The Horror: Jess Willard’s Toledo Injuries
One of his cheekbones had caved in. His jaw was broken, as was his nose. His ribs were busted. Many of his teeth had been knocked out…
A friend found Jess Willard in the big arena and ensured that the dethroned heavyweight champion of the world got home safely. Smashed up, blinded and disoriented, big Jess was feeling his way along a fence in a vain attempt to find the exit. He had just been three rounds with Jack Dempsey.
The famous beating that Manassa Jack administered to Willard in the searing heat of Toledo, Ohio, in the summer of 1919, remains the worst carnage that boxing has witnessed in the modern age. All sorts of colorful analogies were drawn as writers clattered away at their typewriters. Jess looked like the victim of a train wreck. Jess looked as if he had been hit by a speeding automobile. Jess looked as if a tall building had fallen on him.
For once, the bloody descriptions of a bloody fight didn’t go far enough. The injuries that Willard sustained were horrific and more comparable to those suffered by shell blast victims in the recent Great War. One of his cheekbones had caved in. His jaw was broken, as was his nose. Many of his teeth had been knocked out. His ribs were busted, his eyes were swollen shut and he had lost his hearing in one ear. His face and body bore multiple contusions, cuts and abrasions. His lips were badly cracked.
Ringside reporter Damon Runyon wrote: “Squatted on his stool in his corner, a bleeding, trembling, helpless hulk, Jess Willard, the Kansas giant, this afternoon relinquished his title of heavyweight champion of the world, just as the bell was about to toss him into the fourth round of a mangling at the paws of Jack Dempsey, the young mountain lion in human form from the Sangre de Christo hills of Colorado.
“The right side of his face was a pulp where the fists of the Indian brown boy from the Centennial state had been landing for nine minutes with fearful force. The right eye of the champion was completely hidden behind that bloody smear. His left eye peered over a lump of flesh in grotesque fashion. The great dough-like body of the giant was splotched with red patches.
“They were the aftermath of Dempsey’s gloves thumping there and giving back a hollow sound as they thumped. At the feet of the Gargantuan pugilistic was a dark spot which was slowly widening on the brown canvas as it was replenished by the drip-drip-drip of blood from the man’s wounds. He was flecked with red from head to foot. The flesh on his enormous limbs shook like custard.”
Dempsey was always very honest and often very self-effacing about his achievements. But even Jack, who gave every credit to the gameness of his opponents, couldn’t put a soft focus lens on the brutality of Toledo. Willard’s pitiful state at the end of it all made Dempsey want to vomit.
“Willard was a sorry sight,” Jack said, when describing the last moments of the horror. “His face was swollen and bruised. His right eye stared at me glassily and he could hardly talk through his cracked lips. I pelted him with more blows, including a hard left to his eye, partially shutting it. He was becoming bloodier and he spat out a tooth.
Sitting on his stool at the end of the third round, Dempsey became mesmerized by the gruesome vision in the opposite corner. “I looked over toward Willard. His face was distorted by a broken cheekbone and he was having trouble holding his head up. I felt sick. I hadn’t realized that my inner fury could do so much damage.
“I couldn’t wait for the massacre to end. I was sapped both mentally and physically. I looked at Willard again – I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off him.”
Before the great slaughter, when he was still riding high as the 5/4 favorite, Willard approached Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns and made a curious request. Jess wanted legal immunity in case he killed Jack.
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).