James Jackson Jeffries was born on the 15th of April, 1875 in Carrol, Ohio. When he came of age, he moved to the west coast and earned his living as a boilermaker. He stood at 6’2 and weighed about 210 lbs, being at that day’s standards a very big man who had huge natural strength. To earn some extra cash he started boxing in 1896. In those days there were no four- or six-rounders to start with, so even the novices fought for twenty rounds. In the next year Jeffries studied his profession the hard way: he was hired as a sparring partner for the reigning heavyweight champion James J. Corbett. In that role, he was not allowed to do much else than to take punishment, but it became evident that he did that exceptionally well. Usually the sparring partners changed their professions, but Jeffries took everything the champion could offer, day after day. In the same year, the inexperienced young fighter fought two notable contenders, Gus Ruhlin and Joe Choynski and held both to draws. It was apparent that he had future in the game.
In 1898 Jeffries’ good run continued as he knocked out the Black Prince Peter Jackson, once a formidable contender whom the great John L. Sullivan had avoided throughout his career and who had held Corbett to a draw. A decision victory over “Sailor” Tom Sharkey was noted also in the Eastern newspapers. After these victories Jeffries traveled to New York for the first time, which at the time was the capital city of boxing, along with San Francisco. His trip was a failure, however, as he struggled badly in his first bout against a fighter named Steve O’Donnel. He also injured his hands in the bout and had to cancel his next fights. Disappointed Jeffries returned back to California and considered giving up boxing.
Jeffries’ manager William Brady made him change his mind, and in 1899 Jeffries made a trip to New York. There he got a lucky break: the new heavyweight champion of the world Bob Fitzsimmons had concentrated on everything but boxing for his two-year reign as a champ and he was searching for a soft touch to get back in business. He had seen Jeffries’ bad performance against O’Donnel earlier and offered him a chance.
Jeffries had taken psychological advantage before the first punch was thrown. Fitzsimmons went to Jeffries’ dressing room to discuss the rules, in order to disturb Jeffries’ concentration. Jeffries was not upset. “What about the break on the clinches?” he asked. “How d’you mean?” the champion asked back. “I mean like this”, Jeffries replied, grabbed Fitzsimmons and threw him back to the other side of the room. Fitzsimmons turned his back and walked out. The bout itself, by all accounts, was a less intense event, with Fitzsimmons being knocked out in the eighth round. Jeffries had triumphed.
Jeffries was indeed a scary figure inside the ring. There were plenty of fighters who might have beaten Jeffries, but they were all black. Jeffries, as every white champion before him, shamelessly avoided black contenders. He swore he would retire ‘when there are no white men left to fight’. Jeffries granted his crown to Marvin Hart in 1906 and retired from the ring.
But Jeffries’ biggest fight was still to come. When Jack Johnson became world champion, the news media of the day drummed up the idea of a “Great White Hope”, a fighter who could prove the supremacy of the “white” race. Jack London wrote that Jeffries should come out of retirement and wipe the smile off Johnson’s face. “Jeff, it’s up to you”, London cried, and the audience ate it up. Jeffries wasn’t interested, but when the promoter Tex Richard offered him $158,000 if he lost and $668,000 if he won, Jeffries agreed to the fight. He said “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race… I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”
The “Fight of the Century” was slated for the 7th of April, 1910. Jeffries had ballooned up to 300lbs during his retirement and training was not easy anymore for a 35-year-old man. He had no time for tune-up contests. He had no option but to win the fight. Jeffries knew that Johnson’s techniques were more advanced than his and that he wasn’t nearly the same man of his youth, although he was able to slim down to about 230lbs. His handlers tried to encourage him by telling him that the bout was fixed in his favor, but then the word came that it was on the level and would go for 45 rounds if needed. Jeffries became desperate. The pressure was unbearable. The interest that the fight drew was bigger than anything seen before. All advertisements of the fight declared that Jeffries would win. In truth he was beaten before the bout had even started.
Jeffries, as brave as ever, gave it a go, but the new champion gave him no chance. His outstanding defensive technique stopped every shot of Jeffries and in the return Johnson simply busted Jeffries up. Jeffries kept trying as before, but this time his efforts were futile. In the fifteenth round, Johnson downed him three times and Jeffries’ corner stopped the contest. It was the 21st contest of Jeffries’ career and the only one that he lost.
Johnson’s victory, his complete domination of Jeffries, came as such a shock and humiliation to the white public that it triggered massive riots from Missouri to the eastern seaboard. There were shootings in Georgia, knifings in Houston, furious white crowds in their thousands in Manhattan, walking up and down Eighth Avenue threatening to beat the first black man they saw. No racial incident on that scale of violence and geography would occur in the United States until the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, in 1968.
All the glory around Jeffries was gone. He was no more the invincible champion, but a fallen hero who had let the white race down. He retired again, this time for good, and was soon forgotten. In the 1940s he visited with some American soldiers, but nobody knew who he was until they were told. Jeffries lived out an anonymous but apparently happy life at his ranch in Burbank, CA, before he died in 1953.
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