Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson (New York – 10/29/09): “I have been chasing (James) Jeffries across the continent for months. It seems to me to be the old case of Tommy Burns over again. I have to trail people to get them into matches. It is a fact that when traveling had to be done with a view of settling this match, I was the one who has had to go on the journey. I have traveled across the continent from California, just to get Jeffries into a match, and I am the Champion…. Sometimes, I am almost compelled to think that Jeffries is bluffing when he talks of re-entering the ring.”
Through 1907, the Black heavyweight Champion had defeated all of the major Black contenders. Jack Johnson had defeated Joe Jeanette, Sam Langford and Sam McVey. He had defeated an earlier group of Black pugilist greats in Denver Ed Martin and Frank Childs. It would be a year campaign of chasing White heavyweight Champion, Tommy Burns, around the world until he taunted his way into a unified heavyweight championship bout. Johnson accepted that Burns was the recognized Champion, and that the challenger chases the Champion. Johnson accepted the unfair terms of receiving $5,000 versus $30,000 for Burns as the price of being an ambitious opponent. But he was not as pleased, as the official “Champion”, to be on the chase again.
James Jeffries was a star. An appearance by the former White heavyweight Champion was sure to bring thousands of spectators to merely observe and gasp. It had not always been that respectful. Jeffries was not a popular Champion. His opponents seemed to gain the upper hand in fan interest and respect. The same words followed Jeffries through each victory: “Dumb”, “slow” and “clumsy”. There appeared to be no ‘science’ to his approach. Brute physical strength and endurance appeared to overpower ‘thinking’ pugilists. But the man retired as an undefeated Champion who had never been knocked off his feet. Those that followed: Jack Root, Marvin Hart, Tommy Burns seemed so small and ordinary. Jeffries began to be embraced with nostalgia of how a ‘real’ Champion should appear. Most sporting fans did not believe that Root, Hart, Burns or anyone could defeat the retired giant. The victorious loud-mouthed Black Champion triggered an emotional storm. Many believed that only one man alive could defeat Johnson and it was the retired Goliath.
The idea of a “Fight Of The Century” had been in the works for 20 years. The prejudice, though, would have promoters idealize a certain personality within the Black pugilist to make him accepted by the White public. Jack Johnson would be the opposite of that idealized Black personality. Parson Davies, from Chicago, had made it his mission to offer a Black pugilist the opportunity to fight for the unified title. Davies knew the prototype for his ‘experiment’ that would be worth major money. He wanted a Black pugilist that the sporting world respected, of a quiet and workmanlike nature, humble outside the ring that would win when the opportunity occurred.
John L. Sullivan was a larger than life celebrity even as he held the White heavyweight Champion title. He was proud of his Bostonian roots. George Godfrey, from Prince Edward Island, fought through Boston until an 1883 knockout of Professor Hadley (officiated by Sullivan) had him crowned as Colored Champion. Sullivan and Godfrey nearly battled twice. The first confrontation, before Sullivan was Champion, was stopped by Boston police. Godfrey was offered the opportunity to fight the White Champion, Sullivan, and unify the title. Godfrey delayed and asked for more time to prepare. By this time alcohol would create a monster out of Sullivan. Drunken brawls were common, along with arrests, lack of conditioning and a foul-mouthed racist tongue. Sullivan declared that he would never fight a Black Champion for the title. The popular Godfrey offered credibility, so when he lost his title to Peter Jackson in 1888, with the parting words: “I lost to the greatest boxer in the world,” it fueled a desire for a Black Champion to fight for a unified title. Parson Davies took over as manager and promoter of Jackson. For 2 years, 1890-91, they chased John L. Sullivan throughout America to force a fight. They came close. Sullivan was mortified and angered by the unwanted attention and pressure to prove that he could defeat Jackson. Alcohol had made an old man of Sullivan, so that by the time that he lost his title, by knockout loss to James Corbett, he was an embittered and suicidal personal mess. Parson Davies signed Jackson to fight Corbett for the title. They had fought once before to a dull 4 hour, 61 round Draw. But Corbett did not honor his commitment to fight Jackson as Champion. Corbett fought only 2+ rounds in 4 years. Corbett retired as an undefeated Champion, but his hand picked Irish successors, Steve O’Donnell and Peter Maher, could not hold the title for long. Maher knocked out O’Donnell in 1 round. Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Maher in 1 round. Corbett returned to the ring, only to offer credibility to brawler/cheater, Tom Sharkey, with an ugly 4 round Draw. Sharkey was able to propel this into a Championship opportunity to fight Fitzsimmons. It would be a rigged fight. The scandal would place the heavyweight title in disarray. No one would recognize the cheating pugilist, who was aided by referee, Wyatt Earp, as Champion. It set the stage for a dramatic showdown between Fitzsimmons and Corbett. Fitzsimmons won the heavyweight title for the 2nd time with a 14th round knockout. Fitzsimmons would have been willing to fight a Black man for the title. But he toured vaudeville and would not fight. Meanwhile, the time was passing for Peter Jackson. Parson Davies had not abandoned his plan for a unified title. Davies basically gave up on Jackson for a larger, younger Chicago pugilist, Bob Armstrong. New York did not like or accept the amiable, 6’3 muscled Goliath. They did not like that Armstrong was ‘scientific’, or at least patient, as he relied on a reach advantage with left jab to tire an opponent. Still, the process for a unified title was in place. Armstrong received publicity as the “Black Champion”, with Parson Davies as manager/promoter. The dream died, in shocking manner, on January 29th, 1898. On that icy Chicago day, the substitute sparring partner, Frank Childs (paid only $20) landed a 2nd round blow to the jaw. Armstrong could not rise, even with referee George Siler unfairly offering extra seconds to recuperate. After 10 years of thoughtful planning and effort, the Parson Davies unified title dream was abruptly over. James Jeffries battered and knocked out Champion Bob Fitzsimmons and then refused to fight a Black pugilist for the title.
