Jess Willard was born in Pottawatomie County, Kansas, in 1884.
At the time of his boxing debut in 1911, Willard--at 6'5" and 235 pounds--was the largest man ever to venture into professional boxing. Four years later the "Kansas Giant" challenged Jack Johnson, the seemingly unbeatable world heavyweight champ. Press coverage of the fight played up the issue of race.
Johnson, an African American, had reigned as heavyweight champion for almost five years. He had successfully defended the title against several white contenders. Like these earlier challengers, Jess Willard was nicknamed "The Great White Hope." A crowd estimated at twenty-five thousand gathered in Havana, Cuba, to see Willard emerge the victor in a grueling match that lasted 26 rounds (view an image of the fight). Willard retained the crown until July 4, 1919, when he was decisively defeated by Jack Dempsey.
After winning the heavyweight title, Willard enjoyed a short career performing in Wild West shows.
These gloves are in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History, as well as boxing trunks and shoes worn by Willard, and punching bags and a medicine ball he used in practice. The Society's collections also include photographs of the boxer.
Entry: Boxing Gear
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 1995
Date Modified: February 2016
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.