“The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson is widely respected for crossing the color bar in boxing. The fact remains that he dodged all of his Black competitors the same way he deftly dodged blows. It was a practice of White champions of the day that died out when Joe Louis became champion. Still, one of the two names Johnson feared was Harry “The Black Panther” Wills.
The Dominance of Harry Wills
A powerful 6’2 pugilist, Harry Wills was an extremely skilled iron man of a competitor. He made his debut in 1907 and didn’t retire until 1932 at the age of 40. In those decades, there was rarely a period when Wills wasn’t dominant.
This dominance was ignored and avoided by White champions of the day. While pitting him against the top boxers of the day would’ve possibly resulted in huge gates, he was left in the Negro ranks to compete against many of same fighters over and over again.
His career started with a bang as he would go to a seven-match winning streak between 1907 and 1911–mostly in 1911. This would be a trademark of his career where he had explosive runs or go the distance for the most part.
Vs. Sam Langford
Speaking of facing the same fighters over and over, “The Boston Tar Baby” Sam Langford was a regular opponent of his between 1914 and 1922. Langford was the other boxer that Jackson avoided and had been World Colored champion in two divisions. He held the Heavyweight title five times with two being wins from Harry Wills.
Combined the two of them fought in 359 matches across the decades and both were known for their knockout ability. As a result, these two were evenly matched. In their 22 bouts, they drew in 14 of them. The eight decisive bouts were intense bouts mainly over the World Colored Heavyweight title.
November 1914 was their second encounter with Langford taking the title. He manages to put Wills down in the fourteenth round to start his third reign and end Wills’ first. In defeating Langford in December 1915, he sealed his shot at the World Colored title in January. The January 3 match went the distance in 20 rounds but Wills won the points game.
Langford’s fourth reign started the following month following a KO in a grueling 19-round contest. For almost a year “The Boston Bonecrusher” would go on to hold the title for almost a year.
End of the Series
Harry Wills rolled ahead with a nine-match winning streak against varying competition. He faced Langford once again for the belt in 1918. Langford was heading into the match in his fifth reign having held the belt close to a year once more. Wills defeated Langford in six rounds via knockout to begin his third reign.
His third run as champion saw him defeat Langford five more times. Each of these matches went the distance and all except for one–which went 15 rounds on points–were newspaper decisions.
In part two, we will look at more of Wills’ matches as World Colored Heavyweight champion and his attempt at getting a World Heavyweight title shot.