Harry Wills, Shot for Glory Denied
(This is another excerpt from my upcoming book, "Boxing in the Shadow." Harry Wills was a leading heavyweight contender in the 1920s but never received his shot at a title. Read and find out why.
Between 1915 and 1927, Harry Wills was one of the best fighters, if not the best, in the heavyweight division. Yet, he never got his chance to fight for the heavyweight championship. Like other black fighters in the early part of the past century, Harry Wills was nothing but a footnote in boxing history. What denied Wills his place in history was the color of his skin. At a time in which the heavyweight championship was considered the purview of the Caucasian race, Harry Wills tilled in the heavyweight division hinterland. After Jack Johnson’s reign as champion ended, white promoters were determined not to allow blacks a whiff at the championship belt.
Jack Johnson’s personal conduct outside the ring scandalized White America, as modesty and humility were not part of his make up. Jack Johnson essentially gave White America the middle finger as he violated every taboo of his time. Jack Johnson found white women more to his liking as he said, “Every colored lady I ever went with two-timed me, white girls didn’t.” And when he was not bedding white women, he was beating white heavyweights. He did not just beat his opponent; he taunted and tortured them before beating them. Sports writer Ring Ladner described Jack Johnson as that “grinning Negro whose delight was in whipping purpose.” Johnson spent the last years of his championship reign outside the country and eventually lost his title to Jess Willard under the scorching Havana sun.
Harry Wills came into his own as a fighter after Johnson relinquished his title in 1915. A strong fighter and big for his era, Harry Wills used his size to an advantage. Black boxing historian Kevin Smith told me in an EMAIL interview that Harry Wills' skills, “would be considered good for his day. His strength was his asset. He could move other men around the ring as he pleased. He couldn’t understand why he never did receive a title shot. He was considered the top contender for almost seven years. No number one contender could be ignored for that long today — but the racial tones of that time simply would not allow such a bout.”
Kevin Smith added that Wills was at his best during the late teens and the early 20s. If Dempsey had fought Wills then, it would have been a great fight. Luis Firpo, a similar fighter to Wills, nearly ended Dempsey’s reign as champion when he knocked the Manassa Mauler out of the ring. Firpo’s eventual loss did not diminish the fact that a Wills-Dempsey bout in 1920 or 1921 would have been a splendid event. Dempsey was not invincible, as Tunney would later show. Wills developed his boxing skills by fighting several quality opponents, including the great Sam Langford, Sam McVey, and Joe Jeannette.