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“Jess Willard”: A Book Review by Thomas Hauser

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Jess Willard’s ring career was defined by two fights: an April 5, 1915, victory over Jack Johnson in Havana, when he fulfilled his destiny as a “great white hope,” and a brutal knockout defeat at the hands of Jack Dempsey on July 4, 1919, that heralded the dawn of a new era in sports.

“Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey,” Arly Allen writes, “are remembered as great American heroes. But like an old book between two elaborate bookends, Willard is now forgotten.”

Jess Willard, published by McFarland & Company, is Allen’s attempt to remedy that oversight.

Willard was born in Kansas on December 29, 1881. His father died before Jess was born, leaving a widow with three sons – ages 11, 9, and 6 – and a fourth on the way. Jess’s early years were spent in Pottawatomie County. He quit school at age twelve and found work herding cattle and breaking wild horses. Much of his later life was spent in California.

Willard was 28 years old when he walked into a boxing gym for the first time. He stood 6-feet-6-inches tall, weighed roughly 230 pounds, and had never seen a professional fight. Years later, when asked how he got into boxing, he answered, “I never had any thought of it until Johnson beat Jeffries in Reno.”

Willard’s first professional bout was contested on February 15, 1911, in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, and ended in a disqualification loss when he threw his opponent to the canvas. The Daily Oklahoman wrote of that fight, “Willard behaved in a most ignorant manner in the ring. He probably knew less about what he should do than any boxer that ever stepped inside the ropes.”

More significantly, as Allen writes, “Most men, when they get involved in boxing, have been involved in fights and violence during their childhood which prepared them for the rigors of the ring. Boxing was often their best alternative to prison. Jess Willard was different. His strength was prodigious but his temper was mild. Willard did not like to fight. Most of his opponents enjoyed boxing and were happy to destroy their opponents in the ring. Willard did not and often said that, if his opponent was not hurting him, he saw no reason to hurt his opponent.”

Allen then notes, “Willard’s exceptional size made few men want to fight him. His non-aggressive style led to boring fights. His temperamental habits made him a manager’s nightmare. His physical ability carried him to victory. [And] his mental attitude left him vulnerable to defeat.”

On August 22, 1913, in Willard’s twenty-first professional bout, his attitude toward boxing grew even more ambivalent when he knocked out a 1-and-2 opponent named Bull Young (who he’d knocked out twice before in previous fights). Young lapsed into unconsciousness and died the next day. In the months that followed, Willard was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted.

Willard was 33 years old and weighed 238 pounds when he fought Jack Johnson. Papa Jack, well past his prime by then, was four years older and entered the ring at a career high of 225 pounds, an indication that he wasn’t in the best of shape.

After Willard beat Johnson, writer Damon Runyon told one-time lawman Bat Masterson (who served as a timekeeper for John L. Sullivan’s fights against Jake Kilrain and James Corbett), “Jess Willard can’t fight a lick.”

“No, he can’t,” Masterson answered. “But who’s going to beat him?”

For a while, no one had a chance. Willard simply refused to fight.

He had emerged from his victory over Johnson as one of the most famous and admired men in America. But the fight had failed financially and Willard needed money badly. So he moved quickly to the vaudeville circuit followed by appearances in “Wild West” shows, where he made as much as $6,000 a week. He fought only once during the next 51 months, surviving that encounter with an unimpressive “newspaper decision” over Frank Moran.

Meanwhile, Willard was squandering his popularity. Not only didn’t he like fighting, he was, as Allen recounts, “totally unprepared for the reception that awaited him [after he defeated Johnson]. Before the fight, he was just an ordinary man, taller than most but nothing special. But because he had won, he became a famous celebrity. Willard did not know how to handle his fame. As champion, he always felt uncomfortable around crowds. He was not a great people person. He did not delight in the adulation of his fans and tried to avoid it as much as he could.”

Willard was 37 years old and weighed 243 pounds when he fought Jack Dempsey in Toledo, Ohio. Dempsey was 13 years younger and weighed 56 pounds less. The temperature was 110 degrees when the bout began at 4:09 PM. The fight was scheduled for twelve rounds. Dempsey brutalized Willard, who failed to answer the bell for the fourth round.

