The Best Heavyweight Champion We Never Had

The story of the Colour line and the Panther’s long fight for a title shot

When Jack Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title on Boxing day 1908 the conservative white establishment were shocked, only 45 years earlier a black man like Johnson would have been considered property rather than a human being, and now he had captured the most important sporting accolade in the world. Up untill this point many in the American boxing establishment including the inaugural Heavyweight champion John L Sullivan had campaigned to deny any black fighter, including Johnson the right to fight for the title at all, most famously enshrined when a newspaper printed Sullivans promise “I will never fight a Negro” This became known as the ‘Colour line’ and would change the lives of hundreds of talented fighters, denying them their rightful place in the pantheon of champions, simply because of the colour of their skin.

Only when Johnson had beaten every viable contender including, former champion Bob Fitzimmons, and gone all the way to Australia where the colour bar was less strictly enforced, did he Finally get a shot at the heavyweight title. The Racism that had denied Johnson, was evident event during the bout as police, rather than the referee stopped the fight to prevent the knockout of a white champion by the far superior black challenger. As Johnson was declared by the referee as the winner a seismic shift occurred in boxing. Boxing promoters and managers were now forced by their bigotry and xenophobia, to search for what they would call “the Great White Hope”, the white fighter who could beat Johnson. Jack lived like a champion in spite of those scheming against him. Driving flash cars, Gambling in casinos and having several high profile relationships with white women, he was actively flaunting his title ( and the wealth that came along with it) it in the face of every white man who’d tried to stop him from getting it. The most famous anecdote goes that when fined $50 dollars (the equivalent of about $1600 today) for speeding down a country road he handed the police officer $100 dollars replying he’d be coming back the same way. It was this attitude that began to make him a pariah in white America. The hatred for him only grew and grew as over his 7 year reign as champion as one “White Hope “ after another met their downfall at the hands of the Galveston Giant.Power puncher Fireman Jim Fyln, Middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel and Former Heavyweight Champion Jim Jefferies were all vanquished with ease, each leading to more outrage, backlash and out of the ring violence than the last. The culmination was the Race riots that ensued after Johnson v Jeffries in which 10 people were killed in major rioting across 6 different states.

When Johnson finally lost title to the big white farmer Jess Willard, in the 26th round of a 45 round bout under the scorching Havana sun, the boxing establishment rejoiced. They had finally got rid of the man that had caused them so much anguish. The Johnson experience has taught those who came to run boxing in the interwar period many things but mostly they had come to believe that the only way to prevent the controversy Johnson had caused was to bring back the colour line and this time enforce it with ever more draconian measures. This started with the condemnation of the former champion. Johnson was incriminated by the blatantly racist Mann act and imprisoned for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes”, the woman in question? His wife. Despite the spurious grounds under which he was imprisoned the conviction was used as proof in boxing media that African American’s were unfit to hold the high office of heavyweight champion of the world.

As the Johnson sage was unfolding a new star had been rising in the ranks of heavyweight boxing, Harry Wills. When Harry was a young boxer looking to turn pro he was hopeful as boxing’s colour line that had existed since slavery was dissipating. With Jack Johnson and Joe Gans leading the way he thought when it came time for him to challenge for titles it would be on an even playing field, how wrong he was. Born on May 15, 1889 Harry turned professional aged 22 in 1911, and showing early promise. In his first 18 fights he didn’t lose once despite facing greats like Sam Langford and Joe Jannette, with whom he drew. At 6”2 and with an 82 inch reach Wills struck a startling figure in the ring, especially considering the average height in the 1920’s for men was 5”7. Lean and muscular with impeccable knockout power he was boxing next hot prospect. Nicknamed “the Black Panther” this suited his look and style to a tee. He would stalk his opponents pawing with his vast reach manipulating his smaller opponents into his power shots. Less flamboyant than Jack Johnson but equally devastating Wills went about his craft in a workmanlike manner, knocking out men with brutal efficiency. He suffered a few setbacks in the mid 1910’s losing twice to the great Sam McVea and having several fights with Langford some won some lost, but Wills was getting the experience he needed to refine his skill sets. He then went on one of the most impressive runs in the history of heavyweight boxing.

