Jess Willard: The Pottawatomie Giant

Today we take on the towering topic of one time world heavyweight champion Jess Willard (1881-1968).

Your correspondent is far from a sports person, but I write about the topic as a logical necessity; many or most major sports figures end up going into show business, and professional athletics has been the topic of many a play, film and tv show. Thus this post on Willard joins over 40 that we have done on boxing, and I hope you will peruse the relevant section, as it is handily my favorite sports-related enclave on this Byzantine blog.

Willard was the “Pottawatomie Giant” because he came from that part of Kansas and because he stood nearly 6′ 7″ tall. His size was apparently his primary virtue as a boxer. His was said to be a kind and simple nature; he was not endowed with either the killer instinct or the skill and talent that other pugilists had to rely on. He was usually reluctant to “go after” an opponent, fighting defensively, and eventually defeating them either by exhausting them or by the sheer power of his retaliatory punches. In 1913 he killed “Bull” Young with a single blow, and was actually tried for murder (though acquitted, for it was obviously accidental).

In 1915 he K.O.’d heavyweight champ Jack Johnson at a title bout in Havana, Cuba in the 26 round. Johnson was widely rumored to have thrown the match based on a remark he had made; he later admitted that he’d uttered the phrase petulantly out of pride, and that Willard had merely worn him down. At any rate, this racially fraught encounter made Willard one of the numerous “Great White Hopes” who took on Johnson, as immortalized with some fictionalization in the 1970 film. Willard hung on to his title for four years, and only that long because he rarely gave others an opportunity to take it away. Jack Dempsey was the man to do it, on July 4, 1919. This fight too engendered controversy, as many claimed (and many still do) that Dempsey had hidden something metallic in his gloves, a common method of cheating. Willard retired from boxing in 1923.

Like many athletes, Willard toured the vaudeville circuits. He also starred in two silent movies, The Heart Punch (1915) and The Challenge of Chance (1919), and played himself in a cameo in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933). He is also said to have toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West early in his professional career.

For more on the boxing and show biz connection go here.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.