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Archive for Friday, July 6, 2007

Mayer: Bad day befell city hero

July 6, 2007

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Lawrence has had a phenomenal range of ups and downs for sports personalities and contests. It never has been more focused on one event, and more devastated by the shocking result, than at this time of year 88 years ago. No "favorite son" ever shot local expectations higher and saw them crash more violently than the late Jess Willard.

The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Pottawatomie Giant was The Great White Hope who defeated African American Jack Johnson in 26 rounds for boxing's heavyweight championship in 1915 in Havana. For reasons never quite explained, Willard, his wife and five children moved to Lawrence in 1917 and bought farm property out around what now is Seventh and Iowa. It's a dropoff now but remains known as "The Willard Cut."

Jess was a native of St. Clere, Kan. Didn't begin his boxing career until 1911, at the age of 29. He didn't fight often but a huge clamor arose for a pairing with a young Colorado product named Jack Dempsey, a mere 195-pounder noted for his brutal, slashing style.

Jess Willard was a gentle giant who quickly became plugged in here. The community never has had an athlete who so captured its imagination so quickly. It was announced Jess and Dempsey would fight for the world title on July 4, 1919, in Toledo.

People saw the huge Willard and figured the Dempsey match would be just another stop on the road to the hall of fame. Jess, then 37, made it clear he felt more than equal to the challenge.

As adoring local citizens sharpened their focus on "Our Jess," so did the betting traffic skyrocket. Many locals put anything from a dollar to several thousand dollars on the Kansas entry.

No radio or television, so the Journal-World, spearheaded by the late Dolph Simons Sr., arranged for a Western Union telegrapher with a direct connection to Toledo to set up at Woodland Park where there would be holiday trotting races and reports on the fight. Since bouts in those days often ran 20 rounds and more, a long afternoon seemed in store for eager attendees.

Dolph Sr. borrowed a megaphone from Kansas University and got ready to inform the crowd (no public address, either) of everything the telegrapher could collect.

The wire stuttered, seemed to clear up ... then went into a 10-minute swoon. When the silence was broken, the devastating message: "DEMPSEY KNOCKS OUT WILLARD IN THIRD ROUND."

No crucial football game or Final Four basketball heartbreak ever hit the local population any harder. Along with all the money that was lost, there was the esteem that was so shredded because of what had befallen "our champion."

The fierce way Dempsey attacked Willard was what you might expect from a mere three-round bout in 1919. Willard contended Dempsey had worn weighted gloves, and Jack's trainer admitted he used "special hardening tape." Jess also contended that gangsters had doctored the bout and made sure that underdog Dempsey won to tilt the payoffs. No proof, however.

Not long after, he sold his land here and moved to California. He lived quietly, then died at age 86 in 1968 in Los Angeles. Admirers consider him one of the most underrated fighters in history. Critics say he was just big and opportunistic.

But the Willards maintained many contacts here for years, and he still is fondly recalled as a local hero who just happened to have a bad day, a really bad day.

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