March, 1901, found Jack Johnson and Joe Choynski as cellmates in Galveston, Texas. Choynski was a skinny, intelligent 5’10, 175 pound pugilist. It is likely that he was the first pugilist to read a book on boxing theory. His father was an eccentric publisher, proud of his Jewish ancestry, that idolized the bare knuckle great, Daniel Mendoza. The 1789 book “The Art of Boxing” by Mendoza was his favorite. Ibraham Choynski encouraged his son with the seemingly preposterous dream that he could defeat the undefeated Champion, John L. Sullivan. It never quite worked out. Choynski was a popular pugilist, with both San Francisco and New York fans, a fight promoter’s dream, who was a single victory from an opportunity to fight for the title against Champion Fitzsimmons, but a shocking knockout loss to Peter Maher ended that opportunity. This placed Tom Sharkey in position to fight Fitzsimmons instead which would bring chaos and scandal. Choynski still held a piece of 20th century fame as the man who gave the undefeated Champion, Jeffries, his greatest challenge with a wild 20 round Draw. Jeffries claimed to have been hit harder by Choynski than anyone else. Jack Johnson discovered this himself as the victim of a 3rd round knockout. The Choynski method was a lanky long left arm that popped jab after jab after jab into an opponent’s face. The jabs were unpredictable as they appeared to curve and land at different angles. It was the only way that Choynski could stand against larger men. Choynski was an unusual pugilist, because he fought more traditional, with less success, against pugilists of his own weight, but was highly successful with his left jab, left jab, left jab approach against aggressively larger heavyweights. The frustrated, larger heavyweight would forget about the ‘right’ and would pay for that mistake. The ambush right wobbled Jeffries in the 16th round of their fight. His teeth were imbedded into his lip with the pain so acute that he could not continue. A knife was produced between rounds with two teeth cut out. Spectators wildly cheered the underdog Choynski and his defensive tactics. Spectators booed the Draw decision, and the San Francisco Chronicle felt Choynksi deserved a close victory. The referee/judge stated that Jeffries scored the only 2 knockdowns, both early rounds, and was the more aggressive pugilist. The ambush Choynski right, after a series of left jabs, wobbled a frustrated and surprised Johnson, who desperately hoped to clinch the Jewish pugilist, but instead fell to the ground and could not rise for the ’10’ count. Both Johnson and Choynksi were arrested on the spot for engaging in an illegal prizefight. As cellmates, Choynski, explained to Johnson that he should be more patient and dictate the pace through defense. Johnson would later state that the knockout loss was the best thing to happen for him as a pugilist.
Negotiations for the Johnson/Jeffries “Fight Of The Century” were handled in December, 1909, by Jeffries manager, Sam Burger, (1904 Olympic boxing Champion) and Jack Johnson. It is rare for a pugilist to negotiate their own contract. Berger wanted no set money mentioned, and insisted it would be a sparring exhibition, with Jack Johnson against the ‘recognized’ heavyweight Champion (Jeffries). Johnson insisted there was only one Champion of 1909 and it was him. Johnson insisted the contest be called a ‘fight’, which is interesting, because he would know that would make the encounter illegal almost everywhere in America.
The final obstacle was the money. It was clear that any real money would come from movies. For Jeffries, in particular, an early round knockout victory, if percentages were involved, could make him $500,000. The Champion Johnson was in a strange dilemma. He stood to make more short term money with a loss than a victory. A loss would guarantee a percentage of the highest grossing film in the world. A victory risked the entire film not being shown or distributed. Nonetheless, the money signed for Johnson/Jeffries was to be $101,000 and 2/3 of the movie revenue. The fight would be held in either Salt Lake City or near San Francisco on the 4th of July. Utah was eventually ruled out when the Governor threatened arrests. John J. Gleason, who won the promoter bid, along with Tex Rickard, was the kingpin of holding illegal bouts for years in San Francisco with local law enforcement approval. Gleason successfully placed the bout in Northern California (Emeryville). The Fight Of The Century was now a reality.
April 2nd…. Co-promoter, John J. Gleason: “There is no way of telling or estimating the value of the moving pictures. Of course, the general public wants to see Jeffries win. They will pay generously to see the pictures of the contest…. Of course, I think the fight’s going to be one of the greatest spectacles ever pulled off in the United States or anywhere else for that matter. You expect me to say that, and it sounds perfunctory or obvious that I should. But really, way down in my heart, I know that the Jeffries-Johnson fight will be talked about long after we’re all dead.”
April 17th…. James Jeffries turns 34 years old. Jack Johnson sends him a friendly telegram from Chicago. The ’34’ is a significant number for the next major player in this historical drama. He was 34 years old when he lost the heavyweight Championship. Signed on as a special correspondent for the New York Times was John L. Sullivan. Emotional drama has a way of attaching itself to Sullivan. His life was a bipolar mixture of mania and severe depression. It would be his addiction to whiskey that destroyed his life. The new assignment, which allowed him to break from the mundane vaudeville tours with Jake Kilrain, gave him hope of a new life as a respected, distinguished, elderly statesman. He was ‘on the wagon’ of his alcohol recovery, which would ultimately be successful and within a year would be become the most unlikely, famous, temperance lecturer in America. Sullivan had mused about the ’34 age factor’ and that this would likely be a problem for Jeffries. It would make Sullivan persona-non-grata with Jeffries. It led to the absurd accusation rumor that Sullivan had disrespected the undefeated former Champion and was favoring the Black man.
