Johnson-Jeffries fight celebrates centennial

Jack Johnson stands over a beaten Jim Jeffries near the end of their Reno contest.Twenty months after the election of our nation’s first African American  president, it’s difficult for us to comprehend the climate that existed when  Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries met in a Reno boxing ring 100 years ago this  week. The attention given to the July 4th, 1910 prizefight was much  less about an athletic contest, and more about the country’s obsession with  race and social traditions. Although history tells us that the bout pitted  boxing’s first African American champion (Johnson) against a former champion  returning to the ring after a six-year absence (Jeffries), the fact is, the  contest never would have taken place had events unfolded the way they were meant  to. Instead, circumstances made the fight not only possible, but necessary.

The roots of the Johnson-Jeffries fight go back to the 1880’s, and the first  boxing heavyweight champion of the modern era, John L Sullivan. While  proclaiming himself willing to take on all comers, Sullivan added a  disclaimer…he would not fight a black man, saying simply, “I never have, and I  never will.” John L’s attitude was not unusual in its day, as Major League  Baseball also unofficially barred African Americans, while in horse racing black  jockeys were banned from the Kentucky Derby  in 1903 despite, or maybe  because of the fact that 15 out of the first 28 Derby winners were  ridden by African Americans. Sullivan’s successors, Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons  and James J Jeffries all followed the tradition of ignoring challenges from  black fighters. Jeffries, who won the title in 1899, was the most impressive  fighter of his day. Standing six feet, two inches and weighing 220 pounds, “Jeff’ seemed as strong as a grizzly bear, and almost impossible to hurt. By  1904, Jeffries had beaten just about every leading contender, except for a  certain heavyweight from Galveston Texas named Jack Johnson. But since Johnson  was a black man, Jeffries simply retired undefeated.

By 1908, the championship had fallen into the hands of Tommy  Burns, a small (5’7) heavyweight from Canada, who, thanks to a $30,000 offer  from an Australian promoter, was willing to set aside tradition, and give Jack  Johnson a shot at the title in Sydney. Johnson manhandled Burns, and was awarded  the championship in the 14th round, when police stepped into the ring and  ordered the fight stopped. Sitting at ringside was famed novelist Jack London,  who began the campaign that would bring about the “Fight of the Century.” It was  London who wrote that Jim Jeffries must return and “wipe that golden smile off  from Johnson’s face…Jeff, it’s up to you..” Jeffries had become the “great white  hope.”

For the majority of White America, any black man being champion would have  been unacceptable, but Johnson’s flamboyant personality made the situation  unbearable. Jeffries was reluctant to make a comeback, as he was enjoying his  retirement, and had become woefully out of shape. But public pressure, plus the  promise of a $100,000 purse, was finally enough to lure Jeffries away from his  alfalfa farm. Promoter Tex Rickard signed Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries to meet  on July 4th, 1910 in San Francisco. Political factors at the 11th hour caused  the site to be switched to Nevada, and as the day arrived, the eyes of the  entire world were on Reno.

If the Johnson-Jeffries contest had been an election, “Jeff” would have won  with 90% of the vote. But it was a prizefight, and Johnson, a 10-4 betting  underdog, gave Jeffries a severe beating. Scheduled for 45 rounds, Johnson  dominated from the start, with Jeffries finally falling in the 15th. News of  Johnson’s victory did not sit very well, as riots broke out around the nation,  providing a tragic aftermath to what was supposed to be the “Fight of the  Century.” Coming 37 years before Jackie Robinson became a Dodger, and 98 years  before Barack Obama’s successful candidacy, the Johnson-Jeffries fight probably  took place years before the country was ready for  it.