The CBZ Newswire

Making the Case for James J. Jefferies

by on Sep.28, 2009, under Guest Columnists, Reviews

By Tom Donelson

James Carney, Jr. in his book Ultimate Tough Guy reviews the career of James J. Jefferies and makes the case for the Jefferies’ greatness. Carney, like myself, believes that Ali was the greatest Heavyweight, but he does understand how many boxing historians, including Tracy Callis (with whom I have many of debates), rate James Jefferies as the greatest or one of the greatest.

Jefferies did fight some of the best of his era, including two bouts with Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey (even though only one of those matches was for the Heavyweight title). Against all three boxers, Jefferies was the bigger fighter, but his toughest opponent of the three may have been Tom Sharkey. Corbett was one of the best boxers in the first half of the twentieth century (I suspect Mr. Callis and others would argue for the rest of the century as well), but when he fought Jefferies, he was inactive three years for their first bout and he was past his prime for the second bout. Carney makes the point that Corbett wilted late in three matches with sluggers Bob Fitzsimmons as well as Jefferies. Corbett nearly upset Jefferies as he fought a near perfect bout for 22 rounds and had he succeeded in lasting three more rounds he would have reclaimed his title. Jefferies found a way to defeat Corbett in the 23rd despite being far behind.

Fitzsimmons was past 35 years but this could be deceiving, as he was one of those fighters who peaked later in his career than most fighters. In some ways, Fitzsimmons was similar to Lennox Lewis, whose own peak came when he approached his mid 30’s. Fitzsimmons was a smaller fighter who had power and hand speed to compete with Jefferies. Fitzsimmons would actually win the Light Heavyweight title at the age of 40, so Fitzsimmons was competitive late in his career.

Jefferies did not fight any of the African-American fighters for his championship bouts, but Carney makes the case that many of the better African-American fighters, such as Sam Langford, were at the beginning of their careers and certainly not ready for Jefferies. Jack Johnson wanted his shot at Jefferies, but in 1904, Jefferies didn’t care to fight anymore and whether it was because of drawing the color line or because he simply didn’t want to fight one more tough opponent at the end of his career, who knows. Some like Monte Cox viewed this as Jefferies drawing the color line, but others, like Carney, figure that Jefferies simply didn’t care to fight any more. Carney added in his book that in 1904, Jack Johnson’s career produced nothing that would force Jefferies or cause him to lose sleep.

Jefferies was a big fighter for his era and most eras, except modern times, plus he was a great athlete. He could run a 100 in slightly over 10 seconds, which would have made him a leading track star had he pursued that as a career. One aspect about Jefferies was that he did not fight that many fights in his career but depended upon his physical prowess to beat the best of his era; it could easily be argued that even in his peak he was still learning his trade. He did not always use his foot speed and his hand speed never matched many of his better opponents, but he did develop a crouched style of fighting that enhanced his defensive skills and made it more difficult to hit him solidly. What he had was natural athletic ability along with toughness and endurance that allowed him to persevere in his toughest matches. Most boxing fans view him as the Great White Hope that lost to Jack Johnson, but boxing historians are divided on whether Jack Johnson could actually have defeated Jefferies at his peak.

In comparing boxers from different eras, there are certain items to be considered. Many athletes today are naturally bigger, but in boxing that may not be all that beneficial. Fighters like Ali and Louis actually had easier fights with taller fighters than with smaller opponents. Opponents like cute boxers like Jimmy Young as well as swarmers like Joe Frazier gave Ali more problems than big bangers like Sonny Liston and George Foreman. Another aspect rarely discussed is how much of today’s weight gains among athletes are artificially aided. In baseball in the 90’s and early part of this decade, home run numbers went off the chart but we now know that many of these home run kings were aided by steroids and, while boxing doesn’t appear to have a steroid problem, there have been several boxers caught using steroids, including champions like Shane Mosley. Size does not compensate for a lack of skills.

Carney compared Jefferies’ own reign to Jack Johnson, who avoided many of the better African-American fighters. Johnson’s toughest opponent in his championship reign was Tommy Burns, from whom he took the title, and Middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. The Jefferies who fought Johnson had to lose 70 pounds and had not fought in six years. That Jefferies showed heart but his skills had long since eroded in retirement.

For me, the Heavyweight golden era was the late 60’s and early 70’s, when one of the greatest collections of heavyweights, featuring George Foreman, Joe Frazier, and of course Ali, traded punches. Even the second tier featured pugilists who would have been championship caliber competitors in any era. Ali’s greatness was shown when, after a three years absence, he fought some of his greatest opponents at a time when his own skills started to erode. No one has ever faced opponents similar to what Ali faced, but Carney certainly makes the case that the Heavyweight division that included Jefferies was one of the most competitive in boxing history.

The only other champion who can make similar claims in the quality of opponents is Lennox Lewis who had to fight Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson, two of the better fighters in his era. (Lewis fought both of these fighters late in his and their careers whereas Ali faced Frazier and Foreman in their prime). Not even Joe Louis at his peak ever faced similar competition compared to both Ali and Jefferies.

A few years back, Frank Lotierzo and I ranked Dempsey, Tunney and Johnson ahead of Jefferies among pre-1930’s heavyweights. After reading this book, I have to reconsider my own views.  Carney does believe Tunney would have defeated Jefferies, but I am not sure. My own view is that the case can be made that Jefferies may have been the best pre-1930’s heavyweight. I always split boxing into two eras, for in the 1920’s, fighters were required to move to a neutral corner and championship fights were set for 15 rounds, with few exceptions, and now 12 rounds. The longer fights benefited a fighter like Jefferies, whose endurance often made a difference in longer matches and the extra second or two that a fighter obtained when his opponent goes to a neutral corner could prove advantageous for survival in a fight.

Great fighters do make adjustments and we can only assume that Jefferies would have made his own adjustments to any rule changes. His power and endurance would have allowed him to take control in later rounds, plus his power would have allowed him to compete with other sluggers like Foreman and Marciano. Jefferies will forever be tied to Jack Johnson, but this is unfair to Jefferies, who was one of the great Heavyweights of his era and certainly would have been competitive in any era. Jefferies today is rated more as a foil to Jack Johnson, but he was one of the greatest fighters of his time.

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