Born: November 4, 1921
Died: August 1, 1968
Willis Applegate was born November 4, 1921 in Montclair. Nicknamed Red for his light hair, he was a big, strong all-around athlete. Red used his tremendous upper body to excel in baseball and football for Montclair High School. After graduation, Red worked odd jobs and picked up money playing semipro ball. He enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served in the 92nd Infantry, the only segregated unit to see combat action in Europe. Their exploits were featured in the 2008 Spike Lee film Miracle at St. Anna.
Red was discharged in late 1944. He played semipro ball and played briefly for the Newark Eagles before deciding to give pro boxing a try. He came under the tutelage of former Nutley middleweight Roscoe Manning. Red began his pro career in 1946 with a flurry of victories, including a pair of knockouts followed by three decisions. Following his first loss, he scored a technical knockout over Gus Dorazio in Valley Forge in the spring of 1946. It was the last fight of Dorazio’s career.
In December 1946, Red was slotted into a fight in the Bronx as a substitute against Cleo Everett in a scheduled8-round fight. Everett had just fought an exhibition bout with champion Joe Louis. Red knocked him out in the third round with a left hook. In the spring of 1947, Red defeated Ross Strickland in Newark, and then took the summer off from boxing to play ball. He pitched for the Eagles again. His name does not appear in their official league statistics, but he was mentioned in several game accounts against non-league teams.
In 1948, Red decisioned Billy Fox—a lethal puncher—in Elizabeth. After beating Fox, Red faced Bill Weinberg in the outdoor Queensboro Arena. It was one of the few heavyweight bouts that was delayed by rain. The fight was suspended after three rounds and then continued the next night. Red lost the 10-round decision. Following a loss to Lee Oma in the summer of 1948, Red took a break from boxing to recover from an eye injury. He came back and fought well in Miami, Detroit and Havana but lost all three bouts.
In the spring of 1951, Red stepped into the ring with soon-to-be heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. The pairing was something of a surprise, as Red hadn’t won a fight since 1948 and was on a five-match losing streak. To the astonishment of the fans assembled on that Monday evening at the Rhode Island Auditorium, Red went the full 10 rounds with Rocky, dropping a unanimous decision although he never went down. He is remembered as one of only five fighters to go the distance with the unbeaten legend.
Red’s final victory came over Johnny Haynes in Newark that same summer. The win earned him a shot at the vacant state heavyweight title, against Archie McBride in September. Red lost the fight and suffered a detached retina and never fought again. He lived and worked in Northern New Jersey until his death at age 46 in 1968.