The Biggest Fight Ever?
When you ask most people to name the biggest fights in the history of the sport, some people might say Ali-Frazier III. Some might go back to when Joe Louis annihilated Max Schmeling inside round 1 during their rematch in 1938. What few will probably talk about is the bout that defined an era or racial segregation, fear, and hatred. This contest was done in Reno, Nevada, on July 4th, 1910. Everything about this event was big, from the contestants involved, to the symbolic importance of the fight, to the name of the promoter, Tex Rickard. It was Jack Johnson, the Black Peril, going against the Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries, during a time when the heavyweight championship of the world was the single most coveted sports prize, and there was a prevailing thought among white America that this strap belonged to what they thought to be the superior white race.
Jack Johnson is not only a social figure in American sports, but important purely from a boxing perspective. He was an encyclopedia of neutralizing an opponent, and drawing them into his sharp counters. According to boxing historian Mike Silver, author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Fall of the Sweet Science, Johnson’s boxing IQ would have been measured in the genius range. His feet were positioned like a fencer’s stance, always in balance, allowing him to shift his weight quickly to move in four different directions. His hands were always in front of his face and in constant motion, to parry and pick off incoming shots and to quickly offer return fire. His skills coupled with his superior speed, allowed him to lean forward and expose his chin, or open his arms and expose his body to his opposition, while rarely getting tagged. He did this often to taunt his challengers, and he reveled in it. Cox’s corner tells us that Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer rated Johnson as the top all time heavyweight, picking Johnson to defeat Joe Louis had the two met in their primes. The late great fighter Archie Moore and late great trainer Eddie Futch both picked Johnson to defeat a prime Muhammad Ali.
Even in the old black and white film from 100 years ago you can see his wide golden grin during clinches, and his dismissive waves towards the other fighter at the end of rounds. According to Bert Sugar in an interview with PBS he would spit on the papers of reporters in press row from his corner stool between rounds, with amazing accuracy. During the lowest civil rights period for African Americans following slavery, Jack Johnson flaunted his wealth, and showed a flair for the spotlight in public appearances, and did not feel a need to hide his love interests no matter what race they happened to be. Johnson seemed like a man completely unafraid of his era, enduring death threats and attempts on his life during his reign as heavyweight champion.
Jim Jeffries, while most would remember him only for losing to Jack Johnson, should be remembered as a great boxer himself. His loss to Johnson comes with a huge asterisk because he was coming off of 6 years of retirement from his farm, and had to lose around 100 pounds to get into shape to fight Johnson. At his peak Jeffries was known as hard, thudding puncher, a strong physical freak, and never knocked off his feet, let alone defeated, prior to facing Johnson. He scored the fastest knockout in the history of the linear heavyweight championship at 55 seconds. Although he was not the most finesse boxer, he was effective with doubling hooks to the body and head, and good at utilizing his power by standing in a crouch and slipping inside on his opponents to deliver his body attack. Legends surrounded his physical exploits, according to the Unforgiveable Blackness. He was said to have wrestled a bear, drank and entire bucket of whiskey over two days to cure himself of pneumonia, and never hit a man with all his strength so as to prevent deaths in the ring. Before he retired to his farm, he had improved his skills to the point where he outboxed the clever “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in their meeting. He retired to his farm in 1904, undefeated and leaving his vacated title up for grabs between two white challengers. When Jack Johnson claimed the belt after stopping Tommy Burns in 1908, public pressure reached crushing levels for Jeffries to come out of retirement and restore order to the world by defeating the Galveston Giant and returning the heavyweight championship to its “rightful place”.
So the stage was set, Reno was chosen as the location for the event because railroads from the east and west coast intersected through this small but vibrant town. A special stadium was built to hold 20,000 bloodthirsty spectators, there to witness the destruction of Jack Johnson. During the bout, Johnson employed his relaxed, defensive, counterpunching style to keep the hard charging Jeffries at bay, frustrating him with his catlike reflexes, smooth foot movement, and fast hands. When Jeffries was able move inside to attempt his devastating body attack, Johnson would tie Jeffries up. Jeffries tried to return the favor, prompting Johnson to yell, “No hugging me Mr. Jim, no hugging me.” Johnson waited until the 15th round, and unloaded a lightning combination that floored Jeffries. Jeffries gamely rose to his feet, only to be knocked partially through the ropes by another Johnson combination. The Jeffries corner then threw in the towel, and Jack Johnson was still the heavyweight champion of the world. What would happen afterwards were riots that resulted in deaths and injuries of both blacks and whites. After Johnson finally lost his title to Jess Willard in 1915, black boxers would be frozen out of the heavyweight title picture until a young Joe Louis came along 22 years later. In many ways, Jack Johnson’s presence in the sport was a keystone in the development of the boxing landscape in America, influencing the carefully sculpted image of Louis, who in turn influenced big names such as Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali.