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Jack Dempsey vs. Jess Willard - Launching Careers of Promoters, Crooks & Cons

Toledo was a place where you could fight a man for money.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the boom town—billed as where the rails and water met—was growing and prosperous. Its location on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie made it a major port, bringing with it the industries that inspired the slogan, “You will do better in Toledo.” The population had swelled from 13,768 in 1860 to 131,822 by the turn of the century, making it briefly the third-largest city in the state, surpassing Columbus, and the 26th-largest city in the country. Toledo’s growth came from immigrants, predominantly from Eastern Europe and Mediterranean countries, to work in the factories (largely with the auto industry; more than a century later, auto and auto parts companies remain major employers) and glassmaking facilities belching smoke into the sky above the city—the price of progress.

It was also a tough town. Reform-minded mayors were unable to stem the tide of slums, crime, and gambling. Toledo would become a center of organized crime and an important stop for bootleggers smuggling whiskey from Canada. “Toledo, Ohio, in the heart of the Midwest, bordering the western shore of Lake Erie and the Michigan line to the north,” Jack Dempsey wrote in his autobiography, “was in those days a haven for prominent gamblers and hustlers who were on the lam.”

In sum, it was the perfect spot for a heavyweight prizefight. So, in 1919, when Dempsey, then a hungry challenger who’d made his name as a brawler in mining camps out west, took on champion Jess Willard, a giant of a man and an early “Great White Hope,” Toledo was chosen for its ease of access as much as for its moral flexibility.


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