Jack Johnson’s Waterloo

By The Fight Film Collector on April 5, 2015
Jack Johnson’s Waterloo
Not only did Johnson fight to win. Willard was far more effective than previously thought.

The pace of the fight was more like a baseball game than a boxing match, but it lacked neither drama nor excitement…

Jack Johnson vs. Jess Willard
100th Anniversary
Havana, Cuba, April 5, 1915
Fight Highlights and Rare Footage

The Fight

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.

The Knockout

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. 

Into History

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’s Requiem

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.

The Video

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.

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Jess Willard -vs- Jack Johnson | 100th Anniversary Fight & Rare Footage

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  1. PitBull Petrill 11:02am, 04/15/2015

    I never championed SRR as a humanitarian as I am fully aware of his reputation as a wife beater. Louis defended against 3 blacks but Johnson had many more black top contenders during his reign than Louis had during his. There was no Sam Langford or Harry Wills (i.e. clear black heavyweight threats) and Patterson avoided Liston as we know. I meant to say usher an era of poor sportsmanship in boxing. Ty Cobb came around after Johnson as his best years were in the 19 teens. Greb was a dirty fighter yes and so too was Mickey Walker and Nelson to a degree but they did not publicly humiliate opponents in the manner Johnson did.

  2. LaRue 08:55pm, 04/14/2015

    Holy shite. I never knew this stuff

  3. nicolas 10:12am, 04/09/2015

    Robinson was a wife beater as well as has been now documented, and his star is not shiny as a person as it once was. Accually it is believed that when Johnson fought Jim Johnson that was the first all black heavyweight championship fight. I believe there is some dispute if this was really a exhibition. Unlike Johnson, Louis on his way up fought mostly white heavyweights, and of his 25 title defenses, only defended three time against black fighters. For Johnson, it was about making money, and he believed, and perhaps rightfully so, he had to fight white fighters in order to make the money. Don’t forget, that he had only become champ in his 30’s, a very old age at the time to become champion, I think maybe only Bob Fitzimmons had been older, and he had already held the middleweight title. As far as other champs giving black men title shots, until Ali, Marciano had defended the title against black fighters some four times, a record until Ali defended it against black fighters because there was a feeling of need to take away the title from him, as it would have been with Liston as well. Until Liston, Patterson had only defended the title one time against black fighters. Even Joe Frazier, mostly defended against non black fighters, Ellis, Ali and Foster, then of course George Foreman. Also to suggest that it was Johnson who ushered in the age of poor sportsmanship is a little off. Ty Cobb comes to mind, and many other boxers of that era did not display the good sportsmanship. Many of the white fighters against Johnson would be hurling racially verbal abuse against him. to suggest that Johnson was responsible for bringing about poor sportsmanship, is a little bit much. Battling Nelson, and the guy who won and then lost the middleweight title to Ketchel comes to mind. Harry Greb latter did not show great sportsmanship, and guys like Mickey Walker were no saints either.

  4. PitBull Petrill 09:31am, 04/09/2015

    I criticize Jack for being a wife-beater and for ushering in an era of poor sportsmanship. A dummy he was not, he was of above average intelligence. Jack Johnson taunted and humiliated opponents and drew the color line immediately after winning the title. GunBoat Smith, a good friend of Jack’s, was angered by the way Jack treated his wives. Jack shook Tommy Farr’s hand because he resented and was jealous of Joe Louis. He was also angry over the fact that he and Jack Blackburn kicked him out of the gym when Jack attempted to squeeze Jack out of the picture to become Joe’s trainer. He also offered to train and openly cheered for Schmelling in their fight and flaunted his winnings ( from betting on Max to win) in Harlem and nearly sparked a riot. He apparently was nearly assaulted by a mob of people. Jack could have opened the door to his brethren and given them shots at the title but choose not to. How historic would an all0black heavyweight title fight have been back in the day? Joe Louis was the first to do this btw. So yes, that is the reason behind my dislike of Jack Johnson.

  5. nicolas 03:51pm, 04/08/2015

    I am amazed after all these years the hatred towards Jack Johnson this article has spun. Johnson certainly was no saint, but as we have learned, not all of the boxers people think were so good were. Sugar Ray Robinson of course comes to mind, Jake La Motta, etc. But let us look at what Johnson had to go through at the time. For sure he had probably a lot of death threats. He was portrayed by the media at the time as a gorilla and buffoon, who could not speak a coherent sentence, when in fact, if one looks at a later video of him speaking, you see a very well spoken man. Ironically he spoke rather well of some white boxers later in his career, and it is well known that he went to shake the hand of Tommy Farr, but not Joe Louis in there title fight. Even to this day I would suggest that no black person had to go through the things that Johnson and many other blacks at the time went though. People who are criticizing Johnson for his behavior, I would suggest that they think about walking in the shoes that this man had to walk in at that time before they cast the first stone.

  6. PitBull Petrill 11:25am, 04/08/2015

    This was a superb piece of journalistic history and even better footage! Johnson was a truly a shameless jerk for his behavior in his post fight career as well the utter lack of sportsmanship he displayed during fights.

