The Horror: Jess Willard’s Toledo Injuries

By Mike Casey on November 4, 2012
The Horror: Jess Willard’s Toledo Injuries
"I felt sick," said Dempsey. "I hadn't realized that my inner fury could do so much damage."

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.

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Jack Dempsey vs Jess Willard [1919-07-04]

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  1. Pete 05:12pm, 02/17/2018

    Isn’t there a story about Willard being very overweight before the papers were signed , approx. a year, and he lost over 100 lbs in training camp for this fight?  Or do I have my fighters confused?

  2. bikermike 10:21am, 08/27/2017

    I always read Mike Casey.

    Great article !

  3. bikermike 10:09am, 08/27/2017

    I wasn’t there…
    I have only footage and writings to pick and sift through.

    I believe the wrappings or gloves of Jack Dempsey were tampered….perhaps Dempsey may not even have known….perhaps.

    Several articles written mention the huge amount of money , bet by Dempsey’s group ..on a first round knock out.
    Dempsey left the ring so fast…after the pure slaughter in what appeared to be a first round knock out….he had to be called back, or lose the match if the bell rang for 2nd round..and he wasn’t even there.

    The damage taken by , then Champion Jess Willard, cannot be explained if the ‘ring was square’, and Jess was hit with legal wrappings and gloves. 
    I concluded…for my satisfaction at least, that Jess Willard was thrown under the bus on this , slightly grey page of boxing history

  4. Jan Swart 07:50am, 08/18/2017

    I was unaware that Willard / Dempsey and Willard / Firpo were scheduled for 12 rounds each (as indicated in the “recent fights” section above. If this is correct , it was certainly unusual for the era. Any ideas, anyone? Thanks

  5. Bill Lukens 06:22pm, 02/14/2017

    How do you see plaster of paris when is shaken like talcum powder as the hands are wrapped?

  6. Allen 04:52pm, 02/14/2017

    Bill Lukens, i must disagree. There are photographs of Dempsey entering the ring without gloves on. They put the gloves on in the ring in those days. There is no evidence of plaster of paris or anything. Doc Kearns was a liar and first class scoundrel.
    Read Roger Kahn’s bio of Dempsey ” A Flame of Pure Fire”.

  7. Bill Lukens 04:05pm, 02/14/2017

    Dempsey’s gloves could have been loaded.  I suspect Kearns would have known the formula for the plaster of paris mixture and had used it before. So the test conducted 50 years later is not dispositive in my view.

    My Mother knew Jess’s daughter at UCLA and he used to pick her up at the sorority. He talked about the fact that Dempsey’s gloves had been loaded and that his injuries, particularly his loss of so many teeth created medical problems as he got older. He was pretty bitter. That would add some validity to the charge of the gloves being loaded because his comments were made with no reason to distort. 

    Watching the first round, it is clear that the first blows caused a huge amount of physical damage, while as the match continued the blows seemed not to cause damage.  Still Dempsey was hitting hard. So my belief is that the plaster of paris mixture did its work in the first couple of punches and then softened so as to actually take away its lethal impact. In fact as the mixture granulated, it actually could have taken away the effectiveness of Dempsey’s punches. That could explain why his punches in rounds two and three did not have the same effect.  I don’t buy that Dempsey would have lost his punching power after one round.

    I agree that fighters were better in Dempsey’s time.  It was probably the most popular sport, and in a Country where you had to be tough, boxing was part of growing up for anyone who wanted to be considered a man. Lean and tough was the norm for a hard working, young Americans.  Dempsey represented that culture.

  8. Jim Crue 04:24pm, 07/20/2013

    good points Jeff Hathcock. Ali was so vulnerable to the left hook
    I agree any of the top heavyweights of the old days would have thrashed him. The media and young people in the 60’s loved him for his political stance. Now he’s a man of religion and they seem to love him for that.
    Tyson was a front runner who could NOT fight on the inside. Watch films of his fights and he tied up on the inside against good competition. When he left Kevin Rooney to go with Don King he stopped learning. Teddy Atlas knows Tyson had no courage but was a bully.