John L. Sullivan, one year earlier, Arizona Gazette: “A White man has nothing to gain by swapping punches with a Negro. I have twice been almost goaded into meeting the Colored brother, but I took a second think in time. A club in San Francisco hung up a fortune for me to meet Peter Jackson. There was $20,000 in it, and nobody ever questioned my ability to win it. But I ducked. I was stampeded from one end of the country to the other in an attempt to stampede me into that fight. I was so angry, enough to throw principle to the wind and give Jackson his. Another time I almost came to a set with George Godfrey, but I am glad to say I didn’t.”
April 30th…. (San Francisco) An overhand right lands by Englishman, Owen Moran, to the jaw of local lightweight, Tommy McCarthy, sends the latter hard to the ground. McCarthy is taken to Saint Mary’s hospital. Moran and 5 others are arrested for engaging in an illegal prizefight. Oakland Tribune: “After the 16th round had gone some 50 seconds, Moran landed a blow on McCarthy’s jaw. It did not look to be a heavy punch, but the young fighter went over backward, his head, seemingly, dropping below, as though his neck had been injured, and as he struck the floor the sound of the impact could be heard throughout the Pavilion.” McCarthy died from head trauma early the next morning. Moran, still incarcerated, became emotional and began telling quite a story. Moran claims that McCarthy should not have been allowed to fight in the first place. Moran claims that it was a ‘fixed’ fight, a ruse to defraud gamblers, and that he was a participant. Moran claims that he had intentionally allowed McCarthy to survive through 15 rounds as a part of the fraud. James Jeffries: “I presume it was one of those unfortunate accidents that could not be avoided. A thing like that is likely to occur in most any line of sport. Nevertheless, it’s a mighty tough thing for a family to lose a lad of McCarthy’s age.” Jack Johnson was to participate in a sparring session that night. Johnson was informed of McCarthy’s death, conferred with Tex Rickard, with the decision being made to postpone.
May 6th…. Doctor Hill of the Methodist Minister Association, gathers 200 ministers, as they descend onto San Francisco in order to protest and halt the Johnson/Jeffries bout. They threaten to gather more Christians with the promise to disrupt the bout through chants, hymns and prayer. Doctor Hill: “The churches should unite to stop this orgy. They should seize upon the opportunity for Christian work. The powers of good must be marshaled against the powers of evil.”
May 10th…. California Governor, James N. Gillet: “So far as I can see it is not up to me to do anything. We have a law which prohibits prizefights, but it contains a clause which permits duly organized athletic clubs to hold boxing matches…. Neither the Prosecuting Attorney nor I can do anything at all to stop it solely because those clergymen want us to.” San Francisco Mayor, P.H. McCarthy: “No one has shown it’s a prizefight. What are you going to do about it, then? Hold it, that’s all.”
May 24th…. San Francisco City Supervisor, John L. Herget: “Jeffries has never been in a fight in his life.”
Reverend William Rader: “I think that you will find that our objection to this prizefight business is really more serious than you admit.”
Supervisor Herget: “Reverend, I must object to your saying that we are going to grant a permit for a prizefight. This is merely a boxing exhibition.”
Reverend Rader: “Is Jeffries a prizefighter or a boxer?”
Supervisor Herget: “A boxer.”
Reverend Rader: “Then he is not a fighter at all?”
Supervisor Herget: “Not in my opinion.”
Reverend Rader: “And he has never fought?”
Supervisor Herget: “He’s contested.”
June 15th…. As long as the ministers threatened to disrupt the Johnson/Jeffries bout through prayer, hymns and moral condemnation, the greater legislative power of Northern California was willing to tolerate and mock their religious presence. These ministers were underestimated. They moved their fight through national political channels and found an ally with a New York House Representative. Governor Gillet had fought hard to receive the winning bid for the Panamanian Exposition World’s Fair of 1915. With the vote only days away it had come down to San Francisco and New Orleans. Governor Gillet was shocked when he was informed by the San Francisco President Board of Trade of the following telegram received. William Stiles Bennett of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: “Please urge upon your committee that the public spirited citizens promoting the San Francisco Exposition and the people generally interested therein, are not favorable to the Jeffries/Johnson fight. Undoubtedly the preponderating majority of our people are opposed to the fight. It would be decidedly unjust to consider the latter proposition in connection with the former.”
June 16th…. Governor Gillet’s letter to the State Attorney General: “The question arises, what is a prizefight and what is a ‘sparring exhibition’? The former is a crime, the latter is lawful. It is claimed by many that the contest between Jeffries and Johnson is to be a prizefight, as that term is understood in the law, and therefore a crime under our statutes…. In my opinion a prizefight exists when there is an expectation of reward to be gained by the contest – coupled with an intent to inflict upon such contestant some degree of bodily harm…. (Tommy) McCarthy died…. Such contests are prizefights not permitted by law and should be punished as such. Those who engage in them are prizefighters and make their living by fighting each other for prizes or rewards…. If the contest is carried out as advertised and the parties fight for a purse or for a reward, and inflict upon each other bodily injury, then you are to cause the arrest of the principals and those interested with them in promoting the fight and try them on a felony charge for violating section 412 of the penal code.”
June 17th…. San Francisco Mayor McCarthy: “I am running San Francisco. I am taking no orders from Gillet or his Attorney General. You can bet your last dollar that the big fight will be pulled off in my town, just as advertised…. We know what we want, and we get what we want when we want it…. The best bet of the day is that somebody will be badly licked in San Francisco on July 4, and that his name will either be Jeffries or Johnson.”
