Saturday, August 13, 2011

Willard's side

Every Houdini biography contains the story of how, in 1915, Houdini traded verbal blows with heavyweight champion Jess Willard from the stage of the Los Angeles Orpheum. Hearing that Willard was in attendance, Houdini invited him onstage to be part of his committee. Willard refused, calling Houdini as a "faker." The verbal battle went back and forth until Houdini delivered the knockout line: "I will be Harry Houdini when you are not the heavyweight champion of the world." (A wire release reported that he said, "I'll be in the spotlight when you are in the discard.")

The audience of nearly 2000 sided with Houdini, and Willard left the theater, reportedly to boos and hisses. The papers also sided with Houdini, especially the Los Angeles Record, keeping the story alive for days until Willard left town. Houdini wrote gleefully to his sister Gladys that when he now walks down the street he's greeted with, "Hello champ."

I don't know. I've never been a big fan of this story. I don't think it shows Houdini in his best light. He had the advantage over a member of his audience and he certainly pressed it. In Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, author Ken Silverman says Willard's bluster that night might well have been a cover for stage-fright -- that outside the ring Willard was self-conscious about his enormous 6 ft. 6 1/2 in. size. I don't know much about Jess Willard, but it seems he not only found himself on the wrong side of Houdini that November day in 1915, but also the wrong side of an emerging media machine. What we would call a "media backlash" today. Also, history has only recorded Houdini's side of the story.

Now, thanks to The Culliton Papers, we can hear Willard's side. This letter he wrote to the Los Angeles Examiner on December 3, 1915 has never been transcribed or quoted (as far as I could find) in any Houdini biography. It's a pretty good counterpunch, and despite calling Houdini's act "moth-eaten" (kind of funny), it's hard to not sympathize with Willard's point about how, as paying customer, he was "entitled to decent treatment."

Willard also shows a pretty crafty understanding of media himself by not using Houdini's name in his letter, thus not giving Houdini the publicity Willard claims was the real intent behind this episode (and certainly Houdini openly boasted he'd received "at least a million dollars advertising space from this fray"). Ironically, not using Houdini's name also makes this letter hard to find via modern keyword searches, so Willard's side of the story has been lost to history. Until now.

By the way, I was surprised to learn that Jess Willard lived until 1968! But this article in the Examiner seems to be the last time he spoke publicly of his encounter with Houdini.

UPDATE: Make sure you click in and read Patrick Culliton's own comments on this. Did Willard use an anti-Semitic slur against Houdini that night that went unreported in the papers? If so, that certainly explains why Houdini and the audience turned on him as they did. Very interesting notion. Thank you, Pat!

Also enjoy:


  1. Tall man vs short man but short man's publicity machine is a bit more well-oiled. Good retort from Willard though and he threatens to bring in the lawyers at the end - excellent. I would have been disappointed if he hadn't.

    Another "best of" this one - thanks!

  2. I will "Best of Blog" it then. Thanks, Melbo. :)

  3. Willard was, like most white Americans of that time, a white supremest. After defeating the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, Jess Willard refused to fight three top contenders because they were black. He said he had promised some important people that a black man would never fight for the championship while he held it. Willard had equal contempt for Jews. Nothing unusual for the time.
    You wrote "stage fight" instead of stage fright, and I can understand stage fright and the reluctance of some people to "assist" a magician--anyone who knows me well knows I can understand that. My heart in this case, frankly, is with Willard. But, that night, Willard revealed himself as something the rest of that audience wouldn't tolerate.
    Willard was a very big, tough, guy, but, eventually, a much smaller man, Jack Dempsey, annihilated him. Willard took a terrible beating, displaying no boxing skills worthy of a champion (didn't have a chance to, if they were there). He showed guts--he getting getting back up. Terrible beating!
    I personally believe that Willard used a word that was unacceptable to most of that audience to describe Houdini. No proof, but, I think it was a slur against Jews.
    Willard wasn't a world champion. Jess Willard was a W.A.S.P. champion.

  4. Wow, thanks Pat. Very interesting. (And thanks for the typo correction.) VERY interesting that Willard could have used an anti-Semitic slur against Houdini that night. That really changes things and better justifies Houdini (and the audience) going after him as he did. Very, very interesting. Thanks again.

