th round, Johnson slowed and his rallies appear desperate. He begins to bide his time. Johnson’s busy pace had given him a good lead, but Willard had prepared for this. When the fight was set for 45 rounds, Willard’s team planned for an endurance contest. While Willard had little of the boxing skills and experience that Johnson had, he had the discipline that Johnson had abandoned. Jess had been a farmhand, a trade requiring strength and endurance above all else. Jess worked the fight like a day in the fields—stalking and punishing Johnson at a constant steady pace. Had the fight been scheduled for 20 rounds, referee Welsh would have given Johnson the decision. But even so, with Willard coming on at the end, Johnson would have looked more like a survivor than a winner.
By the 26th round, Johnson knew he was finished and asked that his wife be escorted out of the stadium. For a moment it looked like Johnson was going to quit on his stool. Referee Welsh had to call Johnson from his corner. Johnson came forward and tried once more to drive Willard back. Willard cut off the ring and trapped Johnson in a corner. With the fighters in full view of the cameras, Willard lunged forward, putting his full weight behind a right to Johnson’s jaw. The punch pitched Johnson backward, not unlike the impact Joe Frazier suffered from George Foreman nearly 60 years later. Johnson tried to grab Willard as he fell, pulling Jess forward and into the ropes. Johnson landed hard on his back. His arms went up as they naturally would when a person falls backward, and his gloves briefly hung over his face before sliding back over his head, his legs collapsing to the canvas.
Advocates for Johnson, as in the Ken Burns documentary Unforgivable Blackness, insisted that Johnson could have gotten up if he had wanted to. Bert Sugar even states that Johnson didn’t rise because “He was a business man” who knew it wasn’t his day. The notion is little more than wishful thinking, as if an exhausted fighter suffering the brown-out of a knockout punch has the presence of mind to ponder his career options. Geoffrey C. Ward wrote that Johnson’s seconds in fact had to help him to his feet. Johnson was still dazed enough to believe the fight was still on and had to be held back by Sam McVey. In a rare photo taken moments after the knockout, Johnson is seen still on the canvas with a corner man trying to lift him.
The Sims Act
The American public never saw the films. Boxing films had been banned in the United States since 1912. The Sims Act had been passed by Congress in response to the race riots that occurred after the Johnson-Jeffries fight in 1910. The law allowed for prizefights to be filmed, but barred their distribution across state lines. The concept behind the law was that a community hosting a prizefight could see the films, but that they would also have to deal with any consequences. The law ended boxing films as the movie industry’s main attraction, paving the way for Hollywood.
Internationally the film was a success. According to the review in the Ottawa Citizen on June 1, 1915, the movie was feature-length, with scenes of Havana, the fighters’ arrival and training, and then every round of the fight plus titles. The newspaper proclaimed, “Undoubtedly the best that have ever been taken of a prizefight.” The film was also shown in London and widely screened in Australia, where the connection to Johnson was strong and boxing thrived.
Eventually the movie run was finished, and prints were stored, discarded or lost. The clamor of all great fights inevitably fades when the next big fight comes along. That was when Willard was gladiatorially dispatched in three rounds by Jack Dempsey in July 1919. Willard’s reputation diminished as the Heavyweight Championship succeeded to Jack Dempsey through Rocky Marciano. Thanks to the infamous photograph, Jess came to be regarded as a big fighting cowboy of the disgraceful White Hope era who happened to fight Jack Johnson at the right time. It also didn’t help that the marginal success of the big men who followed Willard, like Primo Carnera, Abe Simon, Buddy Baer and others furthered the belief that boxing talent leveled off beyond a certain height and weight. Johnson’s life has been well documented. After losing to Willard, Johnson fell on hard times. Returning to the United States in 1920, he served a one-year prison sentence for a fabricated criminal conviction. Johnson remained in the public eye thereafter as a boxer and celebrity, promoting his reputation and discrediting Willard at every opportunity before his death in 1946.