June 18th…. The national spotlight falls on the scheduled bout tonight between Sam Langford and Al Kaufman. Governor Gillet has made it known that this bout will be viewed as a ‘prizefight’, as both contestants were being paid, and that they would be committing an illegal felony act. This bout has less to do with Langford/Kaufman than Johnson/Jeffries. Mayor McCarthy remains defiant as he publicly insists that San Francisco police do what he tells them, and that they are not arresting anyone. Governor Gillet insists that the California State Militia will supersede and arrest everyone involved. Tex Rickard has already spent $30,000, built a venue and heavily promoted the most important bout in boxing history. He insists that Langford/Kaufman move forward and dare the Governor to back his promise of mass arrests. Promoter Louis Blot is the man on the line. He realizes that his bout has State and National political forces determined to prevent Johnson/Jeffries. The stage has been set for this showdown. The law would come down hard on Blot to send a message to Tex Rickard and others. Blot cancels the Langford/Kaufman bout.
James Jeffries: “Do they call it religion to allow a man to risk his every penny on a business proposition only to grab his game at the 11th hour? If they do, I’m afraid the definition of the word has changed considerably since my Daddy used to teach it to me. It may be that our fight is not absolutely out of San Francisco. I believe in hoping. However, I cannot help expressing my disgust at the course of the Governor.”
June 20th…. John L. Sullivan (San Francisco): “The enthusiasm of the crowd, which gathered around our automobile this morning took me back 27 years ago, when I came here to fight their Champion, (James) Robinson. Market Street that day was strewn with flowers for me to walk through, and it was too bad I had to ‘lick’ Robinson, but that is one of the fortunes of war. It is without a doubt a foregone conclusion that the contest between Jeffries and Johnson will not be held in San Francisco, as the governor has positively stated that he will not tolerate a prizefight…. Teams are carting away lumber of the half-finished arena at 8th and Market Streets, and the fighters, trainers have all packed up their paraphernalia and about to start for Nevada.” Sullivan addresses another rumor, that will not go away, that he either favors the Black Champion or predicts his victory. Sullivan vehemently denies both claims: “I have always had one motto, and that was from the beginning of my career and will be until the time comes for me to take the long sleep from which none of us awake, and that motto is: ‘May the best man win’.”
June 21st…. John L. Sullivan visits the Champion’s training session: “We went into Johnson’s room first, saw him strip, and prepare for the general routine of work that he has been doing for the past couple of weeks. We then went into the gymnasium and saw Johnson punch the bag for 15 minutes or thereabouts. He gave a clever exhibition and wound up by knocking the ball from its fastenings out into the hall. After this he donned the gloves for a 4 round set-to with Al Kaufman, giving a fair display of his prowess, and after finishing with Kaufman he sparred 4 rounds with George Cotton, which consisted chiefly of roughing and clinching one another backward and forward around the ring, evidently to test his lung power in that direction, as well as to test the strength of his arms…. This is the 1st time that I have ever seen the husky Black, and to say that he has impressed me favorably would be hardly expressing my meaning. He is a big, husky piece of humanity…. (Johnson) went at his work with an alacrity that was really surprising, in view of the 12 mile plug (jog) on the road earlier in the day…. What surprised me more than anything else in Johnson’s work in the ring was his stealthy method of action. He seemed a good bit like Fitzsimmons in this respect. Apparently, he does not move around on his feet, and he gives the impression unless you watch him closely that he is not judging distance at all. But when his opponent gets within the proper range a short straddle or slight advance forward as the glove goes out and then you can see that he has judged his distance to a nicety.”
Tex Rickard public telegram: “I have decided to hold the Jeffries/Johnson fight in Reno, Nevada…. The Reno people have done all they could. They will build a suitable arena and pay for the $1,000 license for me.”
June 22nd…. It is quite a final 24 hours for the Champion in San Franciso. Johnson ends his historic relationship with manager, George Little, and is arrested on a felony charge of resisting arrest. Johnson is in a hurry to gather his belongings as he prepares for Reno. A white police officer on horseback flags Johnson on a speeding violation. Johnson shouts: “On your way, Boy,” and floors his automobile to 50 miles per hour as he leaves the officer behind. The officer gathers back-up and they locate Johnson at his residence. The 3 officers inform Johnson that he is under arrest. The Champion tells them he hasn’t time to be arrested and won’t go with them. A minor scuffle occurs, before Johnson surrenders himself. Both he and Sig Hart are arrested on felony charges. Chief of Police, Martin, pressures the arresting officer to reduce the charge to a traffic violation. Johnson is ordered to post $50 and return to court the following day. Johnson promises, but instead ignores his court appearance while he hangs out with the Sergeant in charge of those horseback officers. The Champion officially severs his managerial contract with George Little for $16,500. Little deserves much credit for assisting Johnson in landing the bout with Champion Tommy Burns, securing a White versus Black heavyweight title bout where others failed, but had been pushed aside with business decisions by Johnson for the Jeffries confrontation.
June 23rd…. Sullivan had had been so full of glee. He was already calling the upcoming battle, between the Champions of two races, the most important in boxing history. He loves his current assignment as the reporter from the training camps. His literary aspirations are excited as he foresees a future book based on the outcome of this bout. Sullivan arrives at the Jeffries camp for the first time. He is disappointed that Jeffries is not there to greet him. The next voice informs him that he is not welcome at the training grounds. James Corbett: “Jeffries told me that if you came here he didn’t want to see you.” Sullivan: “Why would Jeffries say anything of the sort?” Corbett: “Because you knocked the fight and said it was going to be fake.” Sullivan: “I never said any such thing.” The back and forth verbal exchange continues with Corbett behaving increasingly hostile. The John L. Sullivan of the past would have been intoxicated and likely managed to get himself arrested for assault. But this is an older, married, more responsible Sullivan. His despondency leaked into his writing. Sullivan: “I am too old a man and too experienced in the ways of sporting events of this sort to prolong a confrontation that Corbett seemed bent on, and rather than create more disagreeable features to a regrettable occasion, I had my brief say and walked away.”
