Jess Willard’s Last Stand

By The Fight Film Collector on May 28, 2013
Jess Willard’s Last Stand
“What people forget about Willard,” said Rickard before the bout, “is that he can punch.”

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…

Willard vs. Floyd Johnson and Luis Ángel Firpo 1923
Telecine Transfer & Restoration
10 Minutes

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 starts 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.

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"Jess Willard's Last Stand" -vs- Luis Angel Firpo & Floyd Johnson 1923 (16mm Transfer & Restoration)

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  1. Eric Jorgensen 02:30pm, 06/04/2013

    Willard is under-rated.  Strong, very durable, right uppercut that killed Bull Young and overhand right that flattened Jack Johnson.  Athleticism has to be under-rated—he made frequent appearances as a rodeo cowboy during and after championship, and that takes real coordination.  Don’t have to look for excuses for the Dempsey fight; Dempsey was a killer.

  2. Eric 03:47pm, 05/30/2013

    Willard and Carnera might have been the same size as the Klits but that is the only thing they have in common with the brothers. Talent-wise they aren’t even on the same planet is either Klit brother. Dempsey and Louis would have found that either brother wouldn’t be near as easy as Carnera or Willard.  Of course there have always been giants in boxing and even people who would dwarf Carnera or Willard back in the day, but face it, each generation gets bigger and at 6’1” and 190lbs, Dempsey was a true heavyweight back in his day. The 6’1” and 200lbs give or take Jack Johnson was nicknamed “The Galveston Giant.”  Jack Johnson would be a cruiserweight and not a particularly large one for that matter in today’s world. As talented and powerful as Dempsey, Louis, and Marciano were, it would be a tall order for them to rule the heavyweights of today.

  3. Mike Casey 02:55am, 05/30/2013

    You make a good point, John. Willard had a clause written into his contract exempting him from liability if he killed Dempsey.

  4. john signorino 06:55pm, 05/29/2013

    Remember reading about the Dempsey-Willard fight. It was simply amazing how Willard could keep fighting with such severe injuries he had done to him by Dempsey.

    Dempsey feared for his life from the size and power of Willard. That had to be intimidating fighting such a huge person.

  5. Mike Casey 12:42pm, 05/29/2013

    Some years back, a boxing magazine showed a picture of Willard on the canvas at Toledo with what appeared to be metal bolt right next to him. It was a big story. Had it come from Dempsey’s glove? No - closer inspection revealed the ‘bolt’ to be a cigar. End of big story. Kearns hated Dempsey for breaking up their partnership and poisoned Jack’s name in many vicious ways. This should not be forgotten. Tex Hassler is quite right in saying that Jess was no mug as a fighter. He didn’t have the essential passion for the game, but he was not lacking in talent.

  6. Tex Hassler 12:04pm, 05/29/2013

    A lot of people act like the Klitschko brothers are the first big heavy weights to ever walk this planet. Willard was about the same size and Joe Louis fought several extra big heavy weights and KO’d them. If Nat Fleischer said that Dempsey’s gloves were not loaded he knew what he was talking about and that should end the “loaded gloves” story. Mr. Fleischer was the most respected boxing man alive in his day and he was totally honest.

  7. Tex Hassler 11:45am, 05/29/2013

    Willard was far better than most people give him credit for being. His fight with Jack Johnson proved that. Willard just took Dempsey lightly and I do not believe Dempsey had or needed loaded gloves.

  8. Eric Jorgensen 11:04am, 05/29/2013

    Kearns’s loaded gloves story has been completely debunked.

  9. The Fight Film Collector 09:48am, 05/29/2013

    It’s too bad that Doc Kearns died before his book was published, so he was never cross examined about his story.  In response, several parties, including Sports Illustrated sponsored attempts to recreate the loaded gloved condition that Kearns alone, described doing in detail in his biography.  The condition was never duplicated with success.  At best, the thin coating of plaster would have splintered as soon as the action started, and would have done more damage to Dempsey’s hands than Willard’s head.  Not to mention the layer of padded gloves between the two.  Photographs of Dempsey entering the ring show him with clean hand wraps.  Footage also shows Willard himself inspecting Dempsey’s hands prior to the introductions.  Other witnesses, including Nat Fleischer who was with Dempsey in the dressing room, testified that no such tampering occurred.  Willard’s injuries have also been exaggerated.  Broken jaw and cheekbones are very serious injuries requiring hospitalization, not to mention massive swelling. But Willard wasn’t even hospitalized, at least not on that day.  Jess was not only speaking after the fight, he even gave statements to reporters, saying how he just never recovered from the first knockdown.  In a story published the following day by THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER Willard reportedly drove home after the fight with his wife, his manager and sparring partners where, “the porches adjoining the Willard house were alive with women dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs.”

  10. Mike Casey 04:14am, 05/29/2013

    Michael, you have Dempsey’s ‘loaded’ gloves on the brain and seem to resurrect it every chance you get. Eric asked me for my opinion on a hypothetical match-up between Willard and Carnera. I gave him my hunch. Jack Dempsey has nothing to do with it.

  11. Eric 03:52pm, 05/28/2013

    Willard insisted to his dying day that Dempsey’s gloves were “loaded.” I don’t think Dempsey needed “loaded” gloves and Willard just took Dempsey lightly. Dempsey just jumped on him from the get go and Willard never recovered. The rules being what they were, Dempsey didn’t have to go to a neutral corner and hovered over the fallen giant. Dempsey’s gloves were “loaded” with awesome punching power and not plaster of paris IMO. Big Jeff was just overwhelmed and probably never expected the challenger could hit that hard and just way underestimated Dempsey because of his size. Add to the fact that Jess hadn’t fought in years, probably trained little and wasn’t exactly a spring chicken anymore. Willard was primed to be beaten badly and Dempsey was there when Jeff was ripe for the picking. If the rumors are true, it sure would taint Dempsey’s career for sure. Willard, like fellow giant Carnera had a heart as big as his body to take a beating like that, and if Dempsey went to his grave without ever telling the truth, wouldn’t that shed a new light on Dempsey.

  12. Eric Jorgensen 03:39pm, 05/28/2013

    Fascinating clip, well-written article.

  13. Michael Hegan 03:07pm, 05/28/2013

    you can dress it up, and wrap it in orchids all you want….

    Dempsey had loaded gloves ...when he met Willard…..that’s it!!

  14. Mike Casey 02:22pm, 05/28/2013

    I would think Willard, Eric.

  15. Eric 12:57pm, 05/28/2013

    Willard vs Carnera. Who wins?

  16. Mike Casey 08:42am, 05/28/2013

    Willard could undoubtedly punch - he broke Bull Young’s neck.

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