One of the worst ever scandals in the world of boxing occurred in Havana on April 5, 1915.
On this fateful day at the Oriental Park racetrack in Marianao, two North American fighters – the black champion, Jack Johnson and the contender and “boxing’s great white hope”, Jess Willard -- engaged in a world heavyweight title fight.
It was agreed that the fight, watched by some 20,000 fans, one of whom was the president of the Republic of Cuba himself, would last 45 rounds.
However, in the 26th round -- and to the great displeasure of most – the unthinkable happened and Johnson went down without any chance of getting back up to continue the fight and Willard claimed the title. It did not take the crowd long to realize what had in fact happened.
Johnson, who had taken the title in 1908, could not return to his U.S. homeland without being brought before the courts for associating with whites above his class. North American racists could not forgive him for being with a white woman and French too at that.
The charge denied Johnson the possibility of facing Jess Willard in any U.S. city.
Fight promoters had thought to hold the fight in Mexico, but the Pancho Villa armed uprising ensured that the match could not go ahead there and Johnson refused to fight in El Paso, Texas, because although the money would be good there, the police would interfere.
Cuba was then suggested as an alternative and was deemed acceptable to both camps. The Oriental Park racetrack was an ideal venue for the fight.
Jack Johnson’s presence in Cuba created the same expectations in Cuba that a world heavyweight champion would anywhere in the world.
Having arrived on February 21st at the Cienfuegos port, the ordeal of finding a hotel in Havana was soon underway. Neither the Inglaterra nor the Sevilla, the finest hotel establishments at that time, would offer lodgings to the famous black millionaire, who had traveled with an entourage in tow. He stayed at the very modest Las Villas hotel, in the area surrounding the Central Railway Station.
In a chronicle from that time, the Cuban journalist Ruy Lugo Viña disparagingly described the boxing champion’s small entourage.
Lugo Viña wrote that “the „big-man“ arrived in Havana, followed by that languid French woman who is his wife, his coach, his secretary, who is both note taker and messenger, and four maids: one to clean his over-sized boots, one to attend to dirty linen, one to lather the soap for his bath and brush his hair once he got dressed and the last who, under orders from the consort, would do nothing at all until called upon to entertain his patron”.
Of all the boxing matches held in Cuba, it is theJohnson-Willard fight that is most talked about, despite having been contested almost 100 years ago. The reason is simple: it was a fix. Johnson sold his crown for $30,000 dollars. He initially expected to get his money at the weigh in, but was told that it would be given to his wife when the fight was underway. When she signaled to him from the stands that she had the cash, Johnson, who had been stalling his rival, suddenly hit the canvas following an ineffective right hand punch.
The fight was held during the day and Johnson covered his face with his arms because the sun was bothering him, and then quietly lay face down. The fight had lasted one hour and 44 minutes.Share on FB Share on TT