Many boxing historians consider Wills the most egregious victim of the “color line” drawn by white heavyweight champions. Wills fought for over twenty years (1911–1932), was ranked as the number one challenger for the throne, but was denied the opportunity to fight for the title. Of all the black contenders between the reigns of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis as world heavyweight champions, Wills came closest to securing a title shot.
In 2003, he was named to the Ring Magazine’s list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.
Wills fought many of the top heavyweights of his era. He defeated Willie Meehan, who had decisioned Jack Dempsey, Gunboat Smith and Charley Weinart at the Polo Grounds in Harlem, New York in 1925. He also fought Luis Firpo in a match that ended in No Decision.
Here’s rare video footage of the Wills Vs Firpo fight:
Wills faced future heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey in 1926, and was being clearly defeated when he was disqualified. The next year, Wills was knocked out by heavyweight contender Paolino Uzcudun in a bout that signalled the end of his career as a title threat. His final record was 75 wins (with 47 knockouts), 9 losses and 2 draws. In 2003, he was named to the Ring Magazine’s list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.
The top black fighters of Wills’ era were forced to continuously fight each other, as many white fighters also drew the “color line”. As a result, Wills fought the redoubtable Sam Langford 22 times. His record against Langford was 6 wins, 2 losses and 14 No Decisions, although the two losses were by knockout. He beat Langford three times for the colored heavyweight title, with Langford winning it back twice. (He was forced to vacate his third title when he fought Jack Sharkey in 1926 and was lost the bout due to a disqualification.) Wills also defeated colored heavyweight champ Sam McVey three times and fought two No Decision bouts with Joe Jeanette.
Wills spent six years (1920–1926) trying to land a title fight with Jack Dempsey
Wills spent six years (1920–1926) trying to land a title fight with Jack Dempsey. Dempsey was willing to fight Wills and contracts for the bout were signed by both fighters. The fight, however, never took place because Dempsey did not receive a $100,000 guarantee from the promoter, after Wills received a $50,000 check, from George Barton’s “My Lifetime in Sports”. Instead, Dempsey met Gene Tunney, and was outpointed.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame’s reason why the two men did not box is different:
…the Govorner of the State of New York canceled the contest fearing that race riots would follow the fight. For compensation, Wills received $50,000 for the cancellation (because ‘Dempsey refused to fight blacks’).
The Dempsey-Tunney match was held in Philadelphia, as the bout could not be held in New York, due to litigation filed by Wills over Dempsey’s breach of contract and the barring of the bout by then New York State Athletic Commissioner James Farley, an early champion of African-American equal rights.
Wills retired from boxing in 1932, and ran a successful real estate business in Harlem, New York. He was known for his yearly fast, in which, once a year, he would subsist on water for a month. Wills admitted that his biggest regret in life was never getting the opportunity to fight Dempsey for the title. Wills was confident that he would have won such a match.
In the 1950 at the age of 63, as the document states, Wills lived and worked in Harlem as a realtor managing apartment buildings.
He died at the age of 68 years of age on December 21, 1958.