  9. Jeff Hathcock 04:11pm, 07/20/2013

    So many of the modern “wise guys” have bought the theory that Dempsey was too light to compete with the heavyweights of today.  What a joke!  Simply put, Dempsey was the hardest hitter in boxing history and one of the best-conditioned.  The fighters of Dempsey’s era trained far harder than today’s bloated super-heavyweights and would have no trouble with any of them today.  A lot of people bought into the bull that Ali was “the greatest”.  Well, he was:  the greatest ballyhoo artist of his day.  Dempsey was just as fast and could take it just as easy as he could dish it out.  Ali was knocked down by light-heavy Doug Jones, Joe Frazier, Britain’s Henry Cooper.  Had Dempsey hit him he wouldn’t have gotten up.  The other thing one has to realize is that the men of Dempsey’s day, though leaner than today’s over-muscular behemoths, were tougher.  They fought for a living and didn’t want to become singers or dancers or actors.  All they did was train and fight, and thus, they were far better conditioned and a hell-of-a-lot tougher and could go far more rounds than today’s fighters.  When Ali came up the talent in the heavyweight division was one of the poorest in boxing history.  Tell me, what truly great fighters did Ali ever beat on his way up?  The answer is none.  And the men he fought after he became champion weren’t much better.  Sure, Frazier could hit, and he beat Ali the first time they fought, but Frazier couldn’t take a punch like a Dempsey or a Marciano.  George Foreman simply got tired and just collapsed in the heat in Zaire.  Big men like Foreman are generally slower and make easier targets for a faster opponent as in the case with Ali.  Had Ali tried the rope-a-dope against Dempsey or Marciano or Louis he would have been broken in half.  Those men could hit.  They were truly great hitters, and the men they fought were a lot tougher and more skilled than any man Ali ever fought with the exception of Archie Moore, who was around fifty years old when he fought Ali.  As for the loaded gloves story, it’s bogus.  Had Dempsey used plaster of paris his hands would have been broken as well.  Dempsey didn’t need plaster of paris.  His fists were steel and his skills honed to perfection after almost sixty fights.  Prior to the Willard fight, Dempsey knocked out every top heavyweight- most in the first round.  In fact, Dempsey has the greatest first round knockout record of any heavyweight in history.  So, in conclusion, you young “wise guys” who think today’s behemoths are better than the men in Dempsey’s era simply don’t know a damned thing about boxing.  Size and big muscles are worthless against a finely-trained killer with speed and punching power like Dempsey had.  Some of you think Mike Tyson is the greatest.  You’re wrong there, too.  Sure, Tyson could hit but he couldn’t take it when an opponent hit him back just as hard.  Just look at his two fights against Holyfield—both of which Tyson lost—and his being knocked out when he lost the title to a second-tier fighter who didn’t cower and fought back.  We will probably never again see a fighter like Jack Dempsey.  He was in a class by himself.  The ol’ Manassa Mauler was the greatest—not Ali.

  10. Aiman Z 05:00am, 06/26/2013

    You have bricks in your gloves YOUR HANDS WILL BREAK. The first reason for soft gloves is to protect the hands…..

  11. Jim Crue 02:30pm, 06/24/2013

    Sorry Michael, Dempsey’s gloves were not loaded. This has been addressed many times and as I wrote in my post in Nov 0f 2012 read Roger Kahn’s comprehensive bio of Dempsey. Kearns was a LIAR of the highest order.

  12. Michael Hegan 01:23pm, 06/24/2013

    here’s the way of it….Dempsey had bricks in his gloves…..and damned near killed Jess Willard.
    Dempsey and his mgr…bet the farm on a first round KO…...and almost got away with it….

