The Fight of The Century
By R. Richard (March 2, 2010) Doghouse Boxing  
The Fighters:

Jack Johnson

John Arthur Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), better known as Jack Johnson and nicknamed the 'Galveston Giant,' was an American boxer. He was the best heavyweight of his generation and the first Negro World
Heavyweight Boxing Champion (1908-1915). In a documentary about his life, Ken Burns notes, "For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth."

Early life

Jack Johnson was born John Arthur Johnson in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878, as the second child and first son of Henry and Tina 'Tiny' Johnson, former slaves and devout Methodists, who both worked blue-collar jobs to earn enough to raise six children (the Johnsons had nine children, five of whom lived to adulthood and an adopted son.) The Johnsons taught their children how to read and write, unusual for Negroes at that time. Jack Johnson had five years of formal education. He rebelled against religion, however, and was kicked out of church when he stated that God didn't exist and that the church dominated people's lives.

Jack Johnson dropped out of school after the fifth grade and began to do odd jobs around town. He began training to box after beating up a local bully. Johnson fought his first bout, a 16-round victory, at age 15. By 1897 he had become a professional boxer. He fought in private clubs and made more money than he had ever seen before.

Although he would later consort only with white women, Johnson had been married to a black woman, Mary Austin, in 1898. However, the marriage broke up.

Jack Johnson then trained with people like Joe 'the Barbados Demon' Walcott and Joe Choynski. In 1901, Joe Choynski, a small but powerful Jewish heavyweight, came to Galveston and fought a match with Johnson, knocking him out in round three. Both Choynski and Johnson were both arrested for the crime of 'engaging in an illegal contest' and they were jailed for 23 days. (Although boxing was one of the three most popular sports in America at the time, along with baseball and horse-racing, the practice was officially illegal in most states, including Texas.) Choynski began training Johnson while they were both in jail and helped him develop his style. A style useful especially when fighting larger men.

From 1902-1907 Jack Johnson won over 50 matches, some of them against other African-American boxers such as Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford and Sam McVey. There were many white boxers who wouldn't fight a Negro boxer. Thus, many of the Negro boxers of the day fought each other several times, for lack of other opponents. Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford and Sam McVey were considered to be the best of the Negro heavyweights. It's interesting to note that, once he was heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson wouldn't again fight Joe Jeannette.

Professional boxing career

Johnson was 6 feet 1.5 (187 cm) inches tall and weighed about 205 pounds (93 kg). He was a large fighter for his era, but by no means a giant.

Johnson's boxing style was very distinctive. He used a more patient approach than was customary in that day. He fought defensively, waiting for a mistake, and then capitalizing on it by counter punching. Johnson always began a bout cautiously, slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. He often fought to punish his opponents rather than knock them out, endlessly avoiding their blows and striking with swift counters. He always gave the impression of having much more to offer and, if pushed, he could punch powerfully.

Johnson's style was very effective, but it was criticized in the press as being cowardly and devious. By contrast, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion 'Gentleman Jim' Corbett, who was white, had used many of the same techniques a decade earlier, and was praised by the press as, "The cleverest man in boxing".

By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and Negro opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating 'Denver' Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted, as the then world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him, at that time. Negro and white boxers could sometimes meet in other competitions, but the world heavyweight championship was off limits to Negroes. However, Johnson did fight former heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons in Philadelphia in July 1907 and knocked him out in two rounds.

Johnson finally won the World Heavyweight Boxing title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns at Rushcutters Bay in Australia in 1908, after stalking Burns around the world for two years and taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police in front of over 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee's decision as a TKO but he had clearly beaten the champion. Johnson constantly mocked both Burns and his ringside crew, while receiving every kind of racial and other slur from them and from members of the crowd. Every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up, cruelly beating an already helpless man.

After Johnson's victory over Burns, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that even a liberal like Jack London called out for a 'Great White Hope' to take the title away from Johnson. As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as 'great white hopes,' often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley 'The Michigan Assassin' Ketchel. The match with Ketchel was keenly fought by both men until the 12th and last round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson's head, knocking him down. Slowly regaining his feet, Johnson threw a straight to Ketchel's jaw, knocking him out, along with some of his teeth, several of which supposedly were embedded in Johnson's glove. Johnson's fight with 'Philadelphia' Jack O'Brien was a disappointing one for Johnson. Even though he weighed in at 205 pounds (93 kg) to O'Brien's 161 pounds (73 kg), he could only achieve a six-round draw with the former World Light Heavyweight Champion.