  5. Very interesting article and love Pat's additional commentary. Great stuff!

  6. Actually it was an unwritten rule in America that a hwt boxing champion would never allow a black man the chance of winning the worlds hwt boxing championship. This is what was EXPECTED of the hwt champion. This is why Sullivan, Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Jeffries (the first four modern champions) all never fought a black man for the title. After Jeffries retired a Canadian Tommy Burns won the championship. The fact that Burns was not an American and that he was verbally tortured by the leading contender Jack Johnson (a black man) led to the first white/black hwt championship bout in 1908 in AUSTRAILIA which Johnson won handily. Years later in 1915 an old worn Johnson was Koed by Willard in Havana in the 26th round of a 45 round contest. Once Willard won the championship he fell in line with those before him announcing that he would draw the color line. A black man never got the chance again to fight for the hwt championship until 1937 when Joe Louis Koed Jim Braddock for the championship. SO....its NOT that Willard was a racist that caused him to NOT fight black was that Jess fell in line as to what was expected of the hwt champion in a racist early 20th century America. Actually there was not a promoter in the US at that time that would consider a fight between a white hwt champion and a black contender. Being the worlds hwt boxing champion indicates that you are the physical superior of any man. This was a title that the white race wanted as there own to show its ongoing superiority over the black man. Dont get me wrong Jess could have been a racist but that should NOT be taken as the reason why he did not fight a black fighter as champion. Also Willard was not the greatest of fighters but the day he fought Johnson he was fit and ready to fight 45 tough rounds in the hot Havana sun. In fact this was the reason why the fight was scheduled for 45 rounds. The deck was stacked against his age and condition he could never go that distance. If the fight was scheduled for 15, 20 or 25 rounds Johnson would have won on points. Instead Johnson tired badly after 20 rounds and Willard put over a haymaker in round 26 that ended the bout. His destruction by Dempsey 4 years later really is no reflection on how bad a fighter Willard was. Dempsey that day could have beaten anyone.....he was an all time great fighter

  7. I didn't call Jess Willard a racist--I called him a white supremest. W.A.S.P. supremest would be more accurate. Read what he said.
    It took guys like Max Baer, who didn't see a black man when he looked at Joe Louis, he saw a man.
    Joe had just recently kicked Max's butt, knocking him out in four, when Lou Costello interviewed them.
    Sullivan ducked Australian black fighter, Peter Jackson, whom some considered the most talented fighter of his time. Gentleman Jim went 63 rounds with Jackson with the bout ending in a draw, forcing Sullivan to give Corbett a chance at the title.
    For a white champion to duck any top contender because he was black was not an acceptance of the mores of the time--it was cowardice. But, fights were promoted then as now to make money.
    Nobody wanted to promote a fight between Floyd Patterson and another black fighter because the paying customers (supposedly) only wanted to see him fight white hopes.
    One fighter who never ducked anybody was Ali.

    1. Baer didn't see Louis as a black man,
      really. Although friends with Louis, when asked if he was hurt in his fight with the brown bomber, Baer replied that he was seeing double in the bout. "It looked like all of Harlem was in front of me. And this little ray of sunshine couldn't go through those clouds. Too many dark ones."

    2. Muhammad Ali flagrantly ducked Larry Holmes when he fought Alfredo Evangelista and Leon Spinks. Holmes was ranked well above them and 24-0 when Ali fought Evangelista, who was 14-1-1 and still fighting 8 rounders. In fact he had just lost an 8 rounder to a second rate boxer. Leon Spinks was 6-0-1. Both were huge underdogs and Larry Holmes would have been favored to beat Ali, if anybody had a clue how to assess odds.

  8. Many feel Ali avoided a return bout against Foreman as well as a 4th fight against Norton and he never gave Young a return match after nearly losing to him in '76.

    Jeffries fought several black fighters prior to winning the championship but drew the color line once champion. Jeffries had no issues fighting a black man but fell in line with all before him to forever keep the worlds hwt championship in the hands of a white man. Jackson was well accepted within the boxing community due to his great talent and his polished manners. He was able to fight many top white contenders including Corbett but never did he get a shot at the title. Fleischer and others wrote extensivly concerning the cutural aspects of the color line. Of Jeffries 23 recorded bouts 5 were against black fighters...non were for his championship however. It was not expected that he would fight a black contender and promoters did not want to touch such a fight.

    Baer was a happy go lucky fighter but you can only count 2 of 80 bouts where he fought a black fighter. He and Louis were great friends outside the ring.

    Dempsey signed to fight Harry Wills, the leading contender for many years, twice perhaps three times only to have promoters pull out of deal each time.

    Fights between black hwt champions and leading white contenders can draw mega million $ audiences. This can be seen when Jeffries came back to fight the champion Johnson and more recently when Holmes fought Cooney back in the 80's. A white hwt contender who can really fight is a boxing promoters dream unfortunatly.

  9. Really interesting comments. Thanks guys.

  10. Ghost of George DixonAugust 14, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    None of you boxing "experts" even mentioned me. Houdini and I were contemporaries. We both overcame the greatest of odds and reached the top of our respective professions.

    Neither of us let the size of our stature govern the size of our ambitions. Nor did we let our race or religion hold us back from our dreams.

    Our legacy is Inspiration.