A Discovery Down Under
Decades passed. No prints of the Willard-Johnson film were thought to exist. Sometime in the 1950s, one or more copies of the Willard-Johnson film surfaced in Sydney, Australia. The circumstances are unclear, but boxing archivist Steve Lott suggested that it was not uncommon to find vintage films stashed away in abandon properties like old movie theaters. Whatever the specifics may have been, Willard and a screenwriter named Joe Stone negotiated with the dealer in Australia to obtain the film. The print instead ended up in the hands of film collectors and television producers Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs. Willard was left out of the loop and he sued. The case was eventually settled with access to the film going to Willard and Stone and with rights to Cayton and Jacobs. In 1965 Stone went to the newspapers with the film which he said, “We picked it up in Australia where Johnson had sold it or pawned it.” Johnson’s copy, which Joe Stone had acquired, was not only in marginal condition, but Willard’s knockout punch had been cut out—perhaps Johnson couldn’t bear the sight. Though a complete film had yet to surface, viewers were surprised by what they saw. Not only did Johnson fight to win, but Willard was far more effective than previously thought.
Willard was not among the best of the heavyweight champions, but he’s been underappreciated. His boxing skills were limited, but he was in some ways ahead of his time. Despite his late start in boxing at age 27, Jess nevertheless was schooled and conditioned to make full use of his size advantage, which he and his trainers accomplished, perhaps foreshadowing the goliaths of today, who fight almost exclusively at long range. Jess was among those fighters whose overall career was not impressive, but like Buster Douglas many decades later, Jess put it all together for the one fight in his life that mattered most.
For the Johnson fight, Willard accomplished what seemed impossible at the time. He took Jack Johnson out of his comfort zone and forced the defensive master to come to him. Johnson’s practice of holding and hitting didn’t work against Willard. Willard was just too big and Johnson eventually became exhausted. It was a feat that only Willard could have pulled off at the time, and he delivered. Tom Flanagan, who trained Johnson for many of his fights, stated in a 1928 Pittsburgh Press article that the Willard fight was on the level and added, “The truth of the whole affair is that Johnson, whose pride in holding the title was so great, could not stand to think of another man beating him. Remember, too, that Willard was trained up to the minute, scaled over 240 pounds and was bigger and stronger in every way. When Jack found that Jess took everything he had and came back stronger in every round, he just lost heart and knew he could not win.” In a 1939 interview for the St. Petersburg Times, Willard said of Johnson, “One of the best in the ring. I don’t think there was a more clever man. He knew all the ropes of the game and used them. He never let a blow get near him. I mean he was that good.”
Willard died in 1968, but not before newly restored footage of the Johnson-Willard knockout was featured in the Cayton-Jacobs-Chapin documentary, The Legendary Champions, which chronicled the heavyweight championship from John L. Sullivan to Gene Tunney. In the Academy Award-nominated film, Willard’s infamous knockout punch was shown uncut “for the first time,” complete and in slow motion. The knockout was no longer in doubt and Johnson’s claim of fake was now indefensible. Fifty-two years after the fight in Havana, Jess Willard got the last word.
In the video I produced for this article, I assembled Willard-Johnson fight footage from several documentary and archival sources including 16mm prints in my collection. There’s too much material to include everything, but I wanted to show a good portion of the fight plus rare footage and photographs. There are two versions of Round 26—the first is the original release with edits from two camera views, and the second is the complete round uncut. As the ring is stormed by the audience, Cuban soldiers enter and eventually clear the masses. Knowing that the fighters were trapped in the ring, I scanned the film to see if I could locate and show them. In two shots immediately after the knockout, the picture zooms in to show Willard besieged by fans and Jack Johnson, in the background, being escorted to his corner. In the second shot, Johnson can be seen standing in his corner, putting a towel over his head with Sam McVey nearby. There are also post-fight scenes that were likely in the original release, promoting Willard on tour. Finally, Jack Johnson is seen shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers that was likely filmed sometime before the fight.