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.