Jack Johnson KOs Jim Jeffries – Retains Heavyweight Crown This Day July 4, 1910
- James J. Jeffries 227 lbs
- Jack Johnson 208 lbs
- TKO at 2:20 in round 15 of 45
- Reno, Nevada, USA
- Referee: Tex Rickard
Billed by promoter Tex Rickard as “The Fight of the Century” (the second time he had used that label.)
Jack Johnson became the Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1903. However, unsatisfied with his accomplishment, Johnson entered the San Francisco saloon owned and operated by the World Heavyweight Champion, James J. Jeffries, and challenged Jeffries to defend his title against him. Jeffries refused Johnson’s challenge and explained: “I won’t meet you in the ring because you’ve got no name and we won’t draw flies. But I’ll go downstairs to the cellar with you and lock the door from the inside. And the one who comes out with the key will be the champ.” When Johnson expressed doubt about Jeffries’ sincerity, Jeffries assured him that he was serious and that he was prepared to fight him immediately. Johnson reportedly turned and walked away.
After Johnson won the decision over Tommy Burns to win the World Heavyweight Championship on December 26, 1908, Jeffries was persuaded to come out of retirement to fight Johnson. Jeffries had not fought since August 1904, almost six years previously, and his weight had ballooned to over 300 pounds.
The purse was $101,000. Originally, the winner was to get 75% and the loser 25%. Five days before the fight, Johnson proposed changing it to an even 50/50 split. Jeffries suggested a 60/40 split, which Johnson accepted. Each fighter was given a $10,000 signing bonus. Jeffries was given $66,666 for movie rights and Johnson was given $50,000.
Jeffries opened as a 10-7 favorite. Odds climbed as high as 2½-1 for Jeffries.
The fight was to take place in San Francisco, until California’s governor, James Gillett, stepped in with less than three weeks to go. Boxing was still banned in many states, and church groups had pressured him to stop it on moral and religious grounds. Promoter Tex Rickard acted swiftly and moved the bout to Reno, where prizefighting was legal and several east-west railroads met.
There were rumors of a fix, and Nevada Governor Denver Dickerson demanded an assurance from Rickard that the fight be fair, not fixed.
Noted storyteller Bert Sugar wrote: “When the fight moved from California to Nevada, the ‘arrangement’ that Jeffries would win was called off. Johnson had sent him word that he was no longer bound by the secret prefight agreement to ‘go in the tank.’ Now it was ‘best man wins,’ and Jeff knew before he entered the ring that Johnson was that best man.” [There is no hard evidence to support this tale.]
Ed (Gunboat) Smith, who boxed an exhibition with Johnson in 1909, told author Peter Heller, “Jeffries didn’t think he could win on the level. He thought it was all fixed.” Smith said Johnson informed Jeffries the night before the fight that he wasn’t going to take a dive, and Jeffries “didn’t sleep all night.”
This was the first time an arena was constructed for one single fight. Attendance was 15,760.
John L. Sullivan, Bob Fitzsimmons Tommy Burns, Tom Sharkey, Jake Kilrain, Sam Langford, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien and Abe Attell were introduced to the crowd.
Tex Rickard refereed the fight. United States President William Howard Taft and writer Arthur Conan Doyle declined Rickard’s telegraphed offers to referee.
In Chicago, some 10,000 people, mostly white, gathered outside the Tribune building to listen to a man on a megaphone read bulletins from the fight. Black fans, meanwhile, went to the Pekin theater where Johnson’s mother, Mrs. Tiny Johnson, got updates on the fights. In New York, about 30,000 people stood in Times Square to watch the newspaper’s new automated device spit out the news.
The end came in the 15th round when Jeffries, his face puffy and bloody, went down for the first time in his career from a flurry of punches. He was able to get up at the count of nine, but Johnson sent him through the ropes with a right hand to the jaw. His seconds and reporters had to help him back into the ring. Jeffries then staggered across the canvas where a combination put him down for the last time. His seconds jumped into the ring to stop the fight, even though there was no doubt Jeffries was not getting up. Gunboat Smith said Johnson “could have knocked him out in the first round if he wanted to.”
In New Orleans, a black man who shouted “Hurrah for Johnson” was severely beaten by whites before police came to his rescue. In Houston, a black man named Charles Williams had his throat slashed ear to ear by a white man for cheering for Johnson on a streetcar. A mob of 200 whites chased blacks off the sidewalks in Washington. In Cincinnati, several hundred whites ran after a black who made a comment they found offensive. In Clarksburg, West Virginia, whites were so angry at the triumphant shouting of blacks that they formed a 1,000-man posse to chase all blacks off the streets, including one who was led about with a rope around his neck. Scattered rioting occurred in most major cities. The next day, the Chicago Daily Tribune counted at least 11 dead around the country, with scores of others injured. The New York Times listed 10 deaths.
Promoters had planned to show films of the fight in theaters, but a black man winning complicated things. The powerful Christian Endeavor Society campaigned for a ban and mayors in Cincinnati, Atlanta and Boston quickly agreed. The police chief in Washington also banned the films, fearing “the display of pictures would affect the minds of children and also renew the hostile feeling on the part of many white men.” Congress passed legislation in 1912 banning the interstate transport of fight films. It was repealed in 1939.
In his 1929 autobiography, Jeffries argued that he had been doped before the fight by a turncoat in his camp, but his story was discounted.