Jeffries: Why The Mighty Bear Of Ohio Would Still Be A Formidable Force Today
By Mike Casey
In the autumn days of his life, former heavyweight champion Jem
Mace had become a sad and somewhat pathetic figure. Some seventy years of age,
Jem was a walking time warp of a man who continued to dress in the style of the
era he had dominated for so long with his mighty fists. His old frock coat and
silk hat were his last possessions from the golden period of the bare-knuckle
tough guys. His fighting days were over, his money had gone and now his pride
too was steadily dribbling away.
Needs must and Mace would politely seek out old and new friends
at social occasions in the hope of eliciting their sympathy and collecting a few
He would never forget the day at the National Sporting Club in
London in the dying days of the nineteenth century when he sidled up to the new
kid on the block: the mighty bear of a fighting man from Ohio that was James J
Big Jeff never did care for the spotlight and would approach such
occasions with the quiet stealth and mild angst of an undercover agent trying to
pull off a mission with the minimum of fuss and damage. Picking his route and
heading for his seat as quickly and as quietly as he could, he was tagged by the
still sprightly Mace, who faltering requested a word in the reigning champion’s
Witnesses to the incident smiled knowingly and sympathetically.
Old Jem was about to regale Big Jeff with one of his famous hard luck stories.
What happened next astounded everyone. Jeffries’ stern countenance never
flickered as he reached into his pocket, whipped Jem’s silk hat from his head
and began to fill it with a seemingly endless stream of gold sovereigns. By the
time the emotionally shattered Mace eventually shuffled away, he had around
fifty sovereigns to warm his heart and keep him in pocket until the next
inevitable bump in the road.
Jeffries made nothing of the incident and was clearly
uncomfortable as Mace stammered his thanks. Big Jeff was easy to understand in
his fighting mode because his simple style was to hunt down his opponent and
crush him. The real man was a much more enigmatic and eclectic mix. Mostly
described as gruff and taciturn, Jeffries was also a kind and generous hearted
man who was sometimes too susceptible to a sob story. In a simpler and more
conservative era when men were not bullied to get in touch with their feelings
and gush over every emotional moment, the champion of the world was a shy and
quiet fellow who preferred not to make a fuss.
But what a noise Jim Jeffries made inside the ropes! And what a
magnificent champion he was. The first of the truly big heavyweights, the boxing
world had never seen his like. Tall and thick set at six feet two and scaling
220lbs at his best fighting weight, Jeff was indeed a bear of a man whose
formidable strength and punching power matched his size.
It has been more than a hundred years since he dominated the
heavyweight division, and the passing of time has blurred and twisted the
Jeffries legacy with the usual misconceptions. It is hard to appreciate now the
extent of Jeff’s dominance over the sport’s premier division in the five years
that he reigned supreme. No longer tangible is the prevailing feeling of the
time that he was invincible to the point of being almost godly.
If you enjoy hunting down old pictures of past champions, you
will doubtless have seen the famous studio shot of James J Jeffries in his vest
and sash, arms clasped behind his back and looking mildly bored by all the
attention. You will also see that the big body is somewhat fleshy with more than
a hint of a paunch. This is how Jeffries is recognised and remembered by many
newcomers to boxing who limit their research to a casual glance.
To skip over Jeffries and deny him sufficient attention in this
regard is to do him a great injustice. For the big man can quite justifiably be
acclaimed as probably the only true athlete of all the heavyweight champions.
Several years ago, the BBC ran a TV series called Superstars, in
which famous sportsmen demonstrated their overall athletic ability in a range of
tests that included the steeplechase, bike riding, swimming and running. Former
heavyweight champion Joe Frazier was one of the guests and finished well back in
the overall standings. As one would imagine, Joe was not the fastest man in the
running event, but nor did he prove the strongest or the most durable.
Jim Jeffries would have excelled in such a competition. Although
he wasn’t a trained sprinter, Jeff could complete the one hundred yard dash in
just over ten seconds. He could high jump over six feet. When reigning champion
Jim Corbett took the young Jeffries on as a sparring partner, Jeff regularly
out-sprinted his nimble employer in their training sessions. Jeffries had the
size and strength of George Foreman, but also possessed the endurance that Big
George lacked at critical moments in his career.
Jeff’s strength and stamina were almost the stuff of comic book
heroes. Blessed with a daunting physique, Jeffries lived cleanly and worked hard
to strengthen his already powerful body. His work as a boilermaker, back in the
days when the big rivets of the boilers were driven in by hand, served to hone
his great hulk and add further power and muscle definition to his shoulders,
arms and chest. The story goes that when Jeff caught pneumonia, he took to his
bed and slugged the illness from his system by downing a gallon of whiskey.