Forty-six months after losing his championship, Willard returned to the ring at age 41 and knocked out Floyd Johnson at Yankee Stadium in eleven rounds. Two months after that, on July 12, 1923, he fought Luis Firpo at Boyles 30 Acres in New Jersey and was knocked out in the eighth round in front of an estimated 100,000 fans, the largest crowd to witness a prizefight up until that time.

That was Willard’s last fight. His final ring record stands at 22 wins, 5 losses, and 1 draw with 20 knockouts and 3 KOs by.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when reconstructing long-ago boxing history, but Allen does a pretty good job of it. His book is extensively researched. There’s some interesting material on the crowning of Luther McCarty as the “white heavyweight champion of the world” in 1913 and McCarty’s death in the ring later that year.

There’s also a lot of material on Willard’s business ventures (most of which failed) and other outside-the-ring activities.

“I believe Jess was a square dealer,” Jess Stone (a longtime friend of Willard’s) said. “But I don’t believe he thought anybody else was. That made him a tough person to do business with.”

It also led to Willard being a magnet for breach of contract lawsuits and other complaints.

There are times when Allen’s fondness for Willard calls the objectivity of his writing into question. Allen persuasively assembles the evidence that supports the legitimacy of Willard’s knockout victory over Jack Johnson. Less credibly, he litigates the case for Willard being done in by injustice in his bout against Jack Dempsey.

Allen raises the dubious claim that Dempsey’s gloves were loaded, points to fouls that Dempsey committed during the fight, and argues that Dempsey should have been disqualified for leaving the ring after round one when he thought the fight was over.

“Willard was robbed of his title in the Dempsey fight,” Allen states. “That is established.”

Not really.

As Allen ultimately concedes, there’s no sound probative evidence that Dempsey’s gloves were loaded.

Dempsey fought within the rules as they were widely interpreted and enforced at that time.

And Dempsey leaving the ring after round one actually worked to Willard’s advantage because it gave Jess more time to recover from the brutal punishment that he absorbed in the first stanza.

Here, Willard’s own thoughts are instructive.

“That story about a body blow is all wrong,” Willard said of the Dempsey fight. “There may have been a few landed after I was dazed by the first left hook to my jaw, but they didn’t affect me any. That left hook landed clean on the point of my jaw. From that time on, I didn’t know whether I was in the ring or in a cornfield. That was the blow that started me on defeat. I was virtually knocked out before I had started. I felt physically able to continue [when the fight was finally stopped]. But my head wasn’t clear and my eye was closed, and I realized it would have been useless for me to attempt to box while half-blinded.”

Jess Willard by Arly Allen is the most thorough biography of its subject to date. It’s fitting to give the final word to Willard himself, who once said, “I am no believer in violence. In bringing up my kids, I say, ‘What’s the use of spanking them just because they make noise? If you spank them, they only make more noise.’”

 

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His next book – There Will Always Be Boxing – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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The BWAA Shames Veteran Referee Laurence Cole and Two Nebraska Judges

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In an unprecedented development, the Boxing Writers Association of America has started a “watch list” to lift the curtain on ring officials who have “screwed up.” Veteran Texas referee Laurence Cole and Nebraska judges Mike Contreras and Jeff Sinnett have the unwelcome distinction of being the first “honorees.”

“Boxing is a sport where judges and referees are rarely held accountable for poor performances that unfairly change the course of a fighter’s career and, in some instances, endanger lives,” says the BWAA in a preamble to the new feature. Hence the watch list, which is designed to “call attention to ‘egregious’ errors in scoring by judges and unacceptable conduct by referees.”

Contreras and Sinnett, residents of Omaha, were singled out for their scorecards in the match between lightweights Thomas Mattice and Zhora Hamazaryan, an eight round contest staged at the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, Iowa on July 20. They both scored the fight 76-75 for Mattice, enabling the Ohio fighter to keep his undefeated record intact via a split decision.

Although Mattice vs. Hamazaryan was a supporting bout, it aired live on ShoBox. Analyst Steve Farhood, who was been with ShoBox since the inception of the series in 2001, called it one of the worst decisions he had ever seen. Lead announcer Barry Tompkins went further, calling it the worst decision he has seen in his 40 years of covering the sport.