Jim Jeffries

James Jackson Jeffries ('The Boilermaker') (April 15, 1875 in Carroll, Ohio – March 3, 1953 in Burbank, California) was a World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.

His greatest assets were his enormous strength and stamina. Using a technique taught to him by his trainer, former welterweight and middleweight champion Tommy Ryan, Jeffries fought out of a crouch with his left arm extended forward. He was able to absorb tremendous punishment while wearing his opponents down. A natural left-hander, he possessed one-punch knockout power in his left hook.

Jeffries stood 6 feet (183 cm) tall and weighed 225 pounds (102 kg) in his prime. He could run 100 yards (91m) in just over ten seconds, and could purportedly high jump over 6 feet (180 cm).

In 1891, his father moved his family from their Ohio farm to Los Angeles where the powerfully built and athletic teenager boxed as an amateur until age 20, when he started fighting professionally. On his way to the title in 1898, Jeffries knocked out Peter Jackson, the great Negro boxer, whom John L. Sullivan had refused to fight, in three rounds. On June 9, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York he defeated Bob Fitzsimmons to win the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. That August, he embarked on a tour of Europe putting on exhibition fights for the fans. Jeffries was involved in several motion pictures recreating portions of his championship fights. Filmed portions of his other bouts and of some of his exhibition matches survive to this day.

Jeffries has the record for the quickest KO in a heavyweight title fight ever, which was 55 seconds against Jack Finnegan. During his reign as champion, Jeffries defended his title seven times, including two knockout victories over former champion Jim Corbett. He won a 25 round decision over 'Sailor' Tom Sharkey. Jeffries broke the ribs of three opponents in title fights: Jim Corbett, Gus Ruhlin and Tom Sharkey. Jeffries retired undefeated in May 1905. He served as a referee for the next few years, including the bout in which Marvin Hart (a boxer who defeated Jack Johnson in San Francisco in 1905) knocked out Jack Root in 12 rounds to stake a claim to Jeffries' vacated title.

An example of Jeffries' ability to absorb punishment and recover from a severe battering to win a bout came in his rematch for the title with Fitzsimmons, who is regarded as one of the hardest punchers in boxing history. The rematch with Jeffries occurred on July 25, 1902 in San Francisco. To train for the bout Jeffries' daily training included a 14-mile (23km) run, 2 hours of skipping rope, medicine ball training, 20 minutes sparring on the heavy bag, and at least 12 rounds of sparring in the ring. He also trained in wrestling.

For nearly eight rounds Fitzsimmons subjected Jeffries to a vicious battering. Jeffries suffered a broken nose, both his cheeks were cut to the bone, and gashes were opened over both eyes. It appeared that the fight would have to be stopped, as blood freely flowed into Jeffries' eyes. Then in the eighth round, Jeffries lashed out with a terrific right to the stomach, followed by a left hook to the jaw which knocked Fitzsimmons unconscious.

Sam Langford, the great light heavyweight fighter, advertised in newspapers his willingness to fight any man in the world, except Jim Jeffries.

Six years after retiring from the ring, Jeffries made a comeback on July 4, 1910 at Reno, Nevada. He fought the current heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who had staked his claim to the heavyweight championship by defeating Tommy Burns.

The Fight

The fight, which was promoted and refereed by legendary fight promoter Tex Rickard, and became known as 'The Fight of The Century,' soon became a symbolic battleground of the races. The media, eager for a 'Great White Hope,' found a champion for their racism in Jeffries. He said, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose weight to get back to his championship fighting weight.

Jeffries' attitude may seem a bit out of line today, but was common in his time.

The 'Fight of the Century'

One hundred years ago, Reno was normally a sleepy backwater of saloons, casinos, rails, sagebrush and sand. However, such was not the case on July 4, 1910. For on that day Reno would become the 'Center of the Universe' as the host city of 'The Fight of The Century.' In blazing 100-degree heat, two pugilists were pitted against each other in a grueling boxing match for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. It was 'The Dark Menace' vs. 'The Great White Hope.' Jack Johnson, the first Negro heavyweight champion against James Jeffries the undefeated former champion lured out of retirement in hopes of restoring the title back to its 'rightful place - with a white man,' as he stated.