    Geo Dixon (aka Little Chocolate)
    Late of Africville, Nova Scotia

  11. Apologies, Mr. Dixon. You are indeed one of "the Greatest".

  12. All right, anonymous, I only know one guy with that kind of encyclopedic knowledge of an amazing amount of things. Come out of your corner you big Mickey. You ought to post the following on your own site.
    P.S. Ali never ducked anybody. Jimmy Young? Norton? Gimme a break!
    He didn't even duck Shavers.

  13. dont know me. I just have two hobbies...Houdini and Hwt boxing.

    Ali should have fought Norton again after nearly losing to him (75% of the writers at ringside had him losing his bout with Norton in 76). Instead he went on to fight Evangelista and Spinks who was just out of the amateurs..losing then winning before retiring. Foreman was the former champion and he never got a rematch. Young made an out of shape Ali look bad when they fought early in 76 and he was never given a rematch. I remember being at a boxing event at the Playboy club in north NJ in 1977. Ali was introduced and many in the audience yelled at Ali concerning rematches with Norton and Young. I agree with you that Ali did fight everyone but rematches with Foreman and Norton are notably missing from his record towards the end of his career.

    Actually Shavers was not considered to be that big of a challenge for Ali when they fought. Shavers going into that fight was known as a big puncher but very much lacking stamina and chin. Cleverly Earnie conserved his energy, picked his spots and it was he who came on strongly the last 3-4 rounds. Ali won the decision in a tough grueling fight.

  14. Well, I remember the third Ali Norton fight very well. Ali was champ, Norton the challenger. Ali outpointed Norton five punches to one all night. About five times a round, Norton would land--or appear to land a haymaker overhand left.
    There were no knockdowns, no cuts. I have an appreciation of the fighting retreat, many ring fans do not. In my opinion, Ali Willy Pepped him.
    As you know, Anonymous, aggresiveness and decisive punches count a lot with some judges and referees. George Foreman says that Ali never beat Norton. Foreman was sitting in the same row as I was at the second Ali Norton. About the 7th round, he stood up and with a gesture of disdain, walked out.
    But I was there, too. Ali's fight.
    Anyway, we're talking about Houdini and Willard.
    Houdini boxed amateur, beat the kid that represented the U.S.A. in the first modern Olympics, later owned a boxer (can't remember the name), and was a fanatical boxing fan. He befriended many champions. Jeffries, in particular, who was very disappointed in Willard's behavior at the L. A. Orpheum.

  15. Ali Norton III scoring

    Judges 8-7, 8-7 both for Ali
    Ref 8-6-1 for Ali

    So Ali won on the official cards by 1 round.

    Commentators at ringside:

    10-5, 10-5 both for Norton
    6-6-3 Draw

    Ringside press:

    75% of polled press scored the fight for Norton.

    CBS replay of fight 2 weeks later and scored by panel of 20 boxing writers, former fighters. All scores tabulated together scored the fight a draw.

    I was at the fight and scored it 8-7 for Norton. It was a very close fight. Norton was able to outjab Ali, pound him to head and body against the ropes. Norton also hurt Ali several times with overhand rights to the chin as well as a great hook to the body that doubled Ali over in pain. Ali was given credit for dancing and jabbing even though 90% of his jabs fell short as Norton layed back out of reach. Ali did well landing lead rights followed by left hooks but these were too periodic for him to score enough to win the fight IMO. Ali won fight 2 more clearly as did Norton win fight 1. Enough of boxing since this is a HOUDINI web site!

  16. Hey, no problems, I find this boxing talk all very interesting. I love hearing people discuss what they really know. :)

  17. I remember well that tribunal. I think Sugar Ray Robinson was on it. One person pointed out Ali had landed many more punches while Norton relied on fewer stronger punches. Joe Louis said "that was his strategy."
    would have meant something if Norton had won a single 2 point round.
    Norton looked 60 years old by the ninth round.

  18. Norton was ready to fight 20 rounds that night. No way was he tired or in any distress by the 9th round! In fact Norton stood in his corner inbetween rounds, every round, refusing a stool. It was very close by most accounts and if anyone was tired or in any distress it was Ali since he was taking the hard shots especially to the body.

  19. Not tired, not in distress, but, Ali peppered his face all night. I said Norton looked 60 by the 9th and, facially, he did.

  20. With all due respect...not a chance if your talking fight 3. In fact I dont think Norton was marked during fight 1 or 2 either. The only mark on Nortons face, if there was a mark at all, was a very slightly puffy eye due to a Ali thumb ..but that took place after round 9 for sure. Ali's punches were pitty pat and as such did no damage.

  21. Just saw this site and I am surprised that this Patrick fellow above calls my great uncle a white supremacist, yet backs off a bit in calling him a racist. I find it amazing that people call other people these kind of things without ever knowing them.