TWIBH: July 4, 1910 — Johnson vs. Jeffries
On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson and James Jeffries met in Reno to contest the World Heavyweight Championship in what is often recognized as ‘The Fight of the Century.’ At stake was far more than a belt, but racial supremacy, since the black Johnson—having recently won the heavyweight championship from Canadian Tommy Burns—was thought to be an offensive representative of the sport by the white public. Jeffries, an undefeated former champion, had been called out from retirement to reinstate the white man’s place atop the athletic hierarchy, as the latest, but certainly most legitimate, ‘Great White Hope.’ His quest would prove fruitless, but the fight, with its buildup and aftermath, was a genuine social phenomenon, a medium through which to communicate the hateful ideologies of the age.
For a twenty-first century boxing fan, achieving a true understanding of the cultural prejudices that permeated this fight is inherently difficult. While we can recognize the obvious racism of a society for which eugenics—a movement that valorized the supposed genetic superiority of certain ‘races’—was a serious mode of thought, actually experiencing the climate of fear that attended this racial tinderbox of a fight is an entirely different form of knowledge. In acknowledging this disconnect, it is still remarkable to contemplate Jack Johnson’s determination to beat Jeffries in light of the violence that might have followed a victory (particularly when considering the current status of sports-as-spectacle, when the most scorn a fighter might receive after a bout is an especially embittered set of questions from Larry Merchant). Violence, after all, was the nasty appendage to an event whose ramifications went far beyond boxing. Consider the grandiloquence of Christian Socialist Reverdy Ransom, who held, prior to the fight, that “the greatest marathon race of the ages is about to begin between the white race and the darkest races of mankind. What Jack Johnson seeks to do to Jeffries in the roped arena will be the ambition of negroes in every domain of human endeavour.”
Because Jeffries had retired undefeated, and thus hadn’t technically ‘lost’ his heavyweight title, many felt that he remained the true champion. Now 34, weighing close to three hundred pounds and six years removed from the ring, Jeffries was besieged by media and fans to leave his California alfalfa farm and wrestle the title away from its black holder. Initially hesitant, Jeffries was persuaded to sign on by the fight’s promoter, Tex Rickard, who guaranteed the winner two thirds of a colossal $101,000 purse. There were, of course, other social pressures that prompted Jeffries’s comeback, which the former champion articulated unambiguously: “That portion of the white race that has been looking at me to defend its athletic supremacy may feel assured that I am fit to do my very best.”
The Manichean racial narrative seized on by the press—in which Johnson and Jeffries were pitted against one another as representatives of incongruous civilizations—ensured a previously unseen degree of interest in a boxing match. Over 500 media members traveled to Reno to report on both camps, leading Jack London to proclaim that “there has never been anything like it in the history of the ring.” Johnson is described projecting an air of supreme confidence, as he would often spend his afternoons joking with the many hands in his camp. Jeffries, whose training was bolstered by visits from boxing dignitaries John L. Sullivan and ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, was equally self-assured—at least publicly. Private concerns about his long inactivity and weight loss troubled him, particularly when news arrived regarding Johnson and the fantastic physical shape he was in.
Regardless of Johnson’s superior conditioning and recent successes, few dared bet in his favour. Jim Corbett believed Jeffries would win, as did George Little, Johnson’s former manager. At the Reno betting parlour operated by Corbett’s brother Tom, there was no one willing to wager on a Jack Johnson victory. Betting with their hearts few, if any, members of the white public were willing to place their financial faith in a black man’s claim to athletic supremacy.
The fight would be held on Independence Day—a cruel irony given the repressive wishes of those in attendance. Johnson would enter the ring first as per his superstitious custom, appearing cool and outwardly confident as he acknowledged his friends at ringside. Jeffries would follow amidst a huge roar from the mostly white crowd, elated at seeing their greatest fighter’s return to restore the collective racial prestige. Back at his original boxing weight, the svelte Jeffries wore a look of complete seriousness, and he would not shake Johnson’s hand before the opening bell.
Jeffries began the fight aggressively, but Johnson’s brilliant, unsolvable defense thwarted the former champion’s swarming style. Every time Jeffries attempted to brawl, Johnson would tie him up by holding his arms. When granted an opening, Johnson would then sting Jeffries with his sharp, fast punches. Despairing at the obvious difference in ability between the two fighters, an ungentlemanly Jim Corbett taunted Johnson with a series of vicious racial insults, but these had little effect. Johnson smiled back and then returned his own barbs, while coolly keeping Jeffries, Corbett himself, and each of the 20,000 souls who paid to attend under control.
As the fight grew older, Jeffries’ face became increasingly battered, and it was obvious that he was no longer a championship-caliber boxer. Impressively game but too fatigued to be effective, Jeffries might have been finished far earlier had Johnson not feared the ugly consequences of an early knockout. The failing Jeffries could mount no competitive push, and in round 15 Johnson would score the first knock down ever against Jeffries, only to do it again, and again. Amid cries of “don’t let the nigger knock him out,” Jeffries’ corner stopped the fight to prevent further damage, both physical and figurative. White fans would rush the ring after the stoppage, but Johnson’s men formed a protective barrier around the champion, who would not be harmed. The white fans were then made to leave, dejected at having seen their best man, and greatest hope, utterly walloped.
After the fight race riots broke out all over America. The dead were overwhelmingly black, and the violence precipitated calls to ban boxing in the United States. The ‘Fight of the Century’ was essentially an interface through which dangerous prejudices were allowed to manifest, and—given the ensuing, racially-charged calamities of the century in which it was staged—it appears truly deserving of its moniker.
– Eliott McCormick