For months, boxing promoter Tex Rickard searched for a venue to hold such an emotionally charged bout. His first choice was San Francisco, but a few weeks before it was to happen, California Governor James Gillett said he would not allow the match to take place in California. Unfortunately, in an era that embraced Jim Crow laws and upheld the de facto white supremacist status quo, no city with any sense of decency wished to be remembered as the place that permitted the pairing of a white versus a Negro for a championship boxing match.

However, the citizens of Reno, Nevada realized the money to be made from, 'The Fight of The Century,' and agreed to hold the fight and even built a 20,000 seat stadium specifically for the event. Reno was actually a good location for the fight, because of its excellent railroad service that would allow people from all over the country to attend the event. The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 22,000 people, at the ring built for the occasion in downtown Reno. When they climbed into the ring, the 32-year-old Johnson was a trim 208 pounds, while the 35-year-old Jeffries weighed in at 230 pounds. Johnson proved stronger and more nimble than the larger Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.

Tex Rickard, the promoter, grossed $270,715 from the Battle of the Century gate, where the top ticket went for $25.00. The gate was far below his original expectations of a half-million gate in the 30,000 seat bowl he had originally constructed in San Francisco. Tex Rickard was now hailed as the 'King of Sports Promoters.' Tex, who never kept books and never knew until he had tabulated the gate receipts how he fared, never disclosed his profit. Johnson collected $120,000, $70,000 from Rickard; and Jeffries retired back to his alfalfa farm in California with $117,000, $50,000 of it Rickard's. This at a time when the average starting yearly salary for a college graduate was $750 per year.

The fight silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson's previous victory over Tommy Burns as 'empty,' claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.

Johnson proved to be a skilled boxer with fast, punishing fists and feints that confused Jeffries. Johnson handily outclassed Jeffries, who had not fought for six years and was not in tip top shape.

Johnson verbally taunted Jeffries as he administered a beating. In return, Johnson was taunted by the crowd, that used racial slurs.

Jeffries came out for the first round in his famous crouch, with his left arm extended before him like an antenna. In the old days, this pose had struck terror into the hearts of his opponents. But if Jeffries thought he could bluff his way through this fight, he was sadly mistaken, a point Johnson underlined by leading again with a hard uppercut to the chin. Jeffries countered with a left to the body and took another blow in the face. The two men then sparred around for a while and clinched again. After the break, Jeffries waded in, and Johnson landed a wicked left hook to Jeffries' right eye.

At the end of the round, Johnson threw his head back and laughed out loud. This puzzled ringsiders, who wondered why he was happy. It was the consensus of the experts that the round was dull and that neither fighter had struck a good blow. In fact, the round had decided the fight, which was almost over. For one of his punches, the little-noted left hook to Jeffries' eye, had done irreparable damage to Jeffries' face and psyche. The punch didn't travel far, but it landed with such force that it paralyzed the right side of Jeffries' face and sent needles of pain through his body. Jeffries would say later that the punch, "… affected the vision to my right eye and I could see two colored men in the ring before me."

There were moments in succeeding rounds when it seemed to Jeffries that he was fighting four 'colored men.' Because, in the third round, Johnson seized the initiative and imposed a new rhythm on the fight. Jeffries continued to charge, flailing his arms and punching the air. But his punches lacked real authority, and Johnson sidestepped and counterattacked with deadly efficiency, toying with Jeffries.

Puzzled and feeling vaguely that something had gone wrong, Jeffries rushed around the ring like a bull, but Johnson led him like a clever matador, sidestepping his charges and stabbing him with left or right counterpunches. As Johnson worked, he had enough time to chat with friends and reporters at ringside and joshed Jeffries, telling him at one point, "Let me see what you got. Do something, man. This is for the cham-peen-ship."

After the third round, Johnson treated Jeffries, the Associated Press reported, "… almost as a joke. He smiled and blocked playfully, warding off the rushes with a marvelous science, now tucking a blow under his arm, again plucking it out of the air as a man stops a baseball."

At the end of the fifth round, Johnson leaned over the ropes and spoke to John L. Sullivan, the former heavyweight champion. He said, "John, I thought this fellow could hit."

Sullivan replied, "I never said so, but I believe he could have six years ago."

"Yes," Johnson nodded. "Five or six years ago ain't now, though."

Relentlessly, throughout the sixth, seventh and eighth rounds, Johnson increased the pressure on Jeffries, landing blow after blow. By the end of the sixth round, Jeffries' right eye was closed and his nose was bleeding.