    Dempsey had to be called back into the ring… he was on his way back to the dressing room to get changed and get outta there….before the gloves became an issue

    He kept on punishing Willard…for another few rounds….but the gloves were never examined

  13. Aiman Z 06:44pm, 06/21/2013

    Dempsey was the first real combo puncher…so were people before him knocked teeth out and others broke ribs and others split this or that ....Jack Dempsey did ALL that in ONE fight since he was a combo puncher against a guy who was so tough that he did not get KOed ...just kept getting up and taking more damage.

    JJ koed teeths out but his opponents got KOed from that an example. Dempesey was a shade quicker than his predecessor (maybe cause he was smaller) and just as powerful if not more….PLUS WAS A COMBINATION PUNCHER

  14. モンクレール ダウン 03:06pm, 11/11/2012

    Awesome article.

  15. Santa Cruz Jim 06:42pm, 11/06/2012

    1] The films surviving are very grainy and crude to begin with. I am sure most or many of you guys have been to HW fights. It’s chilling how hard they hit each other. I have actually had to turn away. They just POUND each other.
    2] The sportswriters of the day were certainly colorful and creative and no question they exaggerated the happenings.
    One thing for sure. In his prime, before he laid off, went to Hollywood and was afraid he would lose his vision like Greb and Tiger Flowers and countless others, he was one hard man. A friend of mine was a great white hope for a while in the early/mid 60’s. His management brought him to Dempsey’s restaurant. My friend said Dempsey gave him a tap in the belly that almost felled him. Even in his 70s he was one hard man. My friend said Dempsey was hard as rock

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 05:52pm, 11/06/2012

    FranklinDallas-Heck yea!...which reminds me… those newspapers had editions that came out like three times a day and went for a penny a copy…or was it two pennies….I forget now!

  17. FrankinDallas 05:40pm, 11/06/2012

    This particular fight was a war…no question about it. But you read the old reporters stories about fights in the old days and they sound like two monsters battling each other…until you see the (rare) footage of those fights and see two guys grappling with each other round after round like crude wrestlers. Many of those fights were simply NOT THAT TITANIC….the writers had to sell newspapers to people who were not at the fight, so they embelished the facts.

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 02:47pm, 11/06/2012

    No need for plaster of Paris….just yank out some of that horse hair….nobody’s checking anyway…are they?  Jack was Kearns’ meal ticket and he wasn’t about to let this giant who beat down Jack Johnson punch his ticket!

  19. Mike Casey 11:34am, 11/06/2012

    Agreed one hundred per cent, Norm!

  20. Norm Marcus 09:45am, 11/06/2012

    Great stuff as usual Mike. What Dempsey did to Willard that day in Toledo was almost manslaughter!
    Not bad for a guy that would be a Cruiserweight today. Look at Dempsey, Tunney and Mickey Walker and I contend that these guys could dominate the Heavyweights of today. No prima donnas here just some real tough guys that you don’t see the likes of nowadays. Dempsey…just the name should strike fear in the hearts of the “contenders” of today!

  21. Jeff 03:47pm, 11/05/2012

    Wish we could see Dempsey vs Marciano vs Holyfield matchups in their prime at 185-1901bs!

  22. Joe 10:22am, 11/05/2012

    Thanks for the feedback.

  23. bikermike 10:07am, 11/05/2012

    for too long the whispers have been circulating that Jack Dempsey ‘s gloves were loaded that day in Toledo. See how fast he wanted to leave the ring…
    Loaded gloves were done then…and are done now (‘marga’cheato’) among others.

    Far too much damage for a fight….unless he was being hit with a hammer

  24. Santa Cruz Jim Crue 09:29am, 11/05/2012

    Sorry I think Kearns died in 1964. I read the article in Sports Illustrated when Kearns said he loaded Jack’s gloves.

  25. pmb 09:23am, 11/05/2012

    Actually the most fascinating thing about the 2004 Cox article is what he has to say about Willard’s injuries themselves—that they may very well have been exaggerated, and that this exaggeration was carried down through history into all of the accounts of the fight. Thus the search for an explanation (“Dempsey’s gloves must have been loaded”) for such unprecedented damage. But Cox quotes contemporary post-fight newspaper accounts in which Willard is not described nearly so damaged as the history has it, and also points out that he was talking to reporters afterward—pretty hard to do for a man with a jaw broken in 13 places.

