Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Fight of the Century

Posted in African Americans, Media by Andy Hall on July 4, 2010


Jack Johnson in training in Chicago, c. 1907. Library of Congress.

Today is the centennial of the “Fight of the Century” in Reno, Nevada, between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. More than 20 years ago, one of my first “for reals” published pieces was on this famous bout, appearing in the July 1989 edition of Sports History magazine. It’s not very good, and suffers both from my own inexperience and the red pen of an editor who wanted to make it more appealing to a general readership. (I really, really hate the title he gave it.) It lacks both deep analysis and novel insight, but if there’s ever going to be an opportune moment to foist this article off on others, this is it.

Furious Fists Unleashed

Jack Johnson did more than knock our Jim Jeffries in Reno in 1910. He challenged the way Americans looked at black boxers. When the “Great White Hope” fell in the 15th round, some perceptions were changed forever as well.

——————————-

Everything seemed to change in 1910. Under the brilliant glare of Halley’s Comet, British suffragettes vandalized public buildings and assaulted members of Parliament. The year saw the death of King Edward VII, who had carried over into the 10th century traditional Victorian ideals of order and social place.

Across the Atlantic. the administration of President Taft found itself drawn into a bloody civil war in Nicaragua. Mexico, too, reeled under the first blows of revolution. And in a one-sided boxing match in Reno, Nevada, a black fighter named Jack Johnson pummeled the old assumptions of innate white superiority in all endeavors. Not until the sinking of an unsinkable Titanic two years later would public confidence receive such a shock. Never again would the world be quite so stable, or quite so safe.

Though Johnson was never entirely comfortable with his spectacularly prominent place in the era’s headlines, he was a natural for the ring and almost guaranteed a spot in history as the first black heavyweight champion. Born Arthur John Johnson in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, Johnson quickly discovered the talent in his fists. He honed his skills while working on the port’s cotton wharves and soon fought his way through the local, illicit prizefighting circuit. By 1900, Johnson was fighting professionally in Chicago.

By 1903, Johnson held the black heavyweight title. On Dec. 26, 1908, he defeated the acknowledged white heavyweight titleholder, Tommy Burns, a Canadian. Johnson took home the gold belt, but his victory sparked a fierce debate in boxing circles. Was Johnson’s claim legitimate?

Burns had defeated Marvin Hart for the crown, but Hart had had the title voluntarily bestowed on him by Jim Jeffries, the reigning champ. Many of the boxing authorities who had not questioned the strength of Burns’ claim before his bout with Johnson now argued that, as Hart had not actually defeated Jeffries for the championship, Burns’ claim to the heavyweight title was shaky at best.

Still others, like John L. Sullivan, criticized Burns for crossing the “color line.” Black fighters had been around for years, but no white champion had been willing to risk losing the crown to one of them. Clearly, Johnson would have to successfully defend his claim against an undisputed champion.

The prospect of such a bout electrified the American populace. Even those who did not ordinarily follow the sport were intrigued by the prospect of an interracial battle for unquestioned ring supremacy. Even before a challenger was chosen, the appellation “Great White Hope” was applied to the figure who would return the reign over a gentleman’s sport to the Caucasian race. The Stage was being set for a main event as divisive in its preparation as it would be bloody in its aftermath.

Eventually Jeffries, as the last “real” heavyweight champion, agreed to return to the ring to battle Johnson. It would be a long trip. In the six years since he relinquished the prize belt, he had ballooned to 300 pounds. With former champ Jim Corbett guiding his training, Jeffries began a desperately grueling regiment to get back into shape.

The fight’s promoter, Tex Rickard, was a shrewd businessman. With the reluctant agreement of both fighters, Rickard did everything he could to exploit the white versus black angle, by implication selling the match as the ultimate test of true racial superiority. He almost promoted himself out of the business. Just two weeks before the opening bell in San Francisco, California Governor James N. Gillett decided that the bout was not going to be a simple exhibition match, as allowed under California law, but in fact, a prohibited prizefight. Quickly, Rickard scrambled for a new site, picking the sporting town of Reno, Nev.

As the fight date of July 4 drew near, Jeffries became increasingly sullen and irritable. By contrast, Johnson seemed relaxed and easygoing, training or not training as he pleased. White reporters around Johnson’s training camp attributed his easy confidence to the notion that the black man did not have the capacity to anticipate beyond the present to his assured defeat. Johnson was “safe in his soul shallowness and lack of imagination,” the newspapers reported.

An estimated 20,000 people — almost all white — poured into the eight-sided outdoor arena on the Fourth of July. In the unlikely event that anyone in the audience was still unaware of the fight’s racial significance, a brass band clambered up into the ring and thumped away at what the Chicago Tribune‘s reporter described as “patriotic tunes,” including something called “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” Rickard, acting as referee. introduced the fighters. By prearrangement, they did not shake hands as they turned for their corners.

Jack London, correspondent for the New York Herald, had written particularly virulent, race-baiting columns about Johnson. London wrote that Johnson was a “master mouth fighter,” keeping up a constant flow of witty banter and mild taunts with an opponent, his cornermen and the audience. There was a purpose to the tactic. It helped break the other fighter’s concentration. Whether it affected Jeffries was not clear. The White Hope remained silent, concentrating on a huge wad of gum he chewed throughout the match.

Johnson’s running commentary certainly affected Jeffries’ cornermen, though. Corbett, who had attached himself to the White Hope’s cause early, had a pet theory that, once enraged, blacks (and particularly Johnson) would become useless in the ring. From the first bell, Corbett screamed vulgar insults at Johnson, but the black fighter defused the taunts by feigning the ingratiating manner of the stereotypical Southern black.