In the next three rounds, Johnson kept Jeffries' head bobbing constantly, hitting him almost at will. His famous short-arm punches were working like pistons, and he was scoring effectively with hooks and uppercuts. Near the end of the 11th round, he turned Jeffries' head clear around with a whistling left to the jaw. In the 12th round, he put on such a dazzling display of speed and defensive ability that the hostile crowd actually cheered him.

By this time, Jeffries was bleeding from the lip and nose, and his legs were unsteady. As he turned to go to his corner at the end of the 12th, he spat up a large quantity of blood and gasped for air. One of Jeffries friends left his ringside seat and fled the arena, crying.

It had been clear for some time now that Johnson could put Jeffries away anytime he wanted. Why didn't he? The question would be debated at length in coming days. The white manager Johnson that fired on the eve of the fight charged bitterly – and Johnson denied – that Johnson had agreed to let the fight go a certain number of rounds for the benefit of the movie cameras. Nat Fleischer, the boxing expert, offered another explanation. It was Johnson's style he said, to punish opponents who insulted him. He liked, Fleischer said, to teach these opponents a lesson by cutting them up and making their punishment as severe and protracted as possible.

It was clear to almost everyone that the end was near when the gong for the 15th round sounded. Jeffries' face was puffed and bleeding and his legs were wobbly. Blindly, he stumbled after the elusive Johnson, sometimes crouching low with his left hand out in front of him, sometimes standing erect. But crouching or standing, he was an easy target for Johnson who waited until he was in range and chopped his face to pieces. Instinctively, Jeffries clinched. As he broke away, Johnson pivoted and sent a left and right to the jaw. Jeffries stumbled against the rope. Johnson pounced on him, shooting lefts and rights. Jeffries reeled away. Johnson shot a left from the hip straight to the jaw and Jeffries crashed to the floor for the first time in his career. The crowd, stunned by the fury and suddenness of the attack, came to its feet, soundlessly, and watched with horror as Jeffries looked around in a daze. The timekeeper counted to nine, and Jeffries staggered to his feet. Johnson pounced again. A left, a right, and another left landed on Jeffries' chin, and he fell backwards through the ropes and landed on the overhanging platform.

Jeffries corner then threw in the towel, so that Johnson would not knock out Jeffries.

The Aftermath

The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that holiday evening — the Fourth of July — all across the United States, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, D.C. Johnson's victory over Jeffries had dashed the white dreams of finding a 'Great White Hope"' to defeat him. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries.

Negros, on the other hand, were jubilant, and celebrated Johnson's great victory as a victory for their entire race. Negro poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the Negro reaction to the fight in his poem, 'My Lord, What a Morning.' Around the country, Negros held spontaneous parades, gathered in prayer meetings, and purchased goods with winnings gained from backing Johnson at the bookmakers. These celebrations often drew a violent response from white men.

Some 'riots' were simply Negros celebrating in the streets. In certain cities, like Chicago, the police didn't disturb the celebrations. But in other cities, the police and angry white citizens tried to subdue the celebrations. Police interrupted several attempted lynchings. In all, 'riots' occurred in more than twenty-five states and fifty cities. About 23 Negros and two whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured.

Film of the bout

A number of leading American film companies joined forces to shoot footage of the Jeffries-Johnson fight and turn it into a feature-length documentary film, at the cost of $100,000. The film was distributed widely in the U.S. and was exhibited internationally as well. As a result, Congress banned prizefight films from 1912 until 1940. In 2005, the film of the Jeffries-Johnson 'Fight of the Century' was entered into the United States National Film Registry as being worthy of preservation.

Loss of The Title

On April 5, 1915, Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a 6 feet 6.5 (199 cm) inches tall, 245 pound (111 kg) working cowboy from Kansas, who didn't start boxing until he was almost thirty years old. With a crowd of 25,000 watching at the Vedado Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was knocked out in the 26th round of a scheduled 45-round fight, which was co-promoted by Roderick James 'Jess' McMahon and a partner. Johnson found that he couldn't knock out the giant Willard, who fought as a counterpuncher, making Johnson do all the leading. Johnson, aged 37, although having won almost every round, began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th round knockout. Johnson is said by many to have spread rumors that he took a dive, but Willard is widely regarded as having won the fight outright. Willard later said, "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there."