Laurence Cole (pictured alongside his father) was singled out for his behavior as the third man in the ring for the fight between Regis Prograis and Juan Jose Velasco at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans on July 14. The bout was televised live on ESPN.

In his rationale for calling out Cole, BWAA prexy Joseph Santoliquito leaned heavily on Thomas Hauser’s critique of Cole’s performance in The Sweet Science. “Velasco fought courageously and as well as he could,” noted Hauser. “But at the end of round seven he was a thoroughly beaten fighter.”

His chief second bullied him into coming out for another round. Forty-five seconds into round eight, after being knocked down for a third time, Velasco spit out his mouthpiece and indicated to Cole that he was finished. But Cole insisted that the match continue and then, after another knockdown that he ruled a slip, let it continue for another 35 seconds before Velasco’s corner mercifully threw in the towel.

Controversy has dogged Laurence Cole for well over a decade.

Cole was the third man in the ring for the Nov. 25, 2006 bout in Hildalgo, Texas, between Juan Manuel Marquez and Jimrex Jaca. In the fifth round, Marquez sustained a cut on his forehead from an accidental head butt. In round eight, another accidental head butt widened and deepened the gash. As Marquez was being examined by the ring doctor, Cole informed Marquez that he was ahead on the scorecards, volunteering this information while holding his hand over his HBO wireless mike. The inference was that Marquez was free to quit right then without tarnishing his record. (Marquez elected to continue and stopped Jaca in the next round.)

This was improper. For this indiscretion, Cole was prohibited from working a significant fight in Texas for the next six months.

More recently, Cole worked the 2014 fight between Vasyl Lomachenko and Orlando Salido at the San Antonio Alamodome. During the fight, Salido made a mockery of the Queensberry rules for which he received no point deductions and only one warning. Cole’s performance, said Matt McGrain, was “astonishingly bad,” an opinion echoed by many other boxing writers. And one could site numerous other incidents where Cole’s performance came under scrutiny.

Laurence Cole is the son of Richard “Dickie” Cole. The elder Cole, now 87 years old, served 21 years as head of the Texas Department of Combat Sports Regulation before stepping down on April 30, 2014. At various times during his tenure, Dickie Cole held high executive posts with the World Boxing Council and North American Boxing Federation. He was the first and only inductee into the inaugural class of the Texas Boxing Hall of Fame, an organization founded by El Paso promoter Lester Bedford in 2015.

From an administrative standpoint, boxing in Texas during the reign of Dickie Cole was frequently described in terms befitting a banana republic. Whenever there was a big fight in the Lone Star State, his son was the favorite to draw the coveted refereeing assignment.

Boxing is a sideline for Laurence Cole who runs an independent insurance agency in Dallas. By law in Texas (and in most other states), a boxing promoter must purchase insurance to cover medical costs in the event that one or more of the fighters on his show is seriously injured. Cole’s agency is purportedly in the top two nationally in writing these policies. Make of that what you will.

Complaints of ineptitude, says the WBAA, will be evaluated by a “rotating committee of select BWAA members and respected boxing experts.” In subsequent years, says the press release, the watch list will be published quarterly in the months of April, August, and December (must be the new math).

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Popo vs. “La Hiena”: Blast From the Past – Episode Two

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Freitas

When WBA/WBO super featherweight champion Acelino “Popo” Freitas met Jorge Rodrigo “Il Hiena” Barrios in Miami on August 8, 2003, there was more on the line than just the titles. This was a roughhousing 39-1-1 Argentinian fighting an equally tough 33-0 Brazilian. The crowd was divided between Brazilian fans and those from Argentina. To them this was a Mega-Fight; this was BIG.

When Acelino Freitas turned professional in 1995, he streaked from the gate with 29 straight KOs, one of the longest knockout win streaks in boxing history. He was fan-friendly and idolized in Brazil. Barrios turned professional in 1996 and went 14-0 before a DQ loss after which he went 25-0-1 with 1 no decision.

