Series of events honor the 100th anniversary of the Willard/Dempsey fight
It has been called the most brutal fight in boxing history, and it took place in the Glass City.
On the 4th of July, 1919, heavyweight champion Jess Willard, the man who had dethroned the legendary Jack Johnson in 1915 and who had killed an opponent in the ring two years prior to that, faced the challenge of the relatively diminutive Jack Dempsey. In interviews, Willard had boasted the fight would be “the easiest of my career.”
Dempsey had other ideas, knocking Willard down seven times in the first round en route to a win via TKO at the beginning of the fourth when an exhausted Willard was unable to leave his corner. A capacity crowd estimated at over 90,000 viewed the legendary bout in a temporary stadium built at Bay View Park, just off of modern-day Summit St.
Now, a century after the record audiences took in the most spectacle, the Toledo History Museum and Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz are taking the lead, promoting on a series of events commemorating “Toledo’s Day in the Sun.”
The center of the sporting world
“The Willard/Dempsey fight happened at a time when boxing was huge,” said Brent Schmidt, Board Member and Trustee for the Toledo History Museum. “It was one of the biggest sports in the United States at that time. And for Toledo to host (the fight), and then the next year, 1920, (Toledo hosted) the U.S. Open. It was a really big time for Toledo in sports.”
The anniversary celebration began on June 13, with a block party featuring a sneak preview of the History Museum’s exhibit with numerous artifacts and photographs from the match. (The exhibit officially opened to the public on June 20.)
“We have some actual artifacts from the fight— tickets, photographs, programs,” Schmidt said. “We have a couple of the bells that were possibly ringside during the fight. And then we have a very impressive photo gallery of high-quality images of the fight. And there’s also an American flag that flew at Bay View that day.”
The main event of the celebration, though, begins on July 4th itself, with a free event held at Detweiler Park featuring music, food and a small recreation of the arena built at Bay View with a live choreographed recreation of the bout performed by actors, giving attendees a taste of what the historic moment would have been like. (An evening of professional boxing matches will also be held two days later at the SeaGate Centre.)
A connection to history
The event is a very personal one for Mayor Kapszukiewicz, who grew up in Toledo hearing tales about the bout from his grandfather, who attended the event when he was only five years old. It was Kapszukiewicz who suggested the Museum celebrate the anniversary, and the Mayor was the point person raising the money from private sponsors to hold the event.
“I raised $50,000 of private money to sponsor this event— I don’t want anyone to think that there was any taxpayer money that has gone into this. Goodness knows we need to use every penny of taxpayer money to fill potholes and do things like that. So this was entirely funded by private donations, from groups like Columbia Gas, Huntington Bank, places like that,” Kapszukiewicz explained.
“He’s been leading the charge on this, and he was in contact with the Toledo History Museum back, like, in January, and that’s when this ball started rolling,” Schmidt said.
Both Schmidt and Kapszukiewicz said they hope modern Toledoans enjoy a look back at a moment where their city was at the epicenter of the sporting world.
“While our city has changed dramatically over the last 100 years, our recognition of this event shows that Toledoans still remember our past and Toledo’s contributions to our national history. It is a great reminder that Toledo was and is a national contributor in many different respects,” Schmidt said.
“I think it’s important for folks, Toledoans, to know about this event that took place in their city, and what it means about their past— and where Toledo might be headed in the future,” Kapszukiewicz said.
For more information on the Toledo History Museum, visit: https://www.toledohistorymuseum.org/. For more information on the Willard/Dempsey celebrations, visit: https://toledo.oh.gov/news/toledo-s-day-in-the-sun-celebration-announced/. Footage from the bout can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3BTycNuY44