What? Jack Johnson v Jim Jeffries
When? July 4th 1910
Where? Reno, Nevada
The fourth of July is known in America as Independence Day, it is the day that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It is a day that unites the country in a celebration of what that declaration stood for;
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, the events of July 4th 1910 could not have represented a more different set of beliefs.
Jack Johnson was a firm believer in his right to pursue happiness. He was also a believer that all men are in fact created equal, regardless of skin colour, which despite forming the general tone for the Declaration of Independence, was not a widely held belief in America during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Johnson would soon discover this racial prejudice. He became a professional boxer in 1898. Despite building an impressive record and reputation, Johnson was restricted to fighting for the “World Coloured Heavyweight Championship” as black boxers were not permitted to challenge for the “true” heavyweight title. Johnson was 24 when he claimed the coloured belt but would have to wait almost 6 years and traverse three continents to chase down the true heavyweight champion Tommy Burns.
From the moment Johnson defeated Burns in Sydney on Boxing Day 1908, the search began for the white man who could defeat him. Middleweight Stanley Ketchel was one of the first to be persuaded to try his luck at restoring white pride. The 5’ 7” Ketchel stood little chance against the 6’ 2” Johnson and was duly dispatched. However the fact that Ketchel was pushed to challenge Johnson despite the size difference was symbolic of the shameful era that had begun when Johnson first captured the title
The term “Great White Hope” has entered the sporting lexicon and was often applied, for example, to a young Wayne Rooney. However, the sinister origins of the phrase are now often forgotten. In an era of racial inequality, the thought that a black man held sport’s most important title – the Heavyweight Championship – did not sit well with white America. Each new white challenger for the title was heralded as the next “Great White Hope” and as each challenger was defeated, the search grew more and more desperate. By 1910, the hopes of white America were pinned on one man.
Jim Jeffries was as American as apple pie. Born in Ohio but based in Los Angeles, Jeffries had held the World Heavyweight Championship from 1899 until May 1905. He had retired undefeated and was noted for his punching power, conditioning and most of all his durability. In the years since his retirement, his reputation grew and grew to the point that the public had become convinced that Jeffries was the man to finally dethrone Johnson.
Jim for his part initially wanted nothing to do with a return to the ring. He had retired to his farm, put on a lot of weight. He had no further interest in competing in boxing. However, public pressure and a bucket-load of money have convinced many a man to do something against their better judgement.
The fight was set for Reno, Nevada on July 4th 1910 and was billed as “The Fight of the Century”.
Over 15 thousand people packed the specially constructed arena. Organisers were concerned that a Johnson victory may lead to racial violence and as a result the sale of alcohol in the arena was banned. The fight itself was scheduled for 45 rounds, but nobody realistically expected it to go that far. As United States President, William Taft had turned down the invitation to referee the contest; organiser Tex Rickard took it upon himself to be the third man in the ring.
The fight began shortly after 1pm when the temperature was hovering north of 40 degrees Celsius, a punishing temperature for both men but especially so for Jeffries who was 35 years of age and had endured a brutal training camp to shed close to 100 pounds in time for the fight.
Although Johnson was rightly confident of victory, he was still respectful of the former champ and as a result boxed cautiously in the opening rounds. But by the 4th round it was obvious that the former champion lacked the speed to trouble Johnson and that his once mighty strength had been sapped by years of inactivity.
Johnson was able to nullify anything Jeffries threw at him whilst landing punishing uppercuts. All the while, Johnson taunted the former champion, telling him to, “do something Jeff, this here is for the championship”.
By the fifteenth round the writing was on the wall for Jeffries. Another uppercut followed by three left hooks sent the tired Jeffries to the canvas for the first time in his career. The former champ, urged on by the crowd managed to regain his feet. However, Johnson pounced and knocked Jeffries backward through the ropes with another left hook. A combination of fans and Jeffries’ cornermen shovelled “The Great White Hope” back into the ring where Johnson was once again waiting.
Johnson beat Jeffries across the ring where he stumbled into the ropes on the other side of the ring. At this stage, Jeffries corner stepped into the ring signalling the end of the fight. Another hope had been extinguished.
Jeffries reacted to his first defeat in a classy manner rubbishing claims that he would have beaten Johnson in his youth,
“I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.”
The immediate aftermath of the fight was not pretty. Racial tensions had been ratcheted up by pre-fight rhetoric and by the time the opening bell sounded, cities across America were rapt with tension. African-Americans were naturally delighted with the result and many took to the streets to celebrate. White America, already bitter and humiliated by the result, did not take kindly to these celebrations. Many cities saw extensive rioting and violence. The deaths of over 20 people have been attributed to the riots that followed and countless others were injured.
Jeffries returned to his quieter existence after the fight. He maintained some small involvement in boxing as a part-time trainer and promoter but he spent most of his days on his farm in peace and quiet.
Neither peace nor quiet are words one could associate with the life of Jack Johnson though. Three years after the Jeffries fight, Johnson fled to Europe to escape a conviction. In fact, from the Jefferies fight in 1910 to November 1920, Johnson fought just once in America. Instead he would fight in far flung places; Paris, Buenos Aires, Havana, Madrid and Mexico city all played host to Johnson.
In 1915, in Havana, Johnson would lose the title. The giant cowboy Jess Willard knocked out the great Johnson, much to the joy of white America. Although that defeat effectively ended Johnson’s career at the top, he would continue to fight on for over a decade.
Outside the ring Johnson lived a lavish lifestyle, one which frequently saw him in trouble with the law. His penchant for fast cars and white women regularly landed him in trouble. In fact, he was convicted and sentenced to prison in 1913 for violating the Mann Act which prohibited the transport of a woman across state lines for the purpose of “prostitution, debauchery or for any other immoral purpose”. Johnson was specifically targeted because he was a black man travelling with a white woman. This conviction caused Johnson to flee from the United States for 7 years before he returned, turned himself in and served his year long sentence.
The fast cars too would cause him grief. In 1946, Johnson had been refused service at a white-only restaurant. As he sped angrily away, he lost control of his car and crashed. Efforts to revive him at hospital failed and the 68-year-old was declared dead.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.