Starting in 1916 he started a run at the heavyweight title taking on contenders of a level that few people have ever done before. The Panther started by Beating Sam Langford 5 more times to continue their epic series that ended up totalling 22 fights at its conclusion. Langford was a formidable opponent but Wills ended up dominating the series with his more modern approach to boxing. Langford hit hard and knew all the tricks but Wills’ fundamentals, his jab and footwork ultimately won him the day. The reason for their continued in ring acquaintance however was again the colour line, with all the top heavyweights before 1919 being black but Jess Willard refusing to fight any of them they all fought each other for what became known as the “Coloured Heavyweight Championship of the world.” Wills would hold this several times for long spells but ultimately it meant nothing to both fighters and fans when the world title was still out there. In an era of permanent myriad belts that mean nothing it seems almost ironic that many boxers and boxing fans complained of the same phenomena in the early parts of the 20th century.

Inactivity is also complained about now, but after Jess Willard makes modern champions look extremely active. Willard only defended the heavyweight title once in the four years he was champion, blatantly avoiding the numerous black contenders. His handlers time and again stuck hard and fast to the rule of the Colour line denying every advance from black fighters and their representatives looking for a shot at the coveted prize.Wills however, was far from inactive. In the time Willard was champion Wills fought 29 times, he won 10 by knockout, he lost only once, avenging that loss in a rematch only three months later . He beat every viable contender and almost all of them more than once, all while Willard relaxed on his californian ranch safe in the knowledge the colour line would protect him from the Panther that lurked in the shadows.

Willard was not safe however from the Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey. A street kid who started boxing by wagering he could could knock out anyone in a bar, Dempsey had a start more comparable that of Wills and Langford than the gentrified champions who graced the early queensbury era. However one thing about him was different though, the color of his skin. Dempsey, groomed by Tex Rickard, the man who had promoted great white hopes to beat Johnson, did not fight a single black contender in his 61 professional fights leading up to his fight for the title. When considering that Jeff Clark, Battling Jim Johnson, Joe Jeanette, Sam Mc Vey, Sam Langford and of course Harry Wills were all considered top contenders, this demonstrates that the colour line in the wake of Johnson was protecting white prospects and champions alike. Soon Dempsey would go from one to the other taking on Willard on American independence day 1919. Seven knockdowns, one broken jaw, one broken cheekbone, three broken ribs and three grueling rounds later Dempsey was the new heavyweight champion of the world.

Although Dempsey’s rise had proved his reluctance to compete against black fighters all the Wills could do was hope that a new champion might mean change and a lifting of the colour line, a modernisation in boxing for the new decade, the 1920’s. The signs however were foreboding, Dempsey’s first defence was announced as Billy Miske, a good light heavyweight but not a top heavyweight contender, picked most thought because of his ethnicity, not his worthiness. Wills continued to diligently beat better men than Dempsey Knocking out Jeff Clark and beating Sam Mc Vea again while Dempsey trained for Miske. Dempsey won by knockout, and again via Knockout against Bill Brennan, he was soon growing in popularity to become, alongside Babe Ruth, the biggest sports star in the united states. This was proved when he refused Wills yet another title shot fighting instead another light heavyweight, ‘The Orchid Man’ Georges Carpentier. Despite Carpentier being a far less worthy contender than Wills (Who had by this time beaten Jeff Clarke again, Battling Jim Mcreary, Andy Johnson and Jack Thompson, all full sized heavyweights) The fight between Dempsey and Carpentier was boxing’s first million dollar gate, breaking numerous records with its popularity.

The success of Dempsey was feeding the ego’s of both him and his handlers convincing them they didn’t need to breach the colour bar, “why risk it?” Was Tex Rickards attitude to Wills and his increasingly vocal claim to the title of number one contender. After the Carpentier fight this was more evident than ever as Dempsey took a two year hiatus from the ring. The real victim of this inactivity was not Wills himself but more the men he took his frustrations out on in this time. GunBoat Smith, Tut Jackson, Homer Smith, Buddy Jackson, Kid Norfolk, Jeff Clarke again, Clem Johnson, Bill Tate and Denver Ed Martin were all on the end of by all accounts hellacious beatings at the hands of a Prime Harry Wills, none lasting the distance. Wills in this period is described as being a force of nature, a man possessed in his deliberate and measured violence in the boxing ring. He was a threshing machine fighting with the fury of a man scorned, he would be unstoppable, if only he could get started.