    None of which is to say this wasn’t a brutal and historic beating, which of course it was, but it seems that myth-making may have blurred our understanding of what happened. As is often the case in boxing history, and sports history generally.

  26. Santa Cruz Jim Crue 08:48am, 11/05/2012

    There is no evidence that Jack’s gloves were loaded. Read Roger Kahn’s wonderful bio of Jack ” A Flame of Pure Fire”. Doc Kearns was a scoundrel of the first order and was until he died in 1961.

  27. jofre 08:43am, 11/05/2012

    Boxing historian Monte Cox wrote an article December 2004 dealing with the loaded gloves. Monte wrote, “Boxing Illustrated conducted in an experiment to test whether it was possible to use plaster of paris successfully under fighting conditions. The results were reported in the May 1964 issue of BI, pp 20-24, 66. Hugh Benbow and Perry Payne (manager and trainer of Cleveland Williams) used plaster of paris on Cleveland’s hands and reenacted what Kearns said occurred in Dempsey’s dressing room. After 35 minutes of toasting to reenact the 114-degree heat of Toledo that day, Cleveland Williams hit the heavy bag five times. Benbow examined the wraps and found that the plaster had cracked and crumbled. “This stuff.” said Cleve, “wouldn’t do anybody any good.”

    The Boxing Illustrated test proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaster of paris would not have held up after the first punch, it would have crumbled and left chunks in his mitts and every punch thereafter would have been quite painful and there is little doubt he would have broken his hands. The inventor of the product issued a statement as to the impossibility of using plaster of paris without breaking all the bones in the hands. Dempsey’s hands were not broken and he continued to punch with authority with both hands. This alone dispels the idea that Dempsey’s gloves were loaded with plaster of paris”. MONTE COX

  28. Mike Casey 08:20am, 11/05/2012

    I wasn’t going to get into the ‘loaded gloves’ thing all over again, but bear in mind that when Dempsey left Kearns, it turned Doc into a very bitter man. He spread all sorts of bad stories about Dempsey and most people in the know dismissed them as the resentful rants they were. Dempsey never needed to load his gloves. He decimated bigger men than Willard with his bare hands in the Utah mining camps and in umpteen barroom fights. Lou Stillman and Ray Arcel - to name just two - said to the end that they never saw a hitter of Dempsey’s power. Well into his retirement, Dempsey split Tony Galento’s forehead open with a left hook after Two Ton Tony had got lippy with him. Stillman witnessed it. Sorry gents, but I’m not getting into a running debate on this because it never goes anywhere.

  29. Joe 07:04am, 11/05/2012

    Jack Johnson was 137 years old when he fought Jess in Cuba - and he threw the fight.  (Partial joke from the great movie - “Coming to America”)

  30. Joe 07:02am, 11/05/2012

    Ok so is there any truth to the “loaded gloves” theory?  I recall reading something where Jess goes back to his corner and says something to the effect of “at least the farm is paid off - I’ve still got that” - thinking about the almighty dollar while getting the shxx kicked out of him.  Myth also?  That’s Boxing.

  31. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 04:14pm, 11/04/2012

    Mike Casey-You certainly can get right to the point….my ADHD addled brain thanks you….which reminds me…when Jess approached Doc Kearns and asked for “legal immunity in case he killed Jack”.....was that the moment when Kearns decided to load the gloves….just wondering….after all this was the “giant” who beat down Jack Johnson staring down at him and making this “curious request”.

  32. pugknows 03:22pm, 11/04/2012

    Great STUFF, Mike, SIMPLY GREAT!!

  33. pugknows 03:20pm, 11/04/2012

    Numbers don’t lie.

  34. THE THRESHER 12:16pm, 11/04/2012

    I was a ringside.

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