Harry Wills  
Author:  Paul Hindley

Sixth on the countdown of the best fighters never to win a world title comes former heavyweight great Harry Wills. Born in 1889 in New Orleans Harry somewhat unbelievably started his early working career as a jockey. Whilst his size was soon to make this an impractical career choice in the frequent fights the stable lads had to pass the time Harry did discover he could look after himself with his fists. Returning to New Orleans as a 16 year old Harry found work on the notoriously tough docks as a stevedore Harry continued to fight and improve his skills beating all comers including at one point the experienced pro the Congo Kid over 15 rounds.
Deciding to give the pro game a try Harry began working at O’Connells gym in Chicago and turned pro out of there in 1911, after going pretty much unbeaten for the first two years as a pro 1913 was to represent something of a break out year for Harry when he fought back to back fights against the great black fighters Joe Jeannette and Jeff Clark, whilst Harry was considered fortunate to get the draw against Clark who outboxed him all the way he was equally as unlucky not to get the decision against Joe and irrespective of that the fact a two year pro could hold his own in such company spoke highly of his ability and potential.
This potential was confirmed in the following year when Harry took a 10 round decision off the legendary Sam Langford, whilst it would be fair to say Sam perhaps took his lesser known foe a little lightly any win over a near prime Sam Langford is one hell of a result. After some more wins against lesser foes Harry was rematched with Langford and for many a round he looked on the way to repeating his victory only to run into a Langford howitzer in the 14th round which knocked Harry cold. So hard did Sam hit him Harry would maintain to his dying day that no fighter alive hit harder than Langford.
Whilst first Johnson and then Willard showed little in the way of ambition to defend their title against excellent black fighters such as Jeannette, Langford McVea and Wills these fighters were reduced to virtual round robins between themselves and for the next four years Wills found himself matched against these guys at the near exclusion of any others. Importantly though Harry was winning more than he was losing to the point that by 1918 Harry was the clear and accepted number one contender for heavyweight champion Jess Willard’s title. Despite this and chiding in the press to give Harry his shot as we all know that opportunity went to Jack Dempsey who wrenched the title from Willard’s grasp in brutal fashion. If Wills thought this may improve his title chances he was quickly disabused of this notion when the day after his title win Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns announced Dempsey would defend his title against any worthy challenger – as long as they were white!
Despite this Harry did the only thing he could do which was keep winning and his victims in this period included the ageing Langford, Dempsey’s main sparring partner Big Bill Tate and the decent white challenger Fred Fulton, who Harry dispatched in three rounds. Despite the fact Wills was clearly the most qualified challenger to Demspsey’s title Jack’s promoter Tex Rickard had little to no interest in staging the bout having promoted the incendiary Johnson vs Jeffries bout several years earlier. A rival promoter Floyd Fitzsimmons did try to stage the bout and even got both fighters name on a contract but the finances fell through and with them so did the bout.
In 1924 Wills was matched with former Dempsey victim Luis Firpo with the winner promised a shot at Dempsey. Despite winning at a canter the Dempsey fight was not forthcoming and Wills was out of the ring for nearly a year waiting for the elusive and deserved shot. On his return he flattened the over matched Charlie Weinert. Harry was largely inactive around this time, unwilling to risk his number one ranking against too dangerous an opponent. However when Gene Tunney was selected as Dempsey’s next opponent Harry got back in action against the dangerous Jack Sharkey in an attempt to underline his claims for a title shot.
However by fight time the frustration at missing out on a title shot and father time (Harry was nearly 40) found Wills a shell of himself and after 13 foul filled rounds Harry was disqualified and his chances of a world title shot were gone forever. Harry fought on for a little while but a knockout against fringe contender Paulino Uzcudun confirmed what the Sharkey fight had suggested, that Harry was finished.
In an era of great black heavyweights Wills stood out as perhaps the finest, he would almost certainly have beaten the big but limited Willard had he been given the chance and many an expert considers him a genuine threat to the great Jack Dempsey even at Jack’s peak.