In a famous photo showing Johnson lying on the mat after being knocked down and during the ten count, he can be seen apparently shielding his eyes from the glare of the tropical sun with his glove, with his legs braced to keep them off the burning hot canvas. However, there exists a film of the knockout and shortly after the famous photo. Johnson is sprawled flat on the canvas and obviously out.

Jack Johnson: Personal life

Johnson was an early example of the celebrity athlete in the modern era, appearing regularly in the press and later on radio and in motion pictures. He earned considerable sums by endorsing various products, including patent medicines, and also indulged several expensive hobbies such as automobile racing and tailored clothing, as well as purchasing jewelry and furs for his wives. In 1920, Johnson opened a night club called the 'Club Deluxe,' at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Johnson sold the club three years later to a gangster, Owney Madden, who renamed it the Cotton Club.

Johnson constantly flouted conventions regarding the social and economic 'place' of Negroes in American society. As a Negro, he broke a powerful taboo in consorting with white women, and would constantly and arrogantly verbally taunt men (both white and black) inside and outside the ring. Johnson was pompous about his affection for white women, and imperious about his physical prowess, both in and out of the ring.

After 1910, Johnson was married three times. All of his wives were white, a fact that caused considerable controversy at the time. In January 1911, Johnson married Etta Terry Duryea, a Brooklyn socialite and former wife of businessman Charles Duryea. The marriage was turbulent. Beaten many times by Johnson and suffering from severe depression, Duryea committed suicide in September 1912, by shooting herself.

Less than three months after the death of Duryea, on 4 December 1912, Johnson married Lucille Cameron. After Johnson married Cameron, two ministers in the South recommended that Johnson be lynched. Cameron divorced him in 1924 because of infidelity.

The next year, Johnson married Irene Pineau. When asked by a reporter at Johnson's funeral what she had loved about him, she replied, "I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn't anybody or anything he feared." Johnson had no children from any of the marriages.

Johnson continued fighting, but age was catching up with him. He fought professionally until 1938, losing 7 of his last 9 bouts. Johnson lost his final fight to Walter Price, by a 7th-round TKO.

Johnson died in a car crash in Franklinton, North Carolina, a small town near Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1946, after racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. Johnson was 68-years-old at the time of his death. He was buried next to Etta Duryea Johnson at the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. His grave was initially unmarked, but a stone that bears only the name 'Johnson' now stands above the plots of Jack, Etta, and Irene Pineau.

Prison sentence

On October 18, 1912, Johnson was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron violated the Mann Act against, 'transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.' The charge was due to Cameron being a prostitute. Cameron, soon to become Johnson's second wife, refused to cooperate with the authorities and the case fell apart. Less than a month later, Johnson was arrested again on similar charges. The second time the woman, another prostitute named Belle Schreiber with whom he had been involved in 1909 and 1910, testified against him, and he was convicted by a jury in June 1913. The conviction was despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place prior to passage of the Mann Act. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Johnson skipped bail, and left the country, joining Lucille in Montreal on June 25, before fleeing to France. For the next seven years, Johnson and his wife lived in exile in Europe, South America or Mexico. Johnson finally returned to the U.S. on 20 July 1920. He surrendered to Federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to the United States Penitentiary, in Leavenworth Kansas, to serve his sentence. He was released on July 9, 1921.

There have been recurring proposals to grant Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon. A bill requesting President George W. Bush to pardon Johnson in 2008, passed the House, but failed to pass in the Senate. In April 2009, Senator John McCain, along with Representative Peter King, filmmaker Ken Burns and Johnson's great niece, Linda Haywood, requested a presidential pardon for Johnson from President Barack Obama. On July 29, 2009, Congress passed a resolution calling on President Obama to issue a pardon.


Jack Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, and he's also on the roster of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

Johnson's skill as a fighter and the money that it brought made it impossible for him to be ignored by the establishment. In the short term, the boxing world reacted against Johnson's legacy. But Johnson brought the Negro boxer from carnival sideshow status to respected status.

Jim Jeffries: Personal life

In contrast to the flamboyant Jack Johnson, Jim Jeffries lived a rather quiet life after the events of the 'Fight of the Century.'
In his later years, Jeffries trained boxers and worked as a fight promoter. He promoted many fights out of a structure known as "Jeffries Barn", which was located on his alfalfa ranch at the southwest corner of Victory Boulevard and Buena Vista, in Burbank, California. On his passing in 1953, he was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
James J. Jeffries was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

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