The Galveston giant, the great white hope and the fight of the century

By Alfie Wilkinson - The fourth of July is a day of celebration. Barbecue flames are blazing, fireworks are lighting the sky and Americans all over the world are rejoicing in their special day. The anniversary of America’s independence. But there is another anniversary we should be celebrating: ninety nine years ago on this day Jack Johnson defended his heavyweight world title against the great white hope – James. J. Jeffries..

Arthur John Johnson (Jack Johnson) was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878. The son of former slaves, Johnson and his five siblings were taught to read and write which was extremely uncommon for African Americans in Texas at the time. But there was never anything common or ordinary about Jack Johnson.

Despite being a short and light youngster, Johnson started filling out as a teenager and soon began boxing, showing a natural flair especially with his defensive skills.

On November 1st 1897 Johnson made his debut with a devastating second round KO of Charley Brooks. Soon the ‘Galveston Giant’ was bashing his way through the heavyweight scene.

Despite his obvious skill and bravery in the ring, Johnson had it tough. Life was difficult for African American’s at the turn of the twentieth century. Slavery had not long been abolished and African Americans were not considered anything like equal to whites. Open and vile racism was a daily occurrence and lynchings were still very prevalent in the deep South.

Johnson was however, different. He took orders from no one and wouldn’t allow any man, white or black, to order him about. As Johnson’s fame grew so to did his notoriety. He was considered a trouble maker and more importantly - a threat.

Fighting at this time of heightened racial prejudice, it is hard to reflect on Johnson’s career stats. Often referees, like the majority of white America, were enraged by Johnson’s antics and would do everything in their power to help his opponents – especially those who were white.

Newspapers would mercifully taunt and disparage Johnson. An example of this was the reaction to Johnson’s defensive style. The press labelled him boring, said he lacked heart and insulted fight fans with his style. In fact Johnson was a sublime counter puncher and his defensive attributes were of the finest ever seen in a boxing ring. Add to this the fact that just a few short years earlier the darling of the American sports writers, former world champion, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, adopted the exact same approach and can even be credited with influencing Johnson. Corbett was adored and praised by writers of the time, while Johnson was hounded and vilified.

By the time Johnson defeated ‘Denver’ Ed Martin on the fifth of February 1903 to win the world ‘colored’ championship he was a real contender who had racked up victories against fine boxers including Jack Jeffries, the younger brother of world heavyweight champion Jim. There wasn’t a heavyweight in the world who hadn’t herd of Johnson or feared his threat.

There was however a problem.

Before Jeffries only John. L. Sullivan, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett and ‘Ruby’ Bob Fitzsimmons had held the strap and all were revered and respected to an almost superhuman degree. No American would dream of allowing an African American to compete for this honour and certainly no fighter was willing to lose the most respected accolade in sport to Jack Johnson, a hated and arrogant black man.

By 1903, the then champion James. J. Jeffries (Jim Jeffries) regarded as one of the toughest heavyweights of all time point blank refused to fight the now terrifying ‘Galveston Giant’.

Jeffries was an incredible puncher who, despite being 6ft and stocky, possessed strength far beyond his size and stature. He won the world title in 1899 with an eleventh round KO of Bob Fitzsimmons, and by 1905 was retired as the first ever undefeated champion.

Despite Jeffries retirement, their was still little chance for Johnson to win the belt – in America anyway.

After Jeffries the next great champ was Tommy Burns who defeated Marvin Hart in 1906. At this time there was more money to be made abroad than in the States so Burns went on a world tour, defending his belt in England, Ireland and France. This was Johnson’s chance, knowing he couldn’t fight for the title in America, he hounded Burns all over the world. In Australia, following victories over Bill Squires and Bill Lang, Burns finally agreed to fight Johnson - the financial incentive was too much for him to turn down. Johnson won after police halted the bout in the fourteenth round and the ref awarded Johnson a much deserved points victory.

White America was outraged. Racial tensions grew in a country already firmly split and Johnson’s continued relationships with white women and his ever growing ego was too much for white America to handle. Many African Americans were also annoyed by his shocking antics. A succession of white boxers were thrust into the ring to fight Johnson including the infamous bout against middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. Yet try as they might, no one could defeat Johnson and as his reputation in the ring grew so did his notorious private life. Johnson, as well as having relationships with white women was living in white neighbourhoods, all at a time of supposed segregation. There was a frantic search for what the supposed ‘liberal socialist’ writer Jack London called a ‘great white hope’ to restore pride to the white race. It was decided that former champ Jim Jeffries was the man, and he answered their call.

Dubbed ‘The fight of the century’, this would be the most important bout since boxing began and possibly the most significant sporting event ever.

It would be an especially important fight for Johnson, as many refused to acknowledge him as champion. This was because Jeffries had retired as champion and not lost his belt in the ring. People believed that since the retirement their hadn’t been a true champion.

Jeffries had been away from boxing for almost six years, enjoying his life as well as working on his Californian alfalfa farm, and had certainly let himself go. In comparison, during this time Johnson had been dedicating his life to his art, training hard and fighting some of the world’s best including Bob Fitzsimmons, ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien and Sam Langford.

The bout was to be held in Reno, Nevada on the fourth of July, 1910. Independence day. The day American patriotism is at its most frenzied. Add to that the hated Johnson and the beloved Jeffries fighting for their races and you couldn’t ask for a more sizzling build up to a bout.

The pair made their ways to the ring under the intense Nevada sun. As Johnson approached the hostile crowd of almost solely white fans booed and jeered before singing along to the ringside band’s rendition of the song ‘All coons look alike to me’.

Despite shedding almost 100lbs to regain his fitness Jefferies looked overweight and slow compared to the nimble and muscular Johnson. Using his opponents raw aggression and limited pace to his advantage Johnson, a notorious slow starter, was able to dominate from the first bell.

Jefferies had never been beaten in a stunning career which started in 1896. Twice in the fifteenth round Johnson put Jefferies down and to prevent the embarrassment of a KO his corner threw in the towel.

Afterwards, race riots took place right across the vast country of America. The fight was seen as a humiliation for the white race, while for black America it was a triumph. Reports from the time are sketchy, but it is estimated that riots occurred in more than twenty-five states and fifty cities, at least a dozen black and two white Americans died, and many more were injured. So worried was the government of the time that Congress passed an act banning anyone from transporting films of the fight across state lines.

Never again, before or since, has one sporting event drawn such a response from an entire nation splitting a country solely along the lines of race and prejudice.
So if you’re American or not, if you’re celebrating Independence day or not I think it is the duty of all fans of the sweet science of boxing to take a quiet moment to remember two of history’s greatest pugilists fighting in one of the most culturally relevant and meaningful bouts ever - the effects of which are still felt to this day.

Article posted on 03.07.2009

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