James J Jeffries Retired At His Absolute Peak

JeffriesBy Matt McGrain - “The Goliath of the prize ring, the undisputed champions of all champions disposed of Jack Munroe’s pretensions last night, with ridiculous ease.” In what was to be his last fight before retirement James J Jeffries, seemingly regarded as both the greatest fighter in the world, and the best fighter seen in the ring up until that point, had destroyed a challenger apparently not in his class. The San Francisco Call would explain: “The end came with a swift and terrible action after forty-five seconds of fighting in the second round…Monroe had been knocked down repeatedly…[and] was helpless, and the referee appealed to his seconds, to toss a sponge into the ring signalling defeat. Just then, Jeffries drew back his hand to land the decisive blow. Referee Graney anticipated the action, and stepping between rival boxers, stopped the proceedings.”

Graney was interviewed after the fight concerning the stoppage.

“I stopped the fight because I feared Munroe might be killed. He is too game a man to be injured for life…I acted humanely..

It seems Graney did indeed act humanely, but it needs to be stressed that referees in this era often did not! On many occasions fight reports indicate that the crowd would show more humanity than the referee, clamouring to have the fight stopped. Many a helpless or bleeding opponent has been allowed to continue by the referee, regardless off their condition, and there are plenty of fighters, then and now, who show gratitude for being allowed to put their health at risk. What was different about this fight?

It seems to have started slowly, both men proceeding with caution and both missing their early punches. