YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Willard Victory Recalled : On April 5, 1915, He Knocked Out Jack Johnson at Cuban Track


Eighty years ago Wednesday, after seven years of yearning, white America finally got its Great White Hope.

On April 5, 1915, in a prize ring built on a Cuban racetrack, a Kansas cowboy named Jess Willard knocked out the first world-famous black athlete, Jack Johnson.

In the history of boxing's heavyweight title fights, the setting and circumstances for Willard-Johnson remain one of the oddest.

Johnson, 37, the champion, was on the lam, a man without a country. Sentenced to federal prison in 1913 on a trumped-up violation of the Mann Act, Johnson had fled the United States for Europe.

Willard, 33, was a giant of his day. At 6-feet-6 1/4 he ranks as the tallest heavyweight champion. And in his black cowboy hat and boots, he looked 7 feet.

Since July 4, 1910, promoters had scoured the country, looking for something they called "the Great White Hope." On that date, in Reno, Johnson had shocked white America by easily beating former champion Jim Jeffries, sparking race riots in nearly every major city in America.

Racism was rampant in the first decades of the 20th Century. Black men were expected to defer to whites. And, above all, a black man was never to look at a white woman, much less marry one.

But Jack Johnson wasn't an ordinary man. He married three white women.

When he won the title in 1908 in Australia by beating a white champion, Tommy Burns, writers--most prominently Jack London--sent up a call for a Great White Hope.

Jeffries, who had retired in 1905 and was fat--320 pounds--and happy on his Burbank alfalfa farm, was persuaded to answer the call.

They called it "the fight of the century." That was before the fight. Johnson not only won easily, he laughed defiantly at both Jeffries and the fuming, mostly white crowd.

On July 4, 1910, Jess Willard drove a six-team wagon into Oklahoma City and found the citizens there in an uproar over Jeffries' defeat.

Later, when someone saw the 250-pound Willard hoisting bales of hay onto his wagon, someone remarked that he was perhaps the man to beat Johnson.

Soon afterward, at the Olympic Athletic Club in Oklahoma City, at 28, he pulled on boxing gloves for the first time.

Willard was a true-to-life cowboy. As a teen growing up on a farm in Pottawatomie County, Kan.--they would later call him "the Pottawatomie Giant"--he broke wild horses he had caught.

His boxing career began in undistinguished fashion. He lost his first match, on a foul, in February, 1911.

He then won seven in a row before suffering a knockout loss. In early 1913, he lost an important match to top contender Gunboat Smith in San Francisco. He lost again in Youngstown, Ohio, in March, 1913.

He won two more and somehow, with four losses in 30 fights, he was offered a fight with Johnson.

While the slow, ponderous Willard was learning to box, white hatred toward Johnson reached its peak. On Dec. 4, 1912, he married his third white wife, Lucille Cameron.

This was after the U.S. Attorney in Chicago had charged him with a Mann Act violation, or transporting a female across state lines for immoral purposes.

Later, in a trial, it would come out that Cameron not only had never traveled outside Illinois with Johnson but she refused to testify against him.

Seeing they needed another Mann Act violation, the feds combed Johnson's past and found one: Belle Schreiber, another white woman. Once jilted by Johnson, Schreiber eagerly testified for the government.

Johnson's attorney, however, pointed out this had occurred before the Mann Act went into effect, in 1910.

Nevertheless, the all-white grand jury bought the government's flimsy case and indicted him. The judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis (later commissioner of baseball), issued an arrest warrant.

In June, 1913, he was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and fined $1,000. He was granted two weeks to file an appeal.

In Chicago, Johnson bought railway and steamship tickets through Montreal to La Havre, France. He slipped out of Chicago at night, disguised as a member of a Canada-bound black baseball team.

When it was learned he was in Canada, on his way to France, the Canadians wouldn't extradite him because he had entered Canada with through-passage to France.

Johnson spent the next two years in Europe (Paris, mostly) and South America. He won two title defenses in Paris and fought exhibitions in Buenos Aires.

By 1915, he was broke, the $110,500 he'd earned for the Jeffries fight long gone, spent on champagne, women and fast cars.

Promoter Jack Curley arranged a big-money Johnson defense against Willard, then sought a foreign site Americans could reach easily. Johnson was still a U.S. fugitive.

He first settled on Juarez, Mexico.

But problems arose, first with Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, who wanted a cut of the action. And Johnson feared he'd be kidnaped by Villa while traveling to Juarez and held for ransom for Curley, or worse, the American government.

Los Angeles Times Articles