First national sports broadcast: Toledo’s Dempsey-Willard fight celebrates 100 years

J. Patrick Eaken

The first fight to have its result broadcast live nationally over the radio was the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard fight July 4, 1919 in Toledo (Bayview Park). Dempsey and then-World Heavyweight champion Willard met at Toledo for the world title.
        The Dempsey-Willard fight was in a temporary, wooden stadium built for over 100,000 people on the shores of Lake Erie. On July 4, 2019 a 100-year anniversary reenactment of the event, called Toledo’s Day in the Sun, was held at Detwiler Park. Some accounts say that East Toledoan Art Gratop, who was general manager of the Toledo Maroons, a National Football League team in the late 1930s, was part of the promotion.
        Pro lightweight fighter Benny Leonard predicted a victory for the 6-foot-1, 187-pound Dempsey even though Willard, known as the "Pottawatamie Giant", was 6-6½ and 245 pounds. Ultimately, Willard was knocked down seven times by Dempsey in the first round.
        Accounts of the fight reported that Willard suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, several broken teeth, and a number of deep fractures to his facial bones. This aroused suspicion in national media reports that Dempsey had cheated, with some questioning how the force capable of causing such damage had been transmitted through Dempsey's knuckles without fracturing them
        The fight preceded a long history of nationally broadcast fights. First, on June 5, 1915, WGI, at Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, began transmitting, the first true radio station and by 1919 the results of the heavyweight championship available within minutes of the end of the bout.
        On April 11, 1921, the fight between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee was sent out over the airwaves. It was the first live sports event ever broadcast, coming from KDKA radio in Pittsburgh.
        On July 2 of the same year, the fight between Dempsey and Georges Carpentier was broadcast over WJY radio. An estimated 300,000 people listened in as the radio announcer excitedly said, “Seven…eight…nine…ten! Carpentier is out! Jack Dempsey is still the world’s champion!”
        Thirty-plus years later a kid named Cassius Clay, who would become famous as Muhammed Ali, was riding his bicycle home one evening. As he passed a car with its radio playing he was captivated by the voice of the announcer crying out, “…and still heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Marciano!” He said it was then that he decided he wanted to be a champion, too.
        The first television broadcast of a fight was in 1931. It was an exhibition between Mickey Walker and Benny Leonard and was broadcast by the CBS Studios in New York and appeared as a reddish-orange picture about half the size of a standard business card to the handful of people who had sets in New York.
        The first televised championship fight was June 19, 1946, the rematch between Joe Louis and Billy Conn. The first closed circuit fight was Joe LouisLee Savold non-title fight in 1951.
        The Toledo History Museum's Exhibition of the 100th Anniversary of the Willard-Dempsey fight opened on June 13. The museum is located in the heart of downtown Toledo at a storefront in the historic Valentine Building, 425 North St. Clair Street. The Toledo History Museum offers a glimpse into the city’s rich and diverse past. THM offers a wide variety of events throughout the year which include the popular Unholy Toledo tours, lectures, and educational programming for young and old.  THM originally opened its doors to the public in the Milmine-Stewart House in 2011
        Hours are Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. Admission is free and donations are appreciated. To reach the museum, call 419-215-2437.
        (— from a 2004 issue of The Neutral Corner published by the International Boxing Association, from 100-year anniversary reenactment press material, and from historic information about the Dempsey-Willard fight at


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