The madder Corbett got, the calmer Johnson became. Late in the fight, Johnson teased the former champ, “I thought you said you’d have me wild!” Corbett didn’t get the joke. The verbal jousting provided some sorely needed pleasure for Jeffries’ supporters. The fight was not going at all as predicted. There was one bright spot for them in the fourth round when Jeffries brushed the black fighter against the rope and opened his lip. As the blood streamed down Johnson’s chin, some in the crowd began shouting, “first blood for Jeffries!” They did not know that the former champion had opened a wound Johnson had received two days before.

From then on, virtually everything went against Jeffries. In the fifth round, he received a bad cut under one eye and another on the chin. In the sixth, Johnson slammed a powerful left into “Jeff’s” right eye, which immediately began to dose.

As the fight ground on, Jeffries began having trouble judging distance and timing, landing only a few blows to Johnson’s midsection. The black fighter backpedaled here and advanced there, egging on Jeffries by opening his guard.

In the 11th round, Johnson crashed back Jeffries’ head with a series of rights that became a Johnson trademark. The motion was like that of a sewing machine. But if Jeffries were outclassed in speed and agility, his endurance remained. His right eye closing, his nose broken and his face bruised and smeared with blood, Jeffries kept staggering forward, flailing almost blindly.

To some observers, it appeared that Johnson was prolonging the fight just to watch Jeffries suffer. The black man’s taunts, no longer humorous, had a vindictive ring: “How do you feel, Jim? I can take you out when I want to, Jim. Does it hurt, Jim?”

In the 15th round, Jeffries continued to advance, now erect, now crouching into Johnson’s fists. A series of blows forced Jeffries back against the ropes, where he rolled away and struck the canvas. As promoter Rickard pushed Johnson back, Jeffries pulled himself to his feet. Another flurry of gloves and again Jeffries fell to his knees, once again pulling himself up at the count of nine. For the third time the black man knocked Jeffries down, this time leaving him sprawling over the rope. The Great White Hope’s cornermen climbed into the ring. The fight was over.

The amazing thing about the battle, in retrospect, was not that Johnson won, but that so many fans and sportswriters alike had convinced that Jeffries could not lose. Six years of comfortable retirement had left Jeffries a fat, old man. The Jeffries of 1903 or 1904 might have had a fair chance against Johnson. In 1910, he had none. It is incredible that so many failed to see the inevitability of Jeffries’ defeat, and perhaps they did not want to.

The image of Jim Jeffries lying groggy on the ropes, smeared with his own blood and in the black shadow of Jack Johnson, however, was one that burned into the consciousness of many Americans, black and white alike. Weeks of prefight publicity had brought the nation to the edge of an emotional precipice; everything was riding on this fight. That no one in the national (white) press foresaw a Johnson victory made the event all the more devastating for “Jeff’s” supporters, and the more joyous for Johnson’s. The racial violence that flared across the nation was almost as inevitable as the outcome of the fight itself.

The violence was almost entirely one-sided. In Little Rock, Ark., an argument on a streetcar about the fight left two black passengers dead. Near tiny Uvalda, Ga., black workers at a construction camp became involved in a gun battle with angry whites. No one knows who fired first, but the whites made several trips into town for more ammunition and chased fleeing blacks into the woods. Casualties: three dead, five wounded, all black. Three more died in Shreveport, Louisiana.

In Houston, a black man got too “uppity” about Johnson’s victory and had his throat slashed from ear to ear for his impertinence. Black tenements in New York were torched with the residents inside. Attacks resulting in death or serious injury were reported nationwide — in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Pueblo, Colorado. At least a dozen people died in the wake of Johnson’s victory. But if the violence directed against blacks was intended to quash any notions of equality blacks might have received from the fight, it had the opposite effect because it showed how seriously some whites considered the matter.

Before the fight, one newspaper’s sports editor had predicted that, in the event of a Johnson victory, the black fighter’s earnings would total $360,750 to Jeffries’ $158,000. Their actual earnings were far less, for the projections were based on royalties from exhibitions of films made at the fight. In the aftermath of the riots following the fight, many communities banned the films. Apparently tempers had cooled in the time it took to distribute the movies, though, for few disturbances were reported in the cities where they were shown.

Quietly slipping out of Reno on a special train, Johnson went on to a well-publicized and controversial career. It included three marriages to white women, an international flight from prosecution under the Mann Act, a term in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and loss of the heavyweight crown in a possibly fixed match against Jess Willard in 1915. Jeffries returned to his alfalfa farm and, years later, grumbled that he’d been drugged before he climbed into the ring in Reno.

Whatever headlines they made after 1910 — and Johnson, in particular, made many — neither fighter was ever able to rivet the attention of the world as he did at Reno. As fights go, the Johnson-Jeffries bout was one-sided, even dull. But the issues read into the match by promoters, sportswriters and fans ensured that whatever the outcome, this one fight would cause reverberations far beyond the ring, into the deepest beliefs and prejudices of the day’s dominant culture.

It had the universal appeal of a 19th-century adventure story, with a hero in white and a villain in black. On a hot Independence Day afternoon in Reno, Jack Johnson, Jim Jeffries and Tex Rickard changed the sport of boxing-and America — forever.

———————-

The best documentary on Johnson and the “Fight of the Century” is Ken Burns’ Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. I haven’t found it available streaming through PBS, but it’s available in two parts here and here.


Reception for Johnson at his Chicago home, 1910. Library of Congress photo.

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