Jim Jeffries was a big man from a young age and it wasn’t long
before he began to carve a frightening reputation in boxing circles. Born in
Carroll, Ohio, on April 15 1875, Jeff was already a strapping 220-pounder at six
feet two when he was sixteen. He learned to box during his time as an ironworker
in his adopted home of California, and it wasn’t long before his strength and
ferocity in the ring became noticed. Harry Corbett, a California sportsman,
introduced Jeffries to heavyweight champion Jim Corbett’s trainer, Billy
Delaney, who quickly spotted the big man’s potential. Corbett was training for
his title defence against Bob Fitzsimmons and was on the lookout for a durable
sparring partner who could take his blows without tiring or wilting.
Jeffries was a revelation in his ability to absorb punishment and
keep coming, but the wily Delaney saw that the giant possessed much more than
simple toughness. He took Jeff under his wing and trained him, and found an all
too willing student. Jeffries was a shrewd man during his employ with Corbett.
Dedicated and loyal, Jeff did everything that was asked of him, but was also
studying and learning from the champion all the time. The knowledge Jeffries
soaked up during those sessions would prove invaluable.
His coming as the world’s premier heavyweight was a sensation and
no man could topple him once he reached the summit with his crushing knockout of
Bob Fitzsimmons. Jeff’s statistics are almost too good to be true. He got it all
done in just 22 fights, winning the championship at the age of twenty-four and
defending the title seven times before retiring undefeated.
This was not the tired and rusty Jim Jeffries who climbed
reluctantly back into the ring six years later to be batted around the ring by
Jack Johnson in the sweltering heat of Reno. That is another story and a very
The real Jim Jeffries, the prime Jim Jeffries, left a trail of
destruction in his wake that made opponents and critics speak in awe of him.
Tom Sharkey, one of the toughest and most dangerous men who ever
stepped into the ring, would say in later years that Jeffries would have beaten
Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. Sharkey was well qualified to offer his opinion,
since Jeffries had broken his nose and busted two of his ribs during their
marathon classic for Jeff’s world title at Coney Island in 1899. One can only
imagine the punishment and torrid heat that Jeff and Tom had to endure on that
November day. If torrid heat doesn’t sound quite right for Coney Island in
November, the explanation is simple. The fight marked the first use of motion
pictures under artificial lights and the weather was mild for so late in the
year. Jeffries and Sharkey waged their punishing war under 400 arc lamps and
never let up in the brutal test of attrition. Both men took terrible punishment
and Tom knew that he needed a knockout as he came out for the twenty-fifth and
final round. It was at that point in the grand battle that Jeffries demonstrated
why he was so exceptional. Charging from his corner, he battered Sharkey with a
hail of big punches from both hands to put the finishing touches to one of the
greatest battles ever fought. Both men were near exhaustion when referee George
Siler raised Jeff’s hand, and Sharkey was taken to hospital for treatment to his
It has often been said that Jeffries never hit his opponents
quite as hard as he knew he could, for fear of killing them. That might well be
the truth. It is an historical fact that Jeffries quite literally broke men’s
bones and sometimes forced them to take to their sick beds.
Jeff could finish an opponent quickly too, contrary to the
popular view that he always needed time and the greater distances of his era to
hunt his man down. In his final defence against Jack Munroe at the Mechanics
Pavilion in San Francisco in 1904, the champion wasted no time in shelling his
challenger with immense blows to the jaw and body, sending Munroe down and out
in the second round. During an earlier exhibition tour, Jeffries had brought
gasps of shock from his admirers after being temporarily felled by Munroe, who
achieved the famous first with a shot to the jaw. Alas, Jack learned that
Jeffries was a vastly different proposition on the real stage.
How do you stop a big hitter? Why, of course, you hit him back.
But the biggest hitters in the business learned that while Jim Jeffries was a
relatively easy target to find, he was near impossible to derail. Bob
Fitzsimmons made the shocking discovery when he defended his championship
against the young but still green Jeffries at Coney Island on June 9 1899.
Fitzsimmons was another naturally powerful man who had also
developed his strength in the old-fashioned way by his work as a blacksmith.
Never much more than a middleweight, Bob had surged through the divisions with
his exceptional knockout power. The famous solar plexus blow with which he had
dethroned Corbett had left Gentleman Jim in agony. As a younger man, when
Australia was a hotbed of fistic talent, Fitzsimmons had based himself Down
Under and knocked out virtually everyone he faced. He felt sure he could do the
same to Jeffries. Waiting in his corner for the opening gong, Bob’s massive
shoulders and muscled arms prepared to do their damage to the young pretender.
But Jeffries had bigger shoulders and bigger arms. He resembled the great
grizzly bear to which he was so frequently compared. His barrel-like, hairy
chest added appropriate spice and meaning to the analogy.
Propped behind Fitzsimmons in his corner was a huge floral
horseshoe bearing the message, ‘Good luck to the champion’. But lanky Bob seemed
to feel that he didn’t require luck or the assistance of any other outside
agency. An odd characteristic of Fitzsimmons was the faraway smile that would
crease his face as he went into battle, which was very much in conflict with his
eyes. The eyes were cold and bright, burning with intensity.