  7. nicolas 10:41am, 04/08/2015

    regarding the recent basketball game, and the Kentucky players comment. I spoke to a young black man, who I haver known for years and asked him why the hell did the black player use the term ‘Nigga’ for Kaminsky. First of course, the term ‘Nigga’ is not as racially tinged as the word ‘Nigger:. Black people, mostly the young use it in terms of friendship, camaraderie among themselves. While i don’t advise perhaps people of other races use it for their black friends, I can tell you back in 2001, I was substitute teaching it in a school, a type of high school that was for kids with behavior problems, and the white kids used it towards their black class mates, and there was no resentment from the black kids. The Black gentlemen who I asked this about said the term Nigga in this case would replace the word ‘fool’, or another thing. He was frustrated about the loss, and he acknowledged it was not very proper of him to say it. Certainly I agree that Rangal should have been called upon about what he said in the use of ‘cracker’. Saw some video on Ytube regarding the word cracker, and these mostly white liberal types did not feel that this was as bad as the word ‘Nigger’, but they I thought were pretty stupid as this for me if directed towards me in a hostile environment is quite wrong. As for Johnson, he brought up the issue for money because of hard times that he went through. Later however he claimed that the greatest heavyweight of all time was Jim Jeffries, somewhat suggesting that had he fought Jeffries in his prime he would not have beaten him. It is also of interest to note that Jeffries made claims of his loss to Johnson that he was drugged years later, and also the near loss he nearly suffered to Bob Fitzsimmons in the rematch was due to loaded gloves on Bob’s part.

  8. bikermike 04:12am, 04/07/2015

    I very much appreciated the author pointing out Willard’s contribution to this match.
    He was tight and trim, and blocked Johnson’s blows and rushes, and kept Johnson on the outside.
    He did exactly what he had trained to do…and wore Johnson down.

    Willard got a fair ‘hearing’ from this article.

  9. bikermike 04:03am, 04/07/2015

    ...a lot of WHAT ‘IF’S’ in the Willard Dempsey thing…..

    Here’s mine…..‘What if someone else had wrapped Dempsey’s hands.

  10. bikermike 03:59am, 04/07/2015


    A very well researched, well written essay on one of the most talked about Heavyweight Championship Fights of all time.

    I’d read it twenty times….Great read, Loved it.

    Thank you

  11. Eric Jorgensen 01:07pm, 04/06/2015

    Great job, as always, FFC.  Keep ‘em coming!

  12. Eric 06:02am, 04/06/2015

    Irish..Since when did black athletes start calling white athletes the “N” word? I know the leftist tell us that race doesn’t exist and that race is merely a social construct, but what the hell? He should have called the guy a “cracker,” ala Charlie Rangel, nothing happened to Charlie when he dropped the “C” word. Wonder if they will punish Andrew Harrison like they did those white kids in Oklahoma? Double-standards? You have to wonder if they made a fighter go to a neutral corner back in the day, if Willard would have survived the onslaught by Dempsey. After the first knockdown, it was all but over for the big man. How in the hell, can you clear the cobwebs in your head, with Dempsey standing right on top of you just waiting to pound you the minute you rise up from the canvas. If someone like Tyson or Foreman would have been allowed to stand over a fallen opponent and beat on them the second both knees were barely off the canvas, they surely would have killed someone. Willard had to be one tough SOB to survive for as long as he did.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:42am, 04/06/2015

    FFC-Great contribution here….film, research and writing.  Johnson was way ahead of the times in so many ways including the fact that he was a whiny ass loser much like so many abroad in the land in the present day. Witness the “student” athlete that made the vile, loathsome comment about Frank Kaminsky in the post game interview or his team mates who walked off the court without shaking the Wisconsin player’s hands…...which reminds me….that should have been Johnson getting that unGodly beating from Dempsey (loaded gloves or not) and Calzaghe should have taken Hopkins to Cardiff and whipped his whiny ass to a Goddamned frazzle

  14. nicolas 01:30am, 04/06/2015

    I have always wondered how Willlard would have done against Jack Dempsey if it had been this Willard that took on Jack.

  15. The Fight Film Collector 08:15pm, 04/05/2015

    Eric, I completely agree with you that the early big men have been underrated.  My comments regarding Willard, Carnera and other early-mid 20th century big men was not a personal critique.  The reference was about the misperception of those boxers over time.  I think I made a good case for Willard’s accomplishment.  FrankinDallas, I searched and searched for the Havana weather report on that day and the best I came up with was temperatures within a few weeks of the fight.  I have to agree with you that the heat of the day has been exaggerated.  My guess is that the day, which began cloudy, was moderate, but it got hot when the sun came out later in the afternoon, and that was well into the fight.

  16. FrankinDallas 07:10pm, 04/05/2015

    I simply do not believe the temperature was 100+. Note that the referee
    was chubby yet after 26 rounds running around there are no sweat stains
    on his vest. Surely he would have been soaked. Same for the spectators…there
    are numerous men wearing woolen sweaters…surely they would have removed

    Temperature this week in Havana ranged between 91 and 75. Warm for sure but not unbearable.

    Finally…close ups of Johnson showed his Toneyesque love handles!

  17. peter 02:30pm, 04/05/2015

    Enjoyable article which revisits an important historical event in boxing. The accompanying video is of interest, too. At 13:17, if you look closely, you can spot James J. Corbett in the crowd, even though the commentator doesn’t mention it.

  18. Eric 12:52pm, 04/05/2015

    Champions like Willard and Carnera did remarkably well considering their late start and inexperience. Was Carnera ever even taught much beyond the very basics of boxing? The people that managed Carnera didn’t even care if he showed up in shape for a fight, but Carnera out of pride was always splendidly conditioned if not “trained” well. I think past giants weren’t as much hampered by their size as they were lack of experience, knowledge of boxing basics, or maybe they just were in boxing for the money and never really liked the sport. It was their size that allowed them to go as far as they did despite their lack of fighting spirit, skill or their inexperience.

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