(Photo: Associated Press)
“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” —Jim Jeffries before his match with Jack Johnson.
“Don’t rush, Jim. I can do this all afternoon.” —Jack Johnson taunting Jeffries during the fight.
Jim Jeffries’ nose was broken, his face was scrambled, and his body was covered in drops of his own blood. He was pulling himself to his feet—something he’d never had to do before in his career—to go back out to face a man faster than him, stronger than him, better than him. The almost entirely white crowd in Reno fell silent, having seen the former champion knocked down by Jack Johnson, the first black man to be crowned World Heavyweight Champion.
Some urged Jeffries to get to his feet. Others probably hoped the man they referred to as the Great White Hope would stay down rather than take any more punishment from Johnson. As Jeffries used the rope to help himself up, Johnson stood to the side, ready to resume his attack. As soon as Jeffries was vertical, Johnson laid into him, sending him through the ropes with a left.
Around the country, news of the fight was coming in over telegraph wires. White crowds received the news silently. Black crowds received it joyously. The fact of the result would soon sink in, and by that night, the country would be swallowed by a wave of violence, including some of the biggest race riots in American history.
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Site of the Johnson/Jeffries fight today.
The fight was never supposed to be in Reno. It was scheduled for San Francisco, which at the time (and in spite of the devastation of the 1906 earthquake) was still the boxing capital of the world. But rumors of a fix in the fight, national movements against the sport of boxing, and the controversy surrounding Johnson got the governor involved. The fight was banned in California.
The promoter moved it to Nevada, the only state where prizefighting was legal. Reno was chosen because it was a railroad hub. Construction workers had three weeks to construct a stadium that could hold over 15,000 people. Jack Johnson set up his camp at a resort called Rick’s Roadhouse, while Jeffries set up at nearby Moana Springs. The crowds that poured into Reno moved between the two camps to watch the fighters train, then spent the rest of their days drinking and gambling in the wide open town.
Few expected Johnson to win, and those who did kept their mouths shut. This was about far more than a boxing match for the spectators here. For many, this fight was about restoring what they saw as the natural order of the races.
The man who had upset this order was a tall, strong, unbelievably fast fighter from Galveston, Texas named Jack Johnson. He began boxing in 1898, and within five years had won the title of Colored Heavyweight Champion. But the unified title eluded him. Not one of the white heavyweight champs would agree to meet a black fighter for the title. Not John L. Sullivan. Not Jim Corbett. Not Jim Jeffries.
Jeffries, an enormous boilermaker from Los Angeles, was the man holding the title in 1904. He was a brutal puncher, who broke the ribs of several men he fought, and was considered extraordinarily fast for a man of his size. But he refused to fight a black man for the championship. Johnson repeatedly challenged him to a title fight, and many newspapers supported Johnson as the number one challenger. But in 1905 Jeffries retired, claiming that there were “no more heavyweights left for me to meet.”
Johnson continued to win fights and waited for his chance. That chance finally came in 1908 when the new champion, a Canadian fighter named Tommy Burns (real name: Noah Brusso) agreed to meet Johnson for the title in Sydney, Australia. The fight was a rout. Johnson stood nearly six inches taller than Burns and outweighed him by 25 pounds. He battered Burns for 14 rounds until police stopped the fight.
With that victory, Jack Johnson became the first black fighter to lay claim on the title that many considered the greatest prize in sport. As such, he likely would have received massive backlash from the white public no matter what he did. But Johnson’s complete disregard for the demented social contract of white supremacy made him public enemy number one. Johnson made no secret of his numerous relationships with white women. He publicly flaunted his wealth, appearing in expensive clothes and speeding across town in fast cars at a time when few people even owned a car. Whites were outraged, and likely terrified of what Johnson’s reign as champion signified for the future.
They began asking, and then begging, for Jim Jeffries to return to the ring.
But Jeffries had retired to his alfalfa farm and ballooned to over 300 pounds. He was happy there, and asserted that he had no interest in fighting again. Promoters began training white fighters exclusively for the purpose of beating Jack Johnson. They became known as “White Hopes,” and Johnson dismantled them one after another. Still, many white fans, grasping desperately for a shadow to cast over Johnson, claimed that Johnson was not the legitimate title-holder, since Jeffries had retired undefeated. Until he beat Jeffries, went the argument, Johnson wasn’t really the champ.
The pressure kept coming down on Jeffries to take the fight against Johnson. “The White Man must be rescued,” wrote Jack London. Finally, after nearly two years of pressure, and with an offer of somewhere between 40 and 75 thousand dollars dangling in front of him, Jeffries came out of retirement and began to train.
Johnson wasn’t worried, claiming Jeffries would never be able to regain his fighting form of six years earlier. And despite Jeffries losing over 70 pounds and looking every bit the muscle-bound monster of earlier times by the day of the fight, Johnson would prove to be right.
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Johnson stands over the battered Jeffries in the 15th round of the fight.
