How Hot Was It?

Back in the good old days, when there were few television channels and Johnny Carson ruled late night, he would prompt his Tonight Show audience to ask him open-ended questions, such as: how hot was it? (Answer: It was so hot that he saw a robin dipping his worm in Nestea; saw a pigeon walking in the shadow of Orson Welles; and heard Burger King saying, "If you want it your way, cook it yourself.")

“How hot was it?” is a question with some relevance to heavyweight history, since, especially in the title’s early days, major events were held outdoors in the peak of summer, and the mercury reading was often a factor. It was said to be over 100 degrees in Richburg, Mississippi, on July 8, 1889, when John L. Sullivan fought Jake Kilrain, and in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, when Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries in the first Battle of the Century. On July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, Jack Dempsey all but murdered poor Jess Willard in a blazing heat that, at ringside, reached 110 degrees, according to the New York Times. Men got the seats of their pants stuck on the pine-board seating, which was oozing sap, and the concessions went bust, since the ice cream melted and the soggy sandwiches found few takers. All anyone really wanted was water.

The heat plays a key role in another Jack Johnson bout: on April 5, 1915, in Havana, he lost his title against Willard by knockout in the 26th round—the longest modern heavyweight championship fight. Because of its historic result, its setting, and the speculation that persists in some quarters (not here) as to whether Johnson lost on purpose, it is one of boxing’s legendary episodes.

The contest was scheduled for an unimaginable 45 rounds. Johnson, past his peak at 37, made a critical error in agreeing to such a punishing distance. He was by far the superior boxer to Willard, and he dominated the action. Over 15 or even 20 rounds, he would have won easily. But since he had no real plan for going 45 rounds, Johnson had to find some way to knock Willard out, and he had never been a devastating knockout puncher, while Willard proved to have a sturdy chin. Try as he did, Johnson could not put him away. As Johnson tired, Willard came on, until, in the 26th, crossing a right to the champion’s jaw, he knocked Johnson out.

It has been said ever since that another factor in Johnson’s demise was the heat of the day: in many accounts, including that of Geoffrey Ward in Unforgivable Blackness and yours truly in The Boxing Kings, the temperature is given as 105 degrees at the opening bell. Though battling for 26 rounds would be exhausting in any case, undergoing such a trial in those conditions would be even more grueling. The famous image of Johnson being counted out while shielding his eyes from the Havana sun—the photo that Johnson pointed to in claiming, years later, that he had thrown the match—also suggests a sultry day. Willard himself later said that “it was hotter than hell down there.” (Johnson's two other major biographers, Randy Roberts and Finis Farr, don't give specifics, but Roberts describes the day as "hot and still," and Farr notes "a blistering sun.")

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There is only one problem: it appears that these long-passed-down accounts of the heat in Havana that day, including mine, are wrong. Arly Allen, in his recent biography of Jess Willard, matter-of-factly states that the temperature may have reached 70 by the end of the fight. He cites multiple sources, including the National Police Gazette, which describes how “overcoats were in evidence” amid a “chilly wind,” and sportswriter Frank G. Menke’s story for the Kansas City Post, in which he describes the day as “partly cloudy and cool.” Allen’s trump card, though, is The Havana Daily Post, which, on April 6, 1915, recorded the previous day’s weather: high temperature, 70.7 degrees; low, 59, with a 20-mph northerly wind. It’s hard to think of a more authoritative source for the weather in Havana on April 5 than a Havana newspaper from April 6. (On the film, we can see many spectators in jackets, which would suggest that it wasn't torridly hot, in contrast with, say, the Dempsey-Willard film, where most of the men appear to be in shirtsleeves, though some keep their jackets on. I wouldn't put too much stock in what people wore, though, since this was a much more formal age. Look at all the jackets at the Sullivan-Kilrain fight in 1889, in what was described as furnace-like conditions. Propriety trumped comfort in those bygone days.)

The 105-degree figure seems to have originated with Damon Runyon, who covered Johnson vs. Willard for the Baltimore American, and whose dispatch Ward cites. I haven’t found the original, but it’s striking to me how Ward paraphrases it. “By one o’clock,” Ward writes, “when the contest was scheduled to begin, the ringside temperature would be nearing 105 degrees, Runyon reported.” It’s odd that Ward doesn’t quote Runyon verbatim; “would be nearing” are Ward’s words, not Runyon’s. The phrase sounds like the provisional language someone might use who is writing his column (or part of his column) before the event, as reporters sometimes did; they might try to do some scene-setting beforehand so that they had a framework in place when it came time to describe the actual event. But even if this is what Runyon was doing, where did he get the idea that it would be so hot? (Was he really in Havana?) Runyon was a famous raconteur and spinner of tales (including Guys and Dolls); his newspaper writing was known for its flair and color (he dubbed Dempsey the Manassa Mauler and James J. Braddock the Cinderella Man). Perhaps he took liberties for dramatic effect. He was writing, after all, in a time when hyperbole was like mother’s milk to newspapermen, and exaggerations much harder to falsify than they are for readers today, with all of our technological tools. Unless they were in Havana themselves, readers back then would have had little reason to question what Runyon told them.

Or maybe Runyon just felt so hot, standing out there under the Havana sun (though it shone intermittently), that he genuinely thought it was 105 degrees. There’s no question that, in southern climes, the sun can make it feel hotter than it might be. A 70-degree sun in Havana feels hotter, for example, than a 70-degree sun in New York. But 35 degrees hotter?    

In the great scheme of things, of course, it doesn’t matter much how hot it was in Havana that day: in any climate, Willard was bound to cut down Johnson over such a marathon distance. But in this, as in all history, accurate details matter, because they give us the only reliable picture we can assemble of events long ago. When a fact or detail is wrong, it raises questions about what else might be wrong in the versions that have been handed down to us. Recreating the Johnson-Willard event in one’s mind, this time in mild air as opposed to scorching heat, no key facts change—and yet, it’s not quite the same, is it?  

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