June 24th…. Champion Johnson arrives in Reno with his own cart attached to the railroad. A large crowd greets him enthusiastically. Johnson smiles and waves as he attempts to reach his destination by foot. He is polite but hurried. John L. Sullivan: “Johnson, with his great height and his good-natured smile, loomed up in the center of the bunch, and seemed to regard the whole proceeding as a big joke…. Johnson’s stay here was very brief, and had scarcely more time than to put his name on the hotel register before he was off and on his way to the training quarters.” James Jeffries spent his training day sparring with Bob Armstrong. Jeffries moved around quite a bit and was aggressive with his physical training. But he was not exchanging punches. Both Corbett and Choynski wish that Jeffries would box more.
June 25th…. John L. Sullivan, with the Corbett confrontation, has managed to upstage the anticipated bout. The Jeffries camp had been surly, and increasingly isolated, but find themselves portrayed with negative coverage. They sent a messenger by car to find and fetch Sullivan. The first to greet the Boston Strongboy with an outstretched hand is Corbett. William Muldoon, the long time friend and trainer of Sullivan, is the one to play peace maker. It is to the benefit of all sides. Muldoon, Corbett, Sullivan are accompanied by Joe Choynski as they reach the rub down room. Jeffries halts the massage to shake hands and apologize. The 3 former heavyweight Champions trade jokes and stories for a bit. Muldoon is pleased that his mission has been accomplished. Choynski, more openly demonstrable than the others, offers all involved a hug. Sullivan admits that he has referred to the Champion Johnson as: “A handsome piece of humanity stripped,” but that he was favoring neither pugilist. The Jeffries camp was likely a bit disappointed. They had hoped that Sullivan would openly favor their fighter. But all is forgiven, supposedly, at least on a surface level.
Of greater concern should be the training habits of the two pugilists. Jeffries is not really listening to either Corbett or Choynski. Jeffries’ training day, by his own design, relied on a short run, followed by shadow boxing solo, wrestling with Farmer Burns to build endurance, and then fishing. Jack Johnson is training through sparring bouts that are fairly rigorous. The Champion boxes Al Kaufman, George Cotton and Dave Mills. A large crowd had formed to watch Johnson spar and were not disappointed. John L. Sullivan: “They worked pretty hard on (Johnson) and rather viciously at times. But Johnson was always under a pull. His arm work was fine, and he demonstrated today how difficult it is, even though he is standing upright, to reach his body.”
June 26th…. The difference between the pugilist camps is startling. Not so much on the Johnson side. The Champion is comfortable with the crowds and spectator excitement. He trains so much harder at this point. For Reno citizens this is the most exciting event to ever fall into their region. Taxi rides to either camp is $5. Neither pugilist charges admission to watch them train. For locals that are poorer either camp is accessible by a several mile walk. Jeffries would have gathered the larger crowds at the beginning. But the crowds would become more even as time passes. Much of this would have less to do with race, or even fan favorites, as much as one camp offered a smile and a fun show, while the other camp might offer the somber privilege of viewing the pugilist’s back while watching shadow boxing by himself.
For those that attended the Jeffries training camp today the highlight was squeezing near a fence to watch John L. Sullivan and Jeffries sit and chat on a lawn. Eventually, the training climaxed not with sparring, but a baseball game. The highlights were Bob Armstrong at 1st base who attempted to engage and entertain the spectators. Corbett was brought out to pitch, which gave spectators something to cheer, but was battered about by Jeffries and others.
For those that attended the Johnson training camp today the highlight was an unplanned sparring exhibition. Jeffries spent his morning training session fishing. Johnson spent his morning training session punching a large bag, followed by shadow boxing alone, followed by a rigorous workout with a medicine ball. Jeffries spent his afternoon training session involved in a sit down talk with John L. Sullivan and then a baseball game. Johnson spent his afternoon training session by sparring 7 rounds with Al Kaufman and Walter Donohan. Taxi driven spectators paid $5 to watch the back of James Jeffries as he sat on the lawn and spoke with a legend. Taxi driven spectators paid $5 to hear the Champion Johnson announce that a crowd should be entertained as he spontaneously announced for two of his sparring partners to lace their gloves. The 3 rounds with Kaufman has him clinching, wrestling, body punching mimicking the sort of tactics that they believe Jeffries would utilize. The 4 rounds with Donahan feature much of the same, but as the sparring exhibition nears end, for both the sake of spectators and himself, Johnson cuts loose and encourages his sparring partner to throw harder punches.
June 28th…. James Jeffries’ training day was filled with rigorous exercise. Jeffries jogged approximately four miles. There was a limp to his step upon completion. He received a 25 minute massage. Then he began a sparring exhibition with Governor Dickenson in attendance. John L. Sullivan: “(Jeffries) went through some boxing and wrestling stunts, more to please the Governor than for any real exercise.” Jeffries then went fishing to relax his mind and muscles.
Jack Johnson held a more vigorous sparring session. Johnson sparred with Al Kaufman for 4 rounds. Johnson sparred with Dave Mills for 2 rounds. Johnson sparred with Walter Donohan for 2 rounds. Johnson scored a knockout of George Cotton in the 4th round of their exhibition. John L. Sullivan: “Cotton and Johnson went at it for keeps right at the start. Cotton caught the Champion a peach on the side of the head in the 2nd round. Then they tore all through each other in the 3rd round. In the 4th Johnson let up a bit and Cotton kept boring in. He came with a rush once and Johnson let him into a clinch. The Champion’s right hand shot upward, in close, and Cotton went down. He hung to the ropes, and then wilted completely.”