Jeffries went down again, his third knockdown of the fight. Having been forced to his feet and pushed into the ring after the second knockdown, he’d absorbed more punishment from Johnson. When a hard right to the head crumpled him, it was clear the end had come. He was reaching for the ropes when his cornermen rushed into the ring, ending the fight and preventing Jeffries from being counted out.
There could no longer be any dispute. All the arguments were exhausted. Jack Johnson was undeniably the greatest fighter in the world.
The crowd shuffled out of the stadium and Johnson went to celebrating. Some toasted him, and even Jim Jeffries saluted his abilities, admitting that in his prime and at his very best, he could never have beaten Johnson.
But many whites around the country were less inclined to be so civil. Or even to be human.
—In Uvaldia, Georgia, a gang of armed white men opened fire on a railroad camp, killing three black workers.
—In Shreveport, Louisiana, a white man shot a black man in the face after an argument over the fight.
—In Houston, a white streetcar passenger slashed a black passenger’s throat after he shouted “Hurrah for Johnson!”
—In New York, a white gang set fire to a black tenement and attempted to block the exits so no one could escape.
—In Pueblo, Colorado, a riot between blacks and whites became so massive that the entire police force had to be called out to stop it.
—And in Chicago, a white man attempted to break into Johnson’s home to kill him.
In all, there were riots in over fifty cities around the country. At least twenty people were killed, and possibly many more. Hundreds were injured. It was one of the largest incidents of mass rioting in U.S. history.
From the L.A. Times
No American sporting event ever created such a catastrophic reaction. Across the nation, the fight had become symbolic as a battle between the races for control of the country. Narrow-minded blowhards shouted the news that this was the first salvo of a long race war. Those who had been on top for so long, who had enjoyed a position of privilege over their fellow man, were not only afraid of losing their status, but of the revenge that they were certain would be taken on them if the social order was overturned.
Jack Johnson’s life continued to be an insult to this twisted order.
In 1912, with no prospects of defeating him in the ring, an effort was spearheaded to defeat him outside of it. Using trumped up charges of transporting a women across state lines for “immoral purposes” (a law known as the Mann Act ), the government launched two cases against Johnson. The first case, involving a woman named Lucille Cameron—whose mother claimed had been lured by Johnson’s “hypnotic powers”—collapsed when Cameron refused to testify (she later married Johnson). The second involved a former lover of Johnson’s named Belle Schreiber, whose time with Johnson occurred long before the Mann Act even took effect. But the case came to court anyway, aided tremendously by Schreiber, who was threatened with jail time if she didn’t cooperate.
An all-white jury convicted Johnson. He was sentenced to a year in prison. The decision was handed down by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who would later become Commissioner of Baseball, where he successfully prevented any black player from joining the major leagues during his lifetime.
Johnson fled the country, title in hand, and stayed on the run for nearly eight years. In the middle of this, he lost his title to a massive Kansas cowboy named Jess Willard, who didn’t beat Johnson so much as he stayed vertical until an out-of-shape Johnson wore himself out beating on him. No black fighter was given the right to fight for the heavyweight title for the next 20 years.
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Decades after his legendary fight with Jim Jeffires, a play based on Jack Johnson’s life made its debut on Broadway. It was called The Great White Hope, and it was subsequently turned into a critically acclaimed film. Both the play and film starred a young actor named James Earl Jones in a star making turn. In the audience for the play one night was a fighter who, like Johnson, had become a social pariah for his refusal to follow the social mores of the time. His name was Muhammad Ali, and he would bring everyone he could to see the play in the coming weeks, apparently telling Jones, “You take out the issue of white women and replace it with religion, that’s my story!”
James Earl Jones “spars” with Muhammad Ali on the set of the play The Great White Hope, 1969. (photo: Associated Press)
The play revived interest in Johnson’s life and career, and in the atmosphere of social rebellion of the late 1960’s, he came to be viewed as an anti-authority figure who took on a schizophrenic and poisoned establishment and, at least for a time, claimed superiority over all of them.
Reno’s history as a major boxing destination began and ended with the Johnson/Jeffries fight. While Nevada had hosted boxing matches for years, from brawls in its silver mining camps to major fights in towns like Carson City, Reno wasn’t a big enough draw for another major fight. In 1911, prizefighting became legal in New York again, and the big town’s population, proximity to other major cities, and status as a major center for an emerging medium called radio made New York the capital of boxing for decades.
In the early 1960’s, boxing started to make a comeback in Nevada, but this time it was in Las Vegas, as a larger part of the instant city’s overall spectacle. With multiple venues geared specifically for events like major fights and a built-in machine to turn over the gambling money that came flowing in for every match, Las Vegas soon became the most important city in the boxing world. Reno, which developed its own gambling-fueled economy, would never be able to match the revenues of its neighbor to the south, and therefore would never be a player on the boxing scene.
But for one day in 1910, it had the attention of not just sporting enthusiasts, but of the entire world. All of it fixed on two fighters in a hastily constructed arena who put on arguably the most socially significant sporting event in the country’s history. A fight we can look back on today as a symbol for the coming destruction of the Jim Crow social system in America.