The Fight

The wild swinging “Hyena” literally turned into one as he attacked from the beginning and did not let up until the last second of the eleventh round. Barrios wanted to turn the fight into a street fight and was reasonably successful with that strategy. It became a case of brawler vs. boxer/puncher and when the brawler caught the more athletic Popo—who could slip and duck skillfully—and decked him with a straight left in the eighth, the title suddenly was up for grabs.

The Brazilian fans urged their hero on but to no avail as Barrios rendered a pure beat down on Popo during virtually the entirety of the 11th round—one of the most exciting in boxing history. Freitas went down early from a straight right. He was hurt, and at this point it looked like it might be over. Barrios was like a madman pounding Popo with a variety of wild shots, but with exactly one half of one second to go before the bell ending the round, Freitas caught La Hiena with a monster right hand that caused the Hyena to do the South American version of the chicken dance before he went down with his face horribly bloodied. When he got up, he had no idea where he was but his corner worked furiously to get him ready for the final round. All he had to do was hang in there and the title would change hands on points.

The anonymous architect of “In Boxing We Trust,” a web site that went dormant in 2010, wrote this description:

“Near the end of round 11, about a milli-second before the bell rang, Freitas landed a ROCK HARD right hand shot flush on Barrios’ chin. Barrios stood dazed for a moment, frozen in time, and then down he went, WOW WOW WOW!!!! Barrios got up at the count of 4, he didn’t know where he was as he looked around towards the crowd like a kid separated from his family at a theme park, but Barrios turned to the ref at the count of 8 and signaled that he was okay, SAVED BY THE BELL. It was panic time in the Barrios corner, as the blood continued to flow like lava, and he was bleeding from his ear (due to a ruptured ear drum). In the beginning of round 12, Freitas was able to score an early knockdown, and as Barrios stood up on wobbly legs and Freitas went straight at him and with a couple more shots, Barrios was clearly in bad shape and badly discombobulated and the fight was stopped. Freitas had won a TKO victory in round 12, amazing!!!!”

Later, Freitas tarnished his image with a “No Mas” against Diego Corrales, but he had gone down three times and knew there was no way out. He went on to claim the WBO world lightweight title with a split decision over Zahir Raheem, but that fight was a snoozefest and he lost the title in his first defense against Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz.

Freitas looked out of shape coming in to the Diaz fight and that proved to be the case as he was so gassed at the end of the eighth round that he quit on his stool. This was yet another shocker, but others (including Kostya Tszyu, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and even Ali) had done so and the criticism this time seemed disproportionate.

Popo had grown old. It happens. Yet, against Barrios, he had proven without a doubt that he possessed the heart of a warrior.

The Brazilian boxing hero retired in 2007, but came back in 2012 and schooled and KOd the cocky Michael “The Brazilian Rocky” Oliveira. He won another fight in 2015 and though by now he was visibly paunchy, he still managed to go 10 rounds to beat Gabriel Martinez in 2017 with occasional flashes of his old explosive volleys. These later wins, though against lower level opposition, somewhat softened the memories of the Corrales and Diaz fights, both of which this writer attended at the Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut. They would be his only defeats in 43 pro bouts.

Like Manny Pacquiao, Freitas had a difficult childhood but was determined to make a better life for himself and his family. And, like Manny, he did and he also pursued a career in politics. Whether he makes it into the Hall will depend on how much a ‘No Mas’ can count against one, but he warrants serious consideration when he becomes eligible.

As for the Hyena, on April 8, 2005, he won the WBO junior lightweight title with a fourth round stoppage of undefeated but overweight Mike Anchondo. In January 2010 he was involved in a hit and run accident in which a 20-year-old pregnant woman was killed. On April 4, 2012 Barrios was declared guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to four years in prison. He served 27 months and never fought again, retiring with a record of 50-4-1.

Ted Sares is one of the oldest active full power lifters in the world. A member of Ring 10, and Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he was recently cited by Hannibal Boxing as one of three “Must-Read” boxing writers.

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The Avila Perspective Chapter 6: Munguia, Cruiserweights and Pacman

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Adjoining states

Adjoining states in the west host a number of boxing cards including a world title contest that features a newcomer who, before knocking out a world champion, was erroneously categorized by a Nevada official as unworthy of a title challenge.

