The 100th Anniversary of the First “Fight of the Century”
By Marty Mulcahey from Max Boxing
Tomorrow marks the centennial anniversary of three colors - white, black, and green - converging violently to produce one of the most controversial and historic fights in boxing history. On Independence Day of 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James Jeffries was conscripted out of retirement by a Caucasian public to face down a prime Jack Johnson. It was an event which made a lot of money but produced real life consequences that ended in death. In the prefight build up, Jeffries, inactive for six years, gave a hint to the pressures heaped upon him. "I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.” Thankfully, boxing and society has evolved from the ignorance that spawned those words but the fight itself remains one of the most notorious of all-time.
The impetus for the event began less than two years earlier, halfway around the globe in Australia, when Jack Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns to win the world heavyweight title. A fight that had to happen outside of American borders since the prevailing racism of the time would not allow a black man to fight for the most prestigious championship in sports. Make no mistake though, not everything revolved around race. Finances played a large role, with promoters certain they could not make as much money with a “Negro” champion. Johnson did not care about any promoter’s concerns or any other man’s, for that matter, and reveled in the role of antagonist to societal norms. The champion knew he was the best and had no problem conveying his confidence in or out of the ring. It was not a clever publicity strategy (a good argument is to be made that Johnson was 50 years ahead of his time) but Johnson was a proud man who would not be dictated to.
Former heavyweight champion James Jeffries was the antithesis of Jack Johnson. A sporting gentleman who retired to a farm without a defeat on his ledger and was so respected that he chose the men who would fight for the title he vacated. A brawling menace inside the ropes, Jeffries had never been knocked down and drew favorable comparisons to the great John L. Sullivan. That image remained with the public but six years of retirement had turned Jeffries into a man of comfort. The 37-year-old man who entered the ring on that hot dessert afternoon shed 100 pounds to give the appearance of physical respectability. Unfortunately for Jeffries, the skills that made him great melted away with the pounds and the accumulation of age. In one sense, this was also one of boxing’s first comebacks. Frankly, a sad foretelling of what was to follow in the century to past-their-prime legends attempting to recapture greatness.
The event was the first to be correctly labeled as "The Fight of the Century" and, in a negative sense, Jeffries morphed into the first “Great White Hope.” For weeks, newspapers in every city around the world published stories on every conceivable aspect or angle to the fight. Magazines sent their top correspondents or public personalities to a then-unremarkable Nevada town of Reno (after San Francisco was scratched, due to political pressure) to cover the fight, most notably, author Jack London (a great writer but virulent racist) former heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, and Bat Masterson. They were joined by every other respected journalist of the day. Those who could not attend in person read hastily-typed bulletins posted outside of newspaper offices or gathered in auditoriums and trendy athletic clubs to read updates from specially-installed ticker tapes. Most absorbed financial blows betting on the fight, as odds swelled to an unrealistic 10-to-4 for Jeffries because fans were betting with their heart instead of head.
Those lucky enough to attend in person, 20,000 fans packed a stadium specifically built for the occasion and purchased tickets from $10.00 to $50.00. Promoters Tex Rickard and Jack Gleason made $360,000 at the gate and another $200,000 from the new revenue stream of movie rights. The bout was so big that it brought about the first collaboration of companies to share and incorporate international film rights. Three of the leading movie companies combined efforts to create footage of the Jeffries-Johnson fight, paying $50,000 to each fighter for the privilege of filming what was basically one of the first feature-length documentaries. That became a financial disaster when the footage was banned in many parts of America because of riots outside of theaters that aired the film. A mere three days after the fight, a movement by the Christian lobby, police unions, and a proclamation by former president Teddy Roosevelt became the impetus to shelve the film. It was not until 1940 that the ban was lifted by congress, who forbade prizefight films from distributing it across state lines.
The fight itself was anticlimactic, nothing short of an ugly mismatch. Johnson battered a helpless Jeffries, alternating between verbally ridiculing the champion and his supporters sitting ringside. It has often been aptly described as a cat toying with a mouse and, for 15 rounds, the dominant Johnson did as he wished with his outgunned rival. In the 15th round, Jeffries was knocked down twice for the first time in his career, after which his cornermen entered the ring expressly so that Jeffries would not be counted out. Seconds later, police jumped in to defuse any tension inside the ring. However, outside the ropes, the crowd seemed strangely ambivalent. The New York Daily Tribune remarked on those in attendance who just watched their idol dissected. “Thousands were silent, just readjusting things in their mind.” Other parts of the country were not so fortunate. Race riots broke out in several cities as news of Jeffries’ demise spread. At a minimum, 23 black Americans were murdered in the aftermath of the “Fight of the Century.” A hopeless attempt by whites to avenge Jeffries, who was described by The New York Times as “a broken idol”.
The champion earned $175,000 for the fight (60% of the purse went to the winner), while his challenger reportedly pocketed $125,000 for his pasting. Both immense sums for the era. It is a figure James Jeffries would have gladly given back to erase the blight from his personal history. "I was too old to come back. I guess my pride got the better of my good judgment." Directly following the fight, Jack Johnson was less introspective, feasting on the racial misery of others under whose abuse he had suffered all his life. "I could have fought for two hours longer; it was easy. I wish it was longer; I was having lots of fun. I am unmarked. Not one blow hurt me." There was also a gracious and a gregarious side to Johnson that emerged. "He came back at me with the heart of a true fighter. No man can say he did not do his best. There was nothing said between us which was rough. He joked me and I joked him." Johnson even threw an old racial stereotype back at naysayers. "I told him I knew he was a bear but I was a gorilla and would defeat him."
With victory, Johnson elevated himself even more as a target. It directly led to his European exile, while still champion, on trumped-up charges of violating the Mann Act (transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes). It was of little consequence that the woman was his third wife; the fact that the lady was white infuriated and broadened the hatred even more. Johnson’s indomitable persona and the racial loathing it fermented made it impossible for a black heavyweight to become champion until two decades had passed. It took Joe Louis’ undeniable skill and self-assuredness to play the role of humble warrior to convince the white power structure of his acceptability. Ironically, it was Joe Louis’ clash with perceived Nazi sympathizer Max Schmeling (the second “Fight of the Century”) which cast the new black heavyweight champion in the role that he and Jack Johnson deserved. That of a hero.