June 29th…. James Jeffries: “I have trained for a long fight, but just the same I am going to try and finish it up quickly. I think that I can get Johnson in one of the very early rounds, and the sooner I see the opportunity the quicker I am going to take it.” Sullivan is noticing a stark difference between the two camps. He remembers his own tenseness before an important bout. He sees this with the Jeffries camp. They are not only tense, but downright rude and inhospitable. The contrast could not be greater with the Johnson camp. Everyone is relaxed and friendly.
June 30th…. Jack Johnson spends an hour exercising before another 8 grueling rounds of sparring. Johnson spars Al Kaufman for 4 rounds. Johnson spars George Cotton for 4 rounds. During the 4th round Cotton accidentally head butts Johnson. The Champion has a split lip which bleeds profusely. Whether enraged or engaged Johnson attacks Cotton with aggressive punches. Professor Burns steps in and halts the exhibition….. Jeffries appears overweight and unconcerned about losing more pounds. He gives himself the day off without further training. He spends the day fishing.
July 1st…. Jack Johnson speaks to his friend, Billy McCarney: “I might as well be a dead nigger as a defeated one. I have gone along pretty well in the past few years, and I have about $100,000 cleaned up. I have a good insurance policy, and I have looked out for my Mother pretty good. She is the only one that I care for in this world, anyhow. I know there are lots of people who are jealous of me, owing to the way I have come up, and I have raised as much rumpus as anybody doing it.”
July 2nd…. A brief interview between a legendary Champion and the current title holder. Sullivan: “How do you feel, Jack?” Johnson: “Captain John, I never felt better in my life. If I felt any better I would be afraid of myself.” Sullivan: “Jack, don’t you feel just the least bit anxious and nervous hearing all this talk about Jeff’s wonderful condition and how they are going to dig his fists out of you when he lands those awful wallops?” Johnson: “Do you know that I don’t feel as much anxiety over this fight as I did just before the Burns fight in Australia. Understand, I wasn’t a bit afraid of Burns, but I wasn’t treated very well over there by the general public…. I was not among my friends and I tell you that I felt a bit lonesome. But this fight is different. I have got lots of friends here and people whom I really know want to see me win.”
July 3rd…. For the final time, John L. Sullivan, enters both pugilist camps. The atmosphere remains unchanged. An unfriendly terseness pervades the Jeffries team. The undefeated heavyweight challenger possesses his usual quiet, moody temperament. Sullivan must wait until Jeffries has time to speak. Their final exchange leaves Sullivan depressed though he writes: “I shook hands with Jeff, and there was a lump in my throat as I asked God to bless him and, if he was the better man, let him win.”
Sullivan visits the Champion’s camp for mental health reassurance. Sullivan tells Johnson’s new manager, Tom Flanagan, that he is depressed and hopes Johnson can cheer him. As usual, the Johnson camp stops activity out of respect for Sullivan. The legend had always been emotional the day before a bout, and even though he is not a participant, the same sort of mood swings appear to haunt him. Jack Johnson is smiling and relaxed. Sullivan asks the Champion how this is possible? Johnson reminds Sullivan of the 1880’s, and those Championship bouts that he trained with Muldoon, and agreed their training techniques were superior. (Johnson was being kind, because Sullivan may deserve his legendary status but poorly trained for many of his bouts.) Johnson’s pep talk, the kind Sullivan liked best, about the good old days, has the desired effect. Sullivan feels better. Johnson smiles: “You just watch me tomorrow, Captain John, and if you don’t say after it is all over that I am the greatest fighter of the present age I will think all those nice things you have been saying about me have been pure bunk.” Sullivan smiles: “Well, Jack, I want to shake hands with you once again, and all I have got to say is, just think of your old Mammy there in Chicago who is hoping and praying for you, and you will do your best. I haven’t a doubt. I will say the same to you that I said to Jeffries a few days ago, and it is my old motto —- may the best man win.”
PREDICTIONS: Tommy Burns: “Take it from me. Johnson has not got a chance. Jeffries will defeat Johnson, for the simple reason that in every way he is the Champion’s physical and mental superior.” Jake Kilrain: “Jeffries should win. There is no reason why he should not be back to his old form, if he has worked hard.” Joe Choynski: “I boxed with both Jeffries and Johnson when they were novices. Johnson will find himself pitted against a man much faster, cleverer, and stronger than himself, and he will surprise me if he lasts longer than 7 rounds.” Bob Armstrong: “If Jack Johnson stands up and fights Jeffries, the big fellow won’t take long to finish him. If he rus away it only amounts to slow death to him. Personally, I know that Johnson is going to be a pretty much scared fighter before he goes into the ring.” James Corbett: “Personally, however, I’m sorry that (Jeffries) has not done more fast work, such as boxing and shadow dancing. Because of lack of this sort of exercises I figure Johnson will give him a merry time in the early stages of the fight. Jeffries, however, is in shape to take a beating and he’ll be strong and coming when the other fellow is tired. I think Jeffries a sure winner.” John L. Sullivan (who clearly hints that he predicts the Champion to defend his title): “I don’t think that I was ever more interested in the outcome of a fight than I am in this one. I am simply being torn this way and that way by the opinions of so many friends here. They know who I think will win. Some of them say I am crazy, and are surprised at my lack of judgment.” Sam Langford: “I hope that Jeffries breaks Johnson’s jaw with the 1st punch. I think that Jeffries will win inside of 15 rounds if he is in shape. It will sure be a hard fight, a fighter against a mixer. Jeffries has the steam and the punch, while Johnson is pretty clever, but can’t hit hard enough to knock Jeffries out.”