Welcome to the world of Mexico’s Jaime Munguia (29-0, 25 KOs) the WBO super welterweight world titlist who meets England’s Liam Smith (26-1-1, 14 KOs) at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 21. HBO will televise

Back in April when middleweight titan Gennady “GGG” Golovkin was seeking an opponent to replace Saul “Canelo” Alvarez who was facing suspension for performance enhancement drug use, it was the 21-year-old from Tijuana who volunteered his services for a May 5th date in Las Vegas.

Bob Bennett, the Executive Director for Nevada State Athletic Commission, denied allowing Munguia an opportunity to fight Golovkin for the middleweight titles. Bennett claimed that the slender Mexican fighter had not proven worthy of contesting for the championship though the tall Mexican wielded an undefeated record of 28 wins with 24 coming by knockout.

To be fair, Bennett has seen many fighters in the past with undefeated records who were not up to challenges, especially against the likes of Golovkin. But on the other hand, how can an official involved in prizefighting deny any fighter the right to make a million dollar payday if both parties are willing?

That is the bigger question.

Munguia stopped by Los Angeles to meet with the media last week and spoke about Bennett and his upcoming first world title defense. He admitted to being in the middle of a whirlwind that is spinning beyond his expectations. But he likes it.

“I’ve never won any kind of award before in my life,” said Munguia at the Westside Boxing Club in the western portion of Los Angeles. “I’ve always wanted to be a world champion since I was old enough to fight.”

When asked how he felt about Nevada’s denying him an attempt to fight Golovkin, a wide grin appeared on the Mexican youngster.

“I would like to thank him,” said Munguia about Bennett’s refusal to allow him to fight Golovkin. “Everything happens for a reason.”

That reason is clear now.

Two months ago Munguia put on a frightening display of raw power in knocking down then WBO super welterweight titlist Sadam Ali numerous times in front of New York fans. It reminded me of George Foreman’s obliteration of Joe Frazier back in the 1970s. World champions are not supposed get battered like that but when someone packs that kind of power those can be the terrifying results.

Still beaming over his newfound recognition, Munguia has grand plans for his future including challenging all of the other champions in his weight category and the next weight division.

“I want to be a great champion,” said Munguia. “I want to make history.”

The first step toward history begins on Saturday when he faces former world champion Smith who was dethroned by another Mexican named Canelo.

Cruiserweight championship

It’s not getting a large amount of attention in my neighborhood but this unification clash between WBA and IBF cruiserweight titlist Murat Gassiev (26-0, 19 KOs) and WBC and WBO cruiserweight titlist Oleksandr Usyk (14-0, 11 KOs) has historic ramifications tagged all over it.

The first time I ever saw Russia’s 24-year-old Gassiev was three years ago when he made his American debut at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello. It’s a small venue near East L.A. and the fight was attended by numerous boxing celebrities such as James “Lights Out” Toney, Mauricio “El Maestro” Herrera and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. One entire section was filled by Russian supporters and Gassiev did not disappoint in winning by stoppage that night. His opponent hung on for dear life.

Ukraine’s Usyk, 31, made his American debut in late 2016 on a Golden Boy Promotions card that staged boxing great Bernard Hopkins’ final prizefight. That night the cruiserweight southpaw Usyk bored audiences with his slap happy style until lowering the boom on South Africa’s Thabiso Mchunu in round nine at the Inglewood Forum. The sudden result stunned the audience.

Now it’s Gassiev versus Usyk and four world titles are at stake. The unification fight takes place in Moscow, Russia and will be streamed via Klowd TV at 12 p.m. PT/ 3 p.m. ET.

Seldom are cruiserweight matchups as enticing to watch as this one.

Another Look

A couple of significant fights took place last weekend, but Manny Pacquiao’s knockout win over Lucas Matthysse for the WBO welterweight world title heads the list.

Neither fighter looked good in their fight in Malaysia but when Pacquiao floored Matthysse several times during the fight, it raised some red flags.

The last time Pacquiao knocked out a welterweight was in 2009 against Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas. Since then he had not stopped an opponent. What changed?

In this age of PEDs there was no mention of testing for the Pacquiao/Matthysse fight. For the curiosity of the media and the fans, someone should come forward with proof of testing. Otherwise any future fights for the Philippine great will not be forthcoming.

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