In boxing you’re only as good as your last fight. In the case of former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries, his last fight not only defined him as a loser, but wiped out all of his achievements.
Jeffries had come out of retirement to face heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in what many consider the first “Fight of the Century.” The bout occurred July 4th, 1910 in Reno, Nevada.
His comeback after six years of in-activity was an unfortunate decision. The pressure to return to the ring was, however, too much to ignore. As author Jim Carney Jr. points out in his excellent biography, Ultimate Tough Guy – The Life and Times of James J. Jeffries, there was a lot more to Jeffries then what transpired that hot day in July.
Jeffries had retired undefeated in 1904 with an official record of 19 wins, with 16 knockouts. He had defeated former champions Bob Fitzsimmons with whom he won the title, and James J. Corbett twice. Jeffries was 29-years-old at the time and had fought almost all of the top-contenders.
Unfortunately, he had continued the directive handed down by John L. Sullivan (Jeffries’ hero, who later called him the greatest fighter he ever saw) to not box fighters of color. Nevertheless, his announced retirement came as no surprise. Jeffries had been growing tired of the sport for a few years. His head-first style (hence the title) had paid dividends for the ex-boilermaker as far as riches and celebrity go. But, the physical side of the fights were beginning to take their toll.
Jeffries climb to the top of the mountain had been a difficult one. Born in 1875, he began to box in his teens. Jeffries turned professional at the age of 20. In 1897 heavyweight champion James J. Corbett hired the young Jeffries as a sparring partner. Jeffries, with only four bouts under his belt, would always say that sparring with Corbett was the best boxing education he ever received.
Only two years later, Jeffries, who stood 6’1 and weighed 220 pounds, would win the heavyweight championship of the world by dispatching Corbett conqueror Fitzsimmons in 11 brutal rounds. News reports from the time indicate that Fitzsimmons had hit Jeffries with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. Jeffries just looked at Fitzsimmons, and pounded him into jelly.
Author Carney’s attention to detail is most impressive as he gives a blow by blow account of all Jeffries’ bouts. At times the information is a bit too much with lengthy synopsis of most of Jeffries’ opponents. Carney also repeats himself–which is neither needed or helpful. While it’s obvious that Carney’s goal is to prove that Jeffries was perhaps the greatest heavyweight and to release him of the stigma of racism, he is consistent in presenting Jeffries as a full-blooded human being.
His book achieves both and will remind many that once upon a time there was a heavyweight named Jeffries who was the most feared fighter on the planet.
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