In many ways, Jack Johnson was the white man’s worst nightmare, the black man who refused to know or accept “his place” in White America. Johnson would fight for the white man’s title and beat the white man’s champion. Worst of all, he would marry the white man’s women. This last was truly the unforgivable sin, the one for which Johnson was forced into exile while still a champion and eventually railroaded into prison for violating of the Mann Act, an archaic law originally written for the prosecution of pimps and prostitutes.
Jeffries was a giant for his time, a brawler who had never lost nor been knocked off his feet when he retired unbeaten in 1905 and was allowed to anoint his own successor. To many Americans, he was the ideal man – big, strong, fearless, quiet, and best of all, white.
After Johnson knocked out Canada’s Tommy Burns to win the title in 1908, the cry arose for Jeffries to end his retirement and “rescue” the white race. Johnson, who had put in years of lobbying, begging and pleading for a chance, proceeded to mow down white challenger after white challenger, and Jeffries reluctantly agreed to fight him.
The entire country, it seemed, was rooting hard against Johnson in 1910. Some of boxing’s most famous names, John L. Sullivan and “Gentleman Jim” Corbett (a boyhood idol of Johnson’s) lined up behind the 37-year-old Jeffries, who had tortured 100 pounds off his indolent body in order to give the appearance of The Boilermaker of old.
But the fight was an ugly mismatch. As Johnson battered the helpless Jeffries, the champion directed a steady stream of wisecracks at Sullivan and Corbett, who were suffering at ringside. When Johnson finally ended it, leaving Jeffries in a bloodied and exhausted heap, police jumped into the ring to prevent a riot. Films of the fight, which were expected to generate thousands in added revenue for both fighters, were impounded and not shown to the public for years.
Across the country, race riots broke out as news of Jeffries’s defeat spread, and at least 20 black Americans were murdered. It is no coincidence that after Johnson met defeat at the hands of Jess Willard in 1915 – that fight had to be held in Havana because Johnson could not return to the U.S. – no black man was allowed to fight for the title for more than 20 years. And that man, Joe Louis, was the public antithesis of Johnson and more like White America’s idea of an acceptable black man.
Fight of the Century Touches Off Race Riots
Racial tension was brewing leading up to the fight and to prevent any harm to either boxer, guns were prohibited within the arena as was the sale of alcohol or anyone under the effects of alcohol. Behind the racial attitudes being instigated by the media was a major investment in gambling for the fight with 10-7 odds in favor of Jeffries.
The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 20,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. Jeffries proved unable to impose his will on the younger champion and Johnson dominated the fight. By the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, Jeffries corner threw in the towel to end the fight and prevent Jeffries from having a knock out on his record. Johnson later remarked he knew the fight was over in the 4th round when he landed an uppercut and saw the look on Jeffries face, stating “I knew what that look meant. The old ship was sinking.”
The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $65,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty,” claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated. John L. Sullivan commented after the fight that never had a fight been one-sided and that Johnson fought fairly at all times.
Riots and aftermath uvaldia Georgia July 04, 1910- Three negroes are dead and a number are wounded as the result of a race riot between negroes at a crosstle camp and whites of this city tonight. The negroes came into the town today and started drinking heavily. Their noisy conduct angered the citizens and a posse formed to ”Clean out the camp” The whites opened fire on the negroes killing three. The other negroes fled into the woods. roanoke virginia July 04, 1910-One white man Joe Chockely has a bullet wound in his skull and probably fatally wounded is a net result of clashes here tonight following the announcement that Jack Johnson defeated Jeffries. The trouble started when a negro just heard the news from reno said; ”Now I guess the white folks will let the negroes alone.” A white man replied ”no” and the two clashed. Police had difficulty landing the negro in jail being compelled to draw their revolvers. Later a negro shot Chockely and escaped. Physican Armstrong say Chockely will die tonight. Houston Texas July 04, 1910-Charles Williams, a negro, had his throat cut by a white man on a street car when he cheered for Johnson. The negro died. Washington D.C July 04, 1910- In a race riot one white man Thomas Mundle, an enlisted man of the united states Marine corps had his throat cut by a negro and died. Joseph Benham, another white man got into a fight with a negro and was stabbed, He died. New York – July 04, 1910 George Crawford, a negro waiter had his head beaten in, he got into an argument with a white man over the Johnson Jeffries fight the white man beat him with a bat. The white man who did the beating escaped. Crawford was taken to the hospital but died. Mounds, Illinois July 04, 1910- One dead and one mortally wounded is the result of an attempt by four negroes to shoot up the town in honor of Jack Johnson’s victory at Reno tonight. A negro police officer was killed when he attempted to arrest them. Philadelphia July 04, 1910- Edward A. Valette, white, who was stabbed by a negro in a Johnson Jeffries race riot at woodside park has died. Shreveport Louisiana July 04, 1910- Henry Williams, a negro, was shot in the face by a white man after a argument over the Johnson Jeffries fight. He died.
Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries – July 4, 1910 – Reno, Nevada – The Fight of the Century
A special stadium was built in downtown Reno. The Fight of the Century took place in front of 20,000 bloodthirsty spectators waiting to see James Jeffries teach Jack Johnson once and for all to keep his mouth shut. Instead, Johnson showed the crowd his fantastic boxing abilities by adroitly picking apart Jeffries’ crouching, charging forays with crisp well-targeted combinations while dancing, bobbing and weaving, and utilizing other super athletic maneuvers. Johnson bloodied Jeffries and broke his nose. The ex-champ absorbed tremendous punishment, his powerful punches were a thing of the past. Finally, in the 15th round, Johnson dispensed with Jeffries by delivering 2 devastating left hooks to the head, flooring him. Upon Jeffries gamely getting up again, Johnson smashed him through the ropes. Jeffries’ corner then threw in the towel.
The aftermath of the July 4, 1910 fight led to rioting across the country. 23 blacks and 2 whites died. Jack Johnson went on to fight but was later jailed for the Mann Act . He later died in a car crash in North Carolina in 1946 while angrily speeding away from a diner that refused to serve him. James Jeffries retired to his alfalfa farm in California, never to fight again. He held no ill will against Johnson, praising him as a great heavyweight champion. He died in 1953.