The importance of the order of their names cannot be understated since the aftermath of the fight has seen the reputation of Jack Johnson spike beyond the standard ring legend just as assuredly as Jeffries’ own formidable reputation was left as battered and bruised as he was on the ring apron after 15 rounds of being slowly skewered over the slow roasting fire that Johnson brought to the ring that fateful Independence day.
Look for the usual crusted suspects dating back from the Jurassic era of boxing to be trotted out for the usual stock quotations and tales mixed in with liberal doses of Howard Sackler’s broadway hit, The Great White Hope, the defacto biography of Jack Johnson by way of the larger lazy media.
Since most accept that the fight itself was a dud, Jeffries was quickly out of clues and out of steam after just a few rounds, how did this fight become so big that spontaneous rioting broke across the American landscape for over a week afterwards?
Much of the dubious credit belongs to Jack London and the prevailing white supremist press of the day who so willingly hyped this ring encounter into a morality play between the battle of the races.
London was the bastard son of the western US frontier, born in San Francisco in the era of John L Sullivan, and raised in a hard scrabble, self educated, itinerant fashion to become a prolific author of books and magazine articles. He famously issued the clarion call that ultimately roused Jeffries from his alfalfa farm to “wipe the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.”
London was part of the prevailing progressive “socialist labor” movement of the day, and was not shy about examining racial profiles in print, having previously alerted the public to the 1904 menace of “the yellow peril,” a theme that later became the subject of an ambitious science fiction piece he wrote in 1910 called The Unparalleled Invasion, taking place in the futuristic 1975.
Hmmm, might have to review that forgotten work at a later date.
That Jeffries was the overwhelming favorite in spite of being some 6 years removed from boxing and having to shed some 100lbs speaks to the power of the white supremacy movement. John L Sullivan covered the bout for the New York Times was not suckered however, nor was Jeffries himself who could sense John L’s less than enthusiastic assessment of his chances against Johnson and accused him of being in cahoots with Johnson.
How Johnson arrived at the point of his biggest fight ever against a ring legend is the stuff of his own self promotional guile where he willingly embraced terrible insults so as to deflect them with the greatest possible humor in the ring for all to see. That persona became the myth promoted by Nat Fleischer, and later that of the other previously mentioned author, Howard Sackler. Johnson became this unbeatable fighter, the likes whom has never been equaled in the ring, only brought down by the legal apparatus of the white establishment.
Yet it was the rusting hulk of Jeffries who was widely considered invincible when he entered the ring that fateful July 4th, 1910. Contrary to modern revisionism, Jeffries was more than willing to fight the prevailing black contenders of the day, with almost a quarter of his record against black contenders. When he affixed the gaze of his formidable bulk on Johnson from across the ring before the bell, it must have been a chilling, “MAN or a mouse” moment for Johnson in spite of his outward sunny confidence.
Jeff was the forgone KO bludgeoner of his day. Nobody could stand against him for the duration.
Thirteen unlucky years previous, sunny James J. Corbett had been dethroned by a single devastating punch by the scowling Bob Fitzsimmons in Reno in the the first ever “Fight of the Century.” Boxing remains the only sport where one single scouring action, THE KNOCKOUT, can wipe out a scoring shutout in a nanosecond, nothing for sunny dispositions to be trifling with.
This sunny day in Nevada, however, proved to be the sunny day that smiled upon the sunny disposition of Jack Johnson, forever altering boxing history, and indeed, the modern interpretation of US history. The Johnson victory is acclaimed as a seminal moment in black boxing history in spite of there being previously acclaimed black boxing champions, George Dixon, Barbados Joe Walcott, Dixie Kid, and Joe Gans, all Hall of Famers.
Johnson netted the lion’s share to the winner, a staggering $115,000 with Jeffries allotted some $90,000, near as much as his entire career earnings as champion, thus proving the real impetus for his return to the ring. Both can thank the hyperbole of Jack London, who to his credit, showered Johnson with all just due praises in his victory, as did Jeffries who proved to be a gracious loser.
Alas, poor Jack Johnson, we had only barely gotten to know him before he ran afoul of the Mann Act, fled the country, and eventually was dethroned and receded into the background like so many great champions before him.
Today, run Jack Johnson through the internet search engines and you’ll more likely end up with Jack Johnson, the modern day Hawaiian musician, not the boxer, but such are the slings and arrows of modern internet memory. Jim Jeffries has been morphed into a modern comedian, the barest shadow of what used to be the truest grit of a man’s character, mano a mano in the ring with no quarter asked, just a fair referee and a handshake on the purse.
It wasn’t the greatest of fights, but thank you Lord for the fighting souls of Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries this 4th of July, 2010.
We should be so lucky to be remembered 100 yrs hence.