In 1910, Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries clashed in Reno, Nevada to contest the world heavyweight crown in what was then billed as ‘The Fight of the Century.’ At stake was far more than a mere boxing championship, as the black Johnson, having taken the belt from Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908, was thought by the white public in America to be wholly unfit to hold the title. Jeffries, an undefeated former champion and the most legitimate ‘Great White Hope,’ had been repeatedly summoned to return to boxing so he could defeat the brash Johnson and reinstate the white man’s rightful place atop the athletic hierarchy. His quest would prove fruitless, but the championship match, with its buildup and aftermath, was a genuine sensation and social phenomenon, an event which galvanized the public while reflecting the hateful ideologies of the age.
While one recognizes the obvious racism of a society which regarded white people as inherently superior, for a present day boxing fan to actually understand the climate of fear and hatred attending this racial tinderbox of a fight is inherently difficult. In acknowledging this disconnect, it is still remarkable to contemplate Jack Johnson’s determination to defeat Jeffries despite the danger involved. 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 stated 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 endeavor.”
Because Jeffries had retired undefeated and had not actually ‘lost’ his heavyweight title, many felt he remained the true champion. Now 34 and not having stepped through the ropes in six years, he weighed close to three hundred pounds. Despite this, Jeffries was besieged by media and fans to leave his California alfalfa farm and wrestle the title away from its black holder. Initially hesitant, the man they called “The Boilermaker” 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 projected 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 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 to bet on him. 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.
Johnson vs Jeffries was held on Independence Day, a cruel irony given the repressive wishes of those in attendance. Johnson entered the ring first as per his superstitious custom, appearing cool and outwardly confident as he acknowledged his friends at ringside. A huge roar from the crowd signaled Jeffries’ entrance, his fellow Caucasians elated to see their champion returning to restore collective racial prestige. Back at his original boxing weight, the svelte Jeffries wore a look of complete seriousness, and he refused to 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 and pin his arms, and when granted an opening, Johnson stung Jeffries with quick, precise blows. Despairing at the obvious difference in ability between the two combatants, an ungentlemanly Corbett taunted Johnson with a series of vicious racial insults, but Johnson smiled back at Corbett and then returned his own barbs, while coolly keeping Jeffries at bay.
As the rounds passed, Jeffries’ face became increasingly battered, and it was obvious he was no longer a championship-caliber boxer, or at least not of a standard to challenge Johnson. Impressively game but too fatigued to be effective, Jeffries might have met his end far sooner had Johnson not feared the ugly consequences of an early knockout. The tiring Jeffries could mount no competitive push, and in round 15 Johnson scored the first ever knockdown against Jeffries, only to do it again, and then 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 rushed the ring after the stoppage, but Johnson’s men formed a protective barrier around the champion.
No one questioned the outcome or the fact that Johnson had proven himself the better man. Tellingly, Jeffries himself admitted he could never have beaten Johnson, even in his prime. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” he said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.”
Immediately 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. It would stand as the single worst day for race riots in American history until the unrest and violence of the late 1960’s. Johnson vs Jeffries, like later culturally significant matches such as Louis vs Schmeling II and Ali vs Frazier I, proved to be a social barometer as it attracted and laid bare America’s most dangerous prejudices. Given the ensuing, racially-charged calamities of the decades to come, this was one “Fight of the Century” truly deserving of its moniker.
— Eliott McCormick