Back about a few years ago, when it seemed Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao would never actually meet in the ring, pundits and historians started to wonder if theirs would be the biggest potential fight in boxing history to never materialize. Of course it did materialize and then many of us wished it hadn’t, but had it not, it would have simply joined a long list of great matches that failed to take place. For example, what might have happened had iconic heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and longstanding top contender Harry Wills ever clashed we will never know. Dempsey vs Wills will forever be the heavyweight superfight that never was.
Safe to assume it would have been one hell of a battle. Yet Dempsey was almost modern in his inactivity. After winning the title by beating the tar out of Jess Willard in 1919, he competed just five times through the next five years. To put that into perspective, Danny Garcia, a contemporary often criticized for his lack of activity, has fought twice as often in the same span of time.
What Dempsey lacked in a full schedule, however, he made up for in ferocity and raw talent. For here was a new kind of fighter, a vicious ring assassin who set a savage pace, advancing relentlessly in his awkward crouch, which in fact made him deceptively hard to hit. Dempsey may not have been invincible – like Jack Johnson before him, he tasted defeat before winning the heavyweight crown – but he was a legitimate ring great with a wealth of hard-earned experience to support his high reputation. For example, after powerful Luis Firpo punched him out of the ring in the opening round of their savage brawl, Dempsey came back and knocked Firpo down and out the following round. He was, to be sure, a force to be reckoned with.
Enter one Harry Wills, a Louisiana native known as The Black Panther. A man with a rectangular frame, Wills kicked around the heavyweight division for years, hoping to get a chance at the world title. He fought the great Sam Langford on many occasions and had also gotten the better of men who had likewise faced Dempsey, including the dangerous Firpo. And it’s worth noting that while Dempsey had to recover from a knockdown against “The Wild Bull of the Pampas,” Wills defeated the Argentinian with relative ease a year later.
But there was a major stumbling block to this worthy challenger meeting Dempsey in the ring, that being the simple fact that Wills happened to be black. From our particular vantage point in history, where people actually make sport of pretending to be offended by the innocuous, it’s hard to imagine blatant and legitimate prejudice being tolerated, yet the racism of that day was very real.
But ironically enough, Wills became so renowned and respected that as time went on, even white America took a shine to him. Eventually people, including those in the media, started asking aloud what was so wrong about giving a deserving challenger a crack at the heavyweight crown.
In truth, Dempsey himself appeared willing to take Wills on, and for a whole lot of money, too. Those who argue that “The Manassa Mauler” drew the color line might be interested to know he had in fact signed a contract to meet Wills, and that he had fought black opponents before. The match, however, was simply not meant to be. The closest it may have come to actually occurring was in 1925. An agreement was reached with Wills getting 50 grand, a sizable purse at the time, but Dempsey’s much larger payment never came through. And thus neither did one of the most anticipated matches in history.
Instead, Dempsey fought and lost to Gene Tunney twice, the second time in insanely controversial fashion, while Wills went on to close out his career without a title shot. To be sure, the Phantom Title Fight, Dempsey vs Wills, serves as a warning as to what happens when outside pressures and interests interfere with competition. Could Wills have bested Dempsey? It’s a good question. Had the two met in 1925 or 1926, which was the time when the match came closest to happening, Wills likely had a real chance. Then again …
To be sure, matters like this make for uncomfortable discussions. It’s not fun contemplating the widespread racism of the past, but it’s also difficult to grasp that things aren’t always as black and white as they may at first appear (pardon the pun). The truth is a number of factors prevented a Wills vs Dempsey match from taking place, one of them being Jack Johnson. “The Galveston Giant,” famed for his arrogant ways and his openly consorting with white women, so outraged white America during his turbulent reign that he virtually guaranteed that no title shot would be given to a black man for many years after.
Additionally, Wills likely hurt his cause by refusing to face Gene Tunney in a lucrative title eliminator that could have put even more pressure on those who could have made the fight happen. Reportedly Tunney was open to the match, but Wills turned it down. In the end, one thing is clear: both Wills and Dempsey were willing to face off in the ring. It’s easy to cast Dempsey as the villain here and think it was all too easy for him to avoid the match, but the evidence – including his signature – proves otherwise.
Years later, Dempsey told interviewer Peter Heller that the real obstacle was finding a venue. Presumably, there was simply too much widespread objection on the part of the people who had the means to stage the bout.
“They wouldn’t let you fight no place,” Dempsey told Heller in 1970. “Rickard wanted to make [it], but there was no place that you could put it on. … I wanted to fight him. … [But] they wouldn’t let you fight no place.”
It’s hard not to feel bad for Wills in all this. While Dempsey went on to iconic status, the Black Panther is now largely forgotten. Perhaps that was always meant to be the case. Perhaps Dempsey would indeed have prevailed had the two met in the ring. The fact we will never know is a blemish on the history of the sport. One brief side note: Wills reportedly ended up doing quite well for himself post-boxing in the real estate business. The man always regretted, however, the fight that never was. And in that, he was not, and still isn’t, alone. — Sean Crose