July 4th, 1910 – FIGHT OF THE CENTURY…. Crowd: 25,000 – 24,000 males – 1,000 females… TICKET PRICE: $50-$10.
James Corbett is behaving like a lunatic. He is indignant and yells obscenity laced demands that the specially prepared cloth canvas be replaced. After more than an hour of verbal abuse, both Promoter Richard and Johnson’s corner acquiesce. The cloth is exchanged for a cheaper fabric without the time necessary to properly sand and resin for a firm foot grid. Corbett’s rage held a purpose in his own mind. He wants a slippery surface, believing it would not disadvantage his slow, flat footed fighter, while the quicker Champion would have more difficulty backing while being evasive.
John L. Sullivan is an early arrival. He receives a large cheer from the audience. The crowd is pro-Jeffries and some were angered at Sullivan’s not being openly supportive of the White pugilist. But he is still the legendary John L. Sullivan. No one understands the power of that name more than the man himself. People respect the 52 year-old as an elderly statesman and accept his official stand of neutrality. It would be Sullivan’s finest hour as a celebrity.
Several pugilists are announced to the crowd and receive applause: Bob Fitzsimmons, Tom Sharkey, Tommy Burns, and Sam Langford. Jeffries had begun the day as a 2 1/2-1 favorite, but this has dropped to 2-1 by fight time. Both pugilists finally enter the ring. Jeffries’ corner men are the Dream Team: James Corbett, Bob Armstrong and Joe Choynski. Johnson’s corner men are less glamorous: Tom Flanagan, Sig Hart and Al Kaufman. Neither glares or intimidates the other inside the ring. Challenger Jeffries, 6’2, well over his prime weight at 250 pounds, quietly reflects and meditates as he is slowly, ritually bandaged. Champion Johnson, 6’1, at 218 pounds, is openly cheerful as he gregariously greets and speaks to friends and supporters. It is agreed that the pugilists will not shake hands. It is a highly unusual decision. Whites/Blacks had fought many times with touching gloves and shaking hands as mandatory.
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ROUND 1: Opening bell… Champion cautious as Jeffries aggressively steps forward – Champion lowers left hand to meet the challenger’s ducking head. Jeffries surges ahead and clinches – both wrestle – Jeffries bulls the Champion backward. Jeffries attempt to punch in clinch – Champion aggressively holds his foe’s arms. Pugilists separate and stalk one another. Jeffries slightly backs – Champion lurches forward with a right that lands to body. Pugilists stalk one another. Jeffries steps forward with a left, right punch combination – Champion avoids and deflects blows. Pugilists stalk one another. Champion steps forward with left punch to head – Jeffries successfully avoids with a head duck. Pugilists clinch. Jeffries bulls forward – Champion pushes challenger off. Jeffries charges into the Champion with a clinch. Jeffries bulls the Champion backward. Champion suddenly holds his ground – both wrestle. Jeffries regains strength dominance as he continues to bull the Champion backward inside their clinch.
NOTES: The tone of this bout was already moving toward the Champion though no one else might have noticed. For all the ploys by Corbett to encourage a slippery surface Johnson was not a running pugilist. Johnson intentionally avoided using energy so he might hop backward but then would remain still. Maybe Corbett felt that Johnson would openly fear Jeffries. But the Champion smiled and taunted as usual and encouraged Jeffries to step forward and punch. The Champion did his usual goading: “Is that all you got?” while he encouraged Jeffries to expend further energy.
The elements were working against Jeffries. He had only fought an exhibition bout and several sparring sessions over the last 5 years. Johnson had been extremely active for much of that time though he had been fighting less since his title win. Jeffries was 32 years-old, 220 pounds, when he retired as undefeated Champion. He was now 34 years-old, 250 pounds. Jeffries is facing a foe whose battle tactic is to tire an opponent. Jeffries appears to dominate the 1st round, but by wrestling in clinches and expending energy in bulling his opponent backward, he would have to score an early knockout, alter his offensive tactics or face dehydration and exhaustion at the end of the 5th round. At the conclusion of that round, Johnson returned to his corner, ignored his seconds and instead chatted amiably with a certain spectator. Jack Johnson: “John, I thought this fellow could hit.” John L. Sullivan: “Yes. 5 or 6 years ago ain’t now though.”
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ROUND 7: Jeffries is becoming frustrated. Both pugilists stalk often. Jeffries is slightly confused by the long outstretched left of the Champion. Jeffries often winds up rushing underneath the jab arm until his aggression results in further clinches. The Champion continues to hold his foe’s arms while wrestled backward. Jeffries’ own extended left jab is pushed slightly downward by the Champion’s left jab. Neither pugilist is throwing or landing jabs in a conventional fashion. Jeffries is attempting to bait his left jab with the hope of a hard ambush right to head. Champion Johnson is patient and unwilling to be aggressive. The Champion continues to laugh and taunt within clinches. An angered Jeffries continues to bull his lighter foe backwards.
NOTES: The bout would appear to be even to the spectators. Neither appears to be gaining ground on the other. This would be misleading. Jeffries continues to expend a greater amount of energy. He also has an eye closed from a 6th round blow. Champion Johnson would have felt confident, but cautious about the punching power of Jeffries, with a willingness to remain patient against an exhausted but determined foe that has never been knocked down.
