Three fights, I believe, that standout and will never be equaled in boxing history are Ali-Frazier I, Louis-Schmeling II and Johnson-Jeffries. The boxers in these three fights represented more than just themselves, they represented much more. Johnson-Jeffries was a fight that was racially motivated, Louis-Schmeling II was a fight between a American and a perceived Nazi, Ali-Frazier I was not a fight between two undefeated champions but a battle between White, Christian, middle America and a black, Muslim, counter-culture. These were fights that were about more than just boxing. It is with this in mind that I want to re-visit very first “Fight of the Century” – Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries.
James Jeffries retired as the Undefeated Heavyweight champion of the world in 1904. In his prime, Jeffries was 6’2”, 210 lbs and believed to be invincible. After his retirement, two nondescript champions followed him in Marvin Hart and Tommy Burns. Burns defended his title in Sydney, Australia against Jack Johnson in 1908 and Burns was soundly defeated by Johnson in 8 brutal rounds. With his victory, Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world and defended his title 5 times within a year.
By 1910, it is hard to over-estimate how hated Jack Johnson was, at least by White Americans. His December 1908 victory over Canadian Tommy Burns in which he captured the title was not only met be jeers of ‘coon” and “flash nigger” from the 20,000 (White) Australians in attendance, it also triggered a general panic amongst the White race. With the realization that boxing had its first black champion the Detroit Free Press asked:
“Is the Caucasian played out? Are the races we have been calling inferior about to demand to us that we must draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?”
White America (and other nationalities of European descent) began looking for a savior. A “Great White Hope” as Jack London coined it, who would return the White man to his rightful place at the top of the hierarchy. It quickly became apparent who they were asking to be that savior, with London being one of the first to call out his name in the New York Herald following the Burns fight:
“One thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeffries, it’s up to you! Jeffries, it’s up to you! The White Man must be rescued!”
At the time of London’s appeal, Jeffries had been retired for five years and had ballooned from his fighting weight of 200 pounds to over 300 pounds. But as Johnson beat White challenger after White challenger the calls grew stronger for Jeffries, the invincible “Boilermaker,” who had retired undefeated and unbeatable. At first, Jeffries expressed no interest, but eventually the call became stronger, and he found himself practically drafted into defending his race.
While having no interest at first in the meeting, once he had decided on returning he put all his efforts into getting ready for the match, hiring wrestler Farmer Burns and former boxing champ Jim Corbett to get him back into fighting shape. Updates of his progress became a national obsession, and most (although not all) were convinced he would put that “negro with his golden smile” back in his place.
The fight was to take place originally in San Francisco and was being promoted by George “Tex” Rickard, considered by many the greatest promoter in boxing history. But, in June anti-boxing Crusaders had persuaded the governor of California not to allow the fight to take place in San Francisco, the fight was then moved to Reno, Nevada.
The prefight publicity was unprecedented; the White press published a multi-part series on Jeffries’ life, and at the same time, the black press reacted to the racist coverage with defiant stories of its own.
July 4th, 1910, the “battle of the century” took place in front of over 30,000 spectators. Fearing racial violence, the sale of alcohol was not permitted, and firearms were not allowed into the arena. The stadium was specifically built for this fight and was held in the middle of a sweltering day in Reno.
Johnson started the fight off wary of Jeffries in the first few rounds and punched only sporadically through the first six rounds. Jeffries also landed sporadically the first few rounds, but his punches seemed to lack the old snap that he had possessed when he was the champion six years earlier. Johnson sprang from his corner to start the seventh round and landed a hard right to Jeffries’ face visibly shaking him and by the end of the round his eye was almost completely swollen shut.
From then on Johnson steadily picked up the pace and only Jeffries legendary ability to absorb punishment kept him standing. In the 14th round Jeffries tasted the canvas three times, the only times he was knocked down in his career. His corner mercifully threw in the towel bringing the beating to an end.
The repercussion of having their Great White Hope defeated so soundly by the son of a former slave was both brutal and swift. Riots and assaults quickly swept the country. “3 Negroes were killed and many wounded in a clash with Whites” near Uvaldia, Georgia. Attacks were reported across New York City. A correspondent for the London Times gave a summary of all the violence for that Independence Day.
Following is an excerpt of a news report describing the violence:
“Racial riots swept the United States last night from the Atlantic to the Pacific after Jeffries’ crushing defeat by Johnson in Reno, Nevada. The following are the results up to the present—
Nineteen persons were killed.
251 were seriously injured.
Five thousand cases of disorderly conduct were dealt with by the police courts in various cities this morning in consequences of the rioting.
The goals (jails) in numerous cities were crowded with prisoners, in consequence of the bitter feeling against the Negroes manifested when it became known that a Black man had hammered a White man almost into insensibility and won the heavyweight championship of the world.
Most of the casualties were Negroes who were hunted down by White mobs, mostly because of boasts by the Blacks that they had finally demonstrated their superiority over the Whites.
Two Negroes were shot dead at La Providence, Louisiana, after walking down the principal street of the town and announcing that a Negro could thrash a White man if he liked.
A Negro was fatally stabbed at Keystone, West Virginia for boasting in a drinking resort (saloon) that Jeffries had met his deserts and that his punishment by Johnson was a foretaste of that punishment which Negroes intended meting out to White men if the latter tried to assert their superiority in the future.
A nine-year-old White child was shot by Negroes who were riding in a motor car at Washington, the Federal capital. A White man cut a Negro man’s throat in a tram car (trolley) at Houston, Texas. A Negro was shot dead in New York City.
Other Negroes were killed in Cincinnati, Omaha, Little Rock and other cities. Johnson-Jeffries, was a historical sporting event and sad chapter in American history, with the surrounding circumstances I don’t think any fight will ever measure up to this one regarding cultural and historical significance.