In 1922 a national poll was commissioned where the public was asked who they thought Depsey should face on his return and Wills came out a clear winner, yet more reason to break the colour bar but once again Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns and promoter Tex Rickard insisted on “saving him for the big fights”. A clear reiteration of the colour line, a line that to Wills in 1922 and 23 must have seemed an insurmountable obstacle to prosperity. Dempsey finally returned to the ring on the 5th anniversary of his title victory over willard to face yet another white contender and the man who had come second in the poll,Tommy Gibbons. Dempsey was lackluster, missing repeatedly but winning a narrow points decision, all of a sudden as the crowd booed Dempsy felt his options narrowing. There were few contenders left that he could use retain his popularity, and as the poll had shown a fight with Wills would be popular, despite his being on the other side of the iron clad color line.

Negotiations finally began in 1924 for the bout which Wills had been waiting for since 1919, Dempsey and Wills both signed swiftly agreeing to fight one another but soon politics will rear its ugly head and begin to play havoc with the bouts future. The bout was agreed for New York but the extremely influential New York Commissioner William Muldoon clashed with Tex Rickard over ticket prices Muldoon wanted 40,000 tickets fixed at $2.00 for the “working people.” Rickard refused wanting to draw as much money from the gate as possible, replicating the monetary success of the Carpentier fight. Dempsey who had just come off the back of a dramatic second round stoppage of Louis Firpo was anxious to keep the ball rolling and so despite the setbacks and back room dealings Wills was promised that if he beat Firpo too he could have his shot at the title. Wills dismantled Firpo beating him as he intended to beat Dempsey, with skill and poise, not the brute force both Dempsey and Firpo favoured. Then the fight was on 1925 was supposed to be the year where the colour line would break, where the perennial contender, the outsider Harry Wills would finally be allowed in, for his chance to prove his greatness.

It was not to be so. Chaos delayed the fight again and again throughout 1925. Tex Rickard the most powerful man in boxing was out, he refused to promote the bout on several grounds. Midwestern boxing promoter Floyd Fitzsimmons tried to guarantee purses and down payments and failed. The new New york commissioner James Farley like his predecessor Muldoon blocked the bout, citing the Johnson- Jeffries race riots and stating Wills would not be allowed to fight for the belt in New York. Other commissions followed suit, Maryland to Montreal they all refused to host it, the colour line shackled the minds of those who held the career of Harry Wills in their hands. As 1926 dawned, the contract they had signed expired, and with this Wills’ dreams of breaking the colour bar turned to dust. Outraged, even more frustrated and disheartened than before Wills sued Dempsy twice, demanding he be compensated for breach of contract, demanding Dempsey fight him. Dempsey wasn’t interested, rebuffing the case but never giving it too much mind. Like boxing the Civil justice system in america would navour favour a black challenger over a white champion. After his fight with Firpo the ever fickle public had fallen back in love with him. He reveled in his own celebrity, he went to parties, drank champagne and flirted with hollywood actresses, not a thought for Wills, the panther who paced in a cage, barred from fulfilling his life’s work, forbidden to hunt.

Harry Wills career would never recover from this 10 year battle for his shot, he fought on until 1932, winning most but losing a disqualification to future champion Jack Sharkey as well as losing by Knockout against Paulino Uzcudun. To get so close and yet so far would have such a psychological effect on Wills that in his last years he confessed his only regret in life was not being able to fight Dempsey. He maintained until his dying breath that he would have beaten Dempsey and become the heavyweight champion of the world. He retired well founding a real estate business in Harlem and making good money until his death, but still the ghost of the colour bar, of earning everything and being denied it again and again simply because of the colour of his skin. The story of race in America is long and complicated and sport has only played a small part in that story but to understand how racism robbed one of the best heavyweights of all time the chance to compete for the title for me is an important microcosm in the way we understand race at that time and boxing even today. The Story of Harry Wills is one of a man who never gave up, who had every door slammed in his face but continued to compete and to succeed, a lesson every fighter, and every person must learn.

Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx 🥊

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