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Johnson vs Willard: Did heavyweight legend throw the fight?

By Lee Cleveland, FightSaga - August 6, 2023

Jess Willard KO 26 Jack Johnson

Date: April 5, 1915

Oriental Park, Havana, Cuba

World Heavyweight Title:
Jack Johnson defending

Temperature: 100+ F/ 37.7+ C

On April 5, 1915, challenger Jess Willard knocked out heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in front of a huge crowd in Havana, Cuba.

The finish came in Round 26.

But on January 2, 1916, Johnson “confessed” to having thrown the fight. Johnson’s confession was re-published in the October 1956 issue of The RING Magazine and this controversy was re-visited in the January 1969 issue.

Johnson’s Motive
Johnson said he had politicians working on his Mann Act case, and that he would be allowed to return to the United States if he agreed to throw the fight against Willard.

Johnson’s story was that his wife, who was sitting at ringside, was to receive a package of bills taken directly from the box office, and amounting to $50,000, which was to be his payment for throwing the fight in the 10th round. “But when that round arrived,” Johnson stated, “the money had not been paid. It was nearing the 26th round when the money was turned over to Mrs. Johnson.”

“I had specified that it should be in $500 bills so that the package should be small and the amount quickly counted. After examining it, she gave me the signal. I replied that everything was O.K. and she departed. In the 26th round, I let the fight end as it did.


Did he, in fact, throw the fight?

Keep in mind, boxing had ties with organized crime and big-time mobsters and was far more corrupt in 1915 than it is today. The corruption today pales in comparison to the corruption then.

As a result, fixed fights were not uncommon back then. And a high-profile fighter who admitted to taking he took a dive probably didn’t come under nearly as much scrutiny as would the same fighter today.

Advocates for Jack Johnson’s assertion say it’s clear the ‘fix was in’ because: 

  • Johnson was apparently dominating his foe for 20 of 26 rounds and looked to be the superior fighter. 

“If I had been compelled to give a decision at the end of the twenty-fifth round, it would have been Johnson’s by a wide margin. Up to the 20th Round, Willard had one won only one round by a real margin and two or three others by the slightest shade,” stated Referee Jack Welch.

  • Moreover, footage of the knockout shows a felled Johnson laying flat on back as if he was legitimately knocked out YET he had presence of mind to raise his arm to shield himself fomr the sun’s bright scorching rays while the referee administered the count (as seen in the main photo)
  • Supporters of Johnson assert that a fighter in an unconscious state or one bordering that state wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to cover his eyes from the bright sun. 
  • And lastly, Johnson’s story (above) is consistent with the shift in dominance during the bout

But Johnson’s detractors believe the former champion lied about taking a dive because:

  • Recorded footage reveals the then-champion commented to his cornermen between rounds that he bet $2500 on himself to win.
  • And they also point to Johnson’s dominance early on and assert it was clearly evident the champion tried earnestly to knock out his bigger, younger foe. 

“In the thirteenth and fourteenth, I was almost sure Johnson would knock Willard out, but Willard showed that his jaw and body were too tough, ” stated the referee.

  • The champ’s accusers point to Johnson’s age and physicality insisting he was past his prime and simply ran out of gas on a brutally hot day, unable to hang with the young lion after the 20th Round.
  • Moreover, they claim Johnson found that he could not knockout the giant Willard, who fought as a counter-puncher, making Johnson do all the leading. In addition, they argue the champ was badly hurt from Wlllard’s body attack prior to getting knocked out.

Referee Jack Welch stated, “Johnson put up a wonderful fight to the twentieth round, but age stepped in then and defeated him.” 

So who’s right? We’ll probably never know. But most boxing experts doubt Johnson’s story.

Years later, the promoter, Jack Curley, stated, “Nobody ever took Johnson’s charges of fakery seriously. He was well past his prime, fat and dissipated, and he was worn down and knocked out by a strong, game and well-conditioned opponent.”

So who really knows what happened? Probably no one.

Perhaps Jess Willard, the newly crowned champion, had the best argument of them all:


“If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he’d done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there.”

Johnson didn’t return to the United States until 1920. He surrendered to federal authorities in San Diego and was sent to the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas to serve out his time of a year and a day for his Mann Act conviction.

Johnson vs Willard Highlights