Jeffries had perfected a somewhat awkward crouch to minimise the
punishment he would inevitably absorb in a distance battle. From his peculiar
little bunker, he would often let his opponent make the first move as a means of
testing the water. From the start, the Jeffries crouch unsettled Fitzsimmons.
Bob couldn’t find a place to plant his withering body punches, even though he
had no trouble avoiding Jeff’s first tentative swings.
Pride and too much self-belief were to prove Bob’s undoing on
that historic day. He had the talent and the speed to torment and outscore
Jeffries from long range, but Bob wanted the knockout. He simply couldn’t
believe that there was a man living who could survive his power.
When Jeffries cut loose in earnest, he was an awesome fighting
man. Many an opponent would assume Jeff’s firing rate to be as slow as his pace.
Yet the sudden explosions of power were frequently fast and shocking. It was in
the second round that he shocked Fitzsimmons, with a mighty left hand smash that
lifted Bob off his feet and scuttled him. Bob jumped up in that quick and
defiant way that fighters do when they interpret reality as an aberration.
Instead of retreating, he threw himself back into the fray wildly, lashing at
the young pretender but finding no meaningful target.
The trademark smile of Fitzsimmons began to fade as the enormity
of his task registered in the third round. Jeffries was rolling now, a mighty
boulder gathering momentum all the time as he launched his big punches and
bulled his way into the champion. As blood began to flow from Bob’s nose from a
hard left, he suffered another quick blow to his confidence. Finally spotting an
opening, he drilled home a terrific blow that caught Jeff in the neck – only to
find that the challenger hadn’t moved back an inch.
The die was cast for Fitzsimmons. He was on the wrong track,
hurtling towards oblivion, but his pride prevented his boxing brain from pulling
the communication cord. In the ensuing rounds, Bob hit Jeff with every punch in
the book, gashing the iron man’s left eyebrow but failing to cut through his
incredible armour. In the fifth, Fitzsimmons hit Jeff flush with a tremendous
left to the chin, which would probably have felled any other man. When Jeffries
took that blow and then sank a left of his own under the champion’s heart, Bob
could only stare at the younger man in disbelief.
As the fight wore on, so Jeffries became a more intimidating
predator, venturing out of his crouch as he sensed his moment of glory. In the
tenth round, he unleashed a big left to drop the tiring Fitzsimmons and soften
him up for the final onslaught. Firing the left again in the fateful eleventh,
Jeff sent Bob staggering back. The champion’s legs had gone and the familiar
steel had vanished from his eyes. A wily attacker, Jeffries paused briefly to
satisfy himself that Bob wasn’t playing possum, before bringing the curtain down
with a final, mighty right.
Just how great was Jim Jeffries? He took and survived such
punishment from big and small heavyweights alike and always found a way to win.
He was a crushing puncher and quite probably the strongest and toughest man who
ever held the heavyweight crown. In terms of size, strength and the ability to
take a punch, George Foreman is probably Jeff’s only real counterpart of all the
But was Jeff simply a man of his time or would he still be a
formidable force today? I am inclined to very much believe the latter, although
today’s championship distance would certainly handicap the big fellow. Over
twelve rounds, it is likely that a prime Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes would
out-speed and outpoint the Ohio bear. We also need to consider that today’s
referees, even in the special circumstances that prevail in world championship
fights, would not permit Jeff to take the punishment he did a hundred or more
Ah, but we are all cosy creatures in this cosy era of ours. We
selfishly insist that fantasy fights be conducted according to today’s rules,
but that very word ‘fantasy’ surely means that our make-believe battles can be
set down in any era. Let us suppose that we are in a time vacuum where Jeffries
and his opponent can negotiate rules and conditions as well as a mutually
agreeable distance. The limit is re-set to fifteen rounds and our referee Frank
Cappuccino is under strict instructions not to be an old fusspot and break
clinches before they even occur.
I would venture the confident opinion that Jeff’s chances against
any heavyweight in history would suddenly soar dramatically. Would Dempsey,
Louis, Marciano, Liston, Foreman and Tyson have simply got tired of hitting
Jeffries and then left themselves open to the bear’s crunching counter shots?
One has to wonder. Would Ali and Holmes have been able to steer clear of Jeff’s
body punches for forty-five minutes? At the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in
1966, Ali persistently called on the referee’s help when George Chuvalo was
banging him in the ribs and planting the odd shot to the kidneys.
However, my instinct tells me that the really clever ring
generals would have kept Jeffries at bay. I do not believe, for example, that
even a prime Jeffries could have beaten Jack Johnson over fifteen or even twenty
What I do believe is that Jim Jeffries would have a field day in
the transitional era we are currently stumbling through. Wladimir Klitschko,
bless him, would need the Count of Monte Cristo’s headwear to protect his chin
What I also believe is that in that most ultimate of
confrontations – the good old-fashioned fight to the finish – Jim Jeffries might
well have beaten them all.
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