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ROUND 10: The persistent pattern continues. Jeffries determinedly steps forward but is unable to land a clean punch. It often ends in a clinch. Jeffries continues to bull the Champion backward in their clinches. Jeffries is too exhausted to try and land his right in these clinches. Johnson appears to prepare and time these bursts forward from his tired opponent. Johnson lands a left jab that snaps Jeffries’ head backward…. Jeffries prepares his usual step forward approach – Champion lands short left to face. Jeffries clinches. Champion holds his ground as two wrestle in stalemate. Champion frees his left which he lands to face. Jeffries is wobbled, but attempts to remain aggressive as he forces his head into the Champion’s chest. Jeffries bulls his opponent backward inside their clinch. They awkwardly circle the ring with Jeffries forcing the Champion backward. The Champion holds his foe’s arms down and continues to talk and taunt as he is pushed. A frustrated Jeffries finally free his left elbow which he plants into the Champion’s jaw. Both attempt a short punch exchange from their clinch. The Champion is laughing and landing just a bit more. Jeffries continues, more determined than ever, to bull his opponent backward with his physical strength advantage.
NOTES: Jack Johnson is beginning to dominate this battle. Spectators still believe they are viewing an even bout. Clinches are making the difference. Corbett was sure that Johnson would be running throughout. Instead, the Champion has been standing in front of Jeffries and allowing himself to be manhandled. But these 10th round clinches are clearly tiring Jeffries at an accelerated pace. Johnson appears to be resting and saving energy throughout these clinches as he is sent repeatedly backward. Jeffries is leaving himself increasingly vulnerable to punches. The Champion is patient and knows it is only a matter of time.
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ROUND 15: Jeffries bulls the Champion backward in clinch. Pugilists separate and stalk. Both have left jab arms extended forward. An exhausted Jeffries wearily raises both gloves to defend himself. Champion steps forward with left, right punches – Jeffries successfully deflects as he slightly backs. Champion pushes the challenger backwards. Jeffries bounces off ropes and clinches. Jeffries pushes off once again and bulls the Champion backward. Champion times and lands a hard clean uppercut to jaw while being pushed. Jeffries is dazed. Both remain in stalemate clinch. Champion lands short left to face. Jeffries is wobbled and exposed. Champion follows with hard left that lands to face. Jeffries falls backward onto his butt.
NOTES: The most shocking moment in the history of boxing. The Black Champion ominously stares down the undefeated former White Champion. This single knockdown would change boxing and America forever. The spectators rise in shock and frenzy. Jeffries holds the ropes with one hand while in a sitting position. The Champion places hands on hips, turns away and looks into the crowd.
ROUND 15: Jeffries attempts to pull himself back to feet with his hand on ropes. Champion lurches forward to hit the challenger. Jeffries momentarily pauses. Referee Rickard intervenes as he waves the Champion back. Jeffries utilizes the momentary distraction to pull himself back to feet. Champion aggressively rushes forward with a hard left that lands clean to exposed face. Jeffries is knocked backward to ground and through the ropes.
NOTES: Pandemonium has spread throughout the spectators. Jeffries is foot tangled in the ropes and cannot rise. A newspaper man and a Jeffries corner man rush to Jeffries defense and assist him to his feet. Jeffries is standing but disoriented. Jeffries is given a hard butt kick to force him forward. A newspaper reporter and a Jeffries corner man are closing in and ready to step inside the ring to prevent the inevitable. There had been a secret plan that if Jeffries was close to being knocked out that his corner man would enter the ring and force an ‘honorable disqualification.
ROUND 15: Champion steps forward and lands hard left to exposed face. Jeffries is wobbled. Spectators reach through the ropes in an effort to interfere. Champion lands left to face. Jeffries staggers backward on weak legs. Champion chased forward and hits the defenseless challenger with a right that lands to head. Champion follows with another right that land cleans to face. Jeffries crumbles to the ground in a heap onto hands and knees. Referee Rickard counts – ‘1,2,3,4’. An unsteady Jeffries reaches out to ropes with one arm to pull himself to feet. An aggressive Champion pounces forward ready to punch as soon as both knees leave ground. Champion feints with hard right toward head. Jeffries reconsiders rising and instead hesitates…. Someone from Jeffries’ corner attempts to enter the ring and force a disqualification. Johnson’s corner sees and accept the bait as they scream for a disqualification. The 3 participants do not notice the commotion as the historical drama climaxes to its conclusion…. ‘5,6,7,8’ – Referee Rickard pushes Champion to chest with his right hand as he counts. ‘9,10’ – Referee Rickard releases right hand from the Champion’s head – waves bout over – KNOCKOUT!
John L. Sullivan (7/5/1910): “The fight of the century is over and a Black man is the undisputed Champion of the world. It was a poor fight as fights go, this less than 15 round affair between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. Scarcely has there ever been a championship contest that was so one-sided. All of Jeffries much vaunted condition amounted to nothing. He wasn’t in it from the first bell tap to the last…. The negro had few friends but there was little demonstration against him. (Spectators) could not help but admire Johnson because he is the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen. He played fairly at all times and fought fairly…. What a crafty, powerful, cunning left hand (Johnson) has. He is one of the craftiest, cunningest boxers that ever stepped into the ring…. They both fought closely all during the 15 rounds. It was just the sort of fight that Jeffries wanted. There was no running or ducking like Corbett did with me in New Orleans (1892). Jeffries did not miss so many blows, because he hardly started any. Johnson was on top of him all the time…. (Johnson) didn’t get gay at all with Jeffries in the beginning, and it was always the White man who clinched, but Johnson was very careful, and he backed away and took no chances, and was good-natured with it all…. The best man won, and I was one of the first to congratulate him, and also one of the first to extend my heartfelt sympathy to the beaten man.”