THIS July will mark the 109th anniversary of the historic meeting between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries.
Their bout, which was dubbed “The Fight of the Century” and took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910, became a symbolic contest over racial superiority.
Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion of the world when he defeated Tommy Burns in Australia on December 26, 1908, didn’t just beat his white opponents – he taunted and humiliated them.
Outside the ring, the flamboyant champion further challenged white sensibilities with his outlandish behaviour, lavishing his fortune living the high life. But above all it was his numerous relationships with white women that caused greatest anger and resentment among America’s white society.
The cry went for a saviour who could “restore to the white race its lost prestige.”
Prompted by many, most notably author Jack London, undefeated former champion Jeffries was eventually persuaded to leave his Californian alfalfa farm and come out of retirement in order to, as London would put it, “wipe that golden smile from Johnson’s face.”
There would never be a greater “White Hope” than James J. Jeffries.
The following words, which appeared in the July 9, 1910 issue of Boxing (as this publication was then known), encapsulate in very clear terms both the enormity of the event and what it represented:
“It would not be too much to say that a new chapter in the history of the world was opened at Reno, for this was not merely a boxing contest between two champions, but a gigantic trial of strength between the white and coloured races in the persons of their chosen champions.”
Judged purely in sporting terms, however, it proved to be a one-sided contest, as Jack London grudgingly observed: “It was not a great battle after all, save its setting and significance. Johnson established the tempo of the fight in the first round – slow and painful.”
Having set the pattern, a contemptuous Johnson began to toy with his 35-year-old opponent, punctuating savage punches with verbal onslaughts.
“Come on now, Mr. Jeff,” he mocked at the start of round three. “Let me see what you got. Do something, man.”
Johnson even found time to talk with various ringside luminaries, among them former heavyweight champions John L. Sullivan and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. To Sullivan (who was covering the fight for the New York Times) he joked, “John, I thought this fellow could hit.” And for several rounds he conducted, and revelled in, a running dialogue with Corbett, who was working as one of Jeffries’ seconds and spent much of the fight desperately trying to distract Johnson and break his concentration in the hope he would make a mistake.
But the ploy didn’t work, and by the end of round nine an exasperated Jeffries had had enough. “Shut up,” he barked angrily at Corbett. “All that stuff out of your mouth just makes him hit harder.”
By round 15 (of a scheduled 45), reports Boxing, Johnson “became more active than ever, and, losing the smile that had hardly left his face during the earlier stages of the fight, he set viciously to work, forcing the pace.
After some terrific punches he swung left and right at the jaw, and for the first time in his life Jeffries knew what it was to be sent to the floor, where he had in the past sent so many others.
He got up but was immediately sent down again and fell outside the lower ropes.
It was evident the mighty Jeffries was done, and at least 100 people climbed down to the ring, forcing the timekeeper away, and creating a confusion so great that no announcement by the ring officials was audible as to whether the white man was technically counted out.
Meanwhile, the whole crowd had been crying out at their loudest, “Stop it! Don’t let him be knocked out!” But referee Rickard, even though he might have wanted to spare Jeffries further punishment, was powerless.
Jeffries again staggered forward and Johnson sprang at him like a tiger, and with a succession of left swings on his jaw sent him through the lower ropes on the east side of the ring, where he lay until he was counted out.”
“I could have fought for two hours longer,” crowed Johnson immediately afterwards. “It was easy. I’m going to give one of my gloves to Jeffries and the other to Corbett.”
Acknowledging Jeffries’ gameness and fighting heart, the champion then returned to his own dazzling performance. “I won from Mr. Jeffries because I outclassed him in every department of the fighting game. Before I entered the ring I was certain I would be the victor. I never changed my mind at any time.”
News of Johnson’s victory unleashed race riots across the country and prompted the authorities to ban the distribution and transmission of the fight films.
It was later estimated the rioting had claimed at least 11 lives and perhaps as many as 26, with hundreds more injured, almost all of them black.
Three days after the fight Johnson arrived in Chicago to a hero’s welcome, and while there he was interviewed by this magazine. Looking back at Johnson’s account of how he planned and executed his most famous victory makes for fascinating reading. Equally intriguing, however, and something I have presumed after reading his words, was the respectful tone in which they appear to have been delivered. Gracious remarks that sit in complete contrast to his swaggering manner and boastful comments immediately following the fight.
Perhaps, having had a few days to reflect, Johnson’s change of attitude was simply an example of the mutual respect usually forged between fighters after the punching is over.
However, in view of the rioting that followed – a direct result of his victory – and wary that careless words from him could further exacerbate the incendiary situation, the usually garrulous Johnson may well have decided to reign in and tone down what he otherwise might have said. Certainly there is evidence suggesting that could have been the case.
However, you can judge that for yourself, as on the next page, to mark one of the truly defining moments in sports history is the complete transcript of Johnson’s interview as it appeared in the July 16, 1910 issue of Boxing.