How Jess Willard got Jack Dempsey labeled a 'slacker.'

Everyone knows the Jack Dempsey 'slacker' saga but few are aware of Jess Willard's role in what happened.

The day after President Wilson called for a declaration of war against the Hun (April 2nd, 1917), the reigning heavyweight champ, Jess Willard saw an opportunity for a little free press and wired the War Department declaring his readiness to do his duty and serve his country. If jess Willard believed that he could make such an announcement and not follow through, he was sadly mistaken. The next day the Army wired the big Kansan that they were ready to accept his offer and offered a commission in the Army Reserves.

Not surprisingly Willard who was about to embark on a wild west circus tour for $1000 a week did not appear for induction, instead released a second statement that he had already been rejected by the Army, in Chicago, for being "too big." But the Army chose not to let the matter go and an angry Captain F. R. Kenny, who was in charge of recruitment for the Windy City, assured the press that he had the authority to wave such a restriction and was ready to receive Willard. With the situation now becoming a national embarrassment Big Jess decided to go silent on the matter and went on-tour with the circus (as a celebrity rodeo cowboy,) but the press and public were not about to forget or forgive the ruse.

The following year, spring 1918, (with the war still on) Willard, who had not fought since defending against Frank Moran back in 1916, announced he was ready to defend his title against Fred Fulton, “The Minnesota Plasterer,” but the press and public would have no part of it; no one had forgotten Willard’s bogus grand-standing and a ‘stop the fight until the boys come home’ protest got legs under it.

To add injury to insult, promoter J. C. Miller announced that the big fight would be in Colorado on July 4th, Independence Day. With this announcement, public outcry reached such a fevered pitch that a bill calling for the fight to be stopped actually reached the floor of Congress. But before Congress could act, the Governor of Colorado announced that no such fight would take place in his State, and the fight was off.

A second attempt to make the fight in Fulton’s home State of Minnesota was also thwarted when newspapers began printing 'cut-out / mail-in' ballots for its readers to 'vote for' or 'against the fight.' The ballots were pre-addressed to Governor Burnquist of Minnesota, and when Saint Paul became inundated with 'no votes' the politically minded governor quickly pulled back his offer and the fight was again dead.

It would take the end of the war and almost a years' worth of distance before the public and press would relent and let Willard off the hook, by then Dempsey had dispatched Fulton in 23 seconds and was the new presumptive challenger. Willard-Dempsey then took place July 4th, 1919.

But soon after Dempsey’s victory, newspaper articles began to appear challenging the validity of the new champion’s military deferment; Dempsey, who had claimed his deferment based on being the sole supporter of his mother and siblings would, in 1920, be officially charged and then cleared of draft evasion at trial, but the newspapers were of a different mind. Dempsey, on trial in the newspapers, was found 'guilty' of being a slacker, a label that would follow him the rest of his career.

All this begs an interesting question: would the government or the press have even looked into Dempsey’s military deferment if the Willard debacle had never occur? Did Jack Dempsey get labeled a 'slacker' because of Jess Willard’s very stupid publicity stunt?

How Doc Kearns added gasoline to this fire, with his bogus ‘war effort and leather dress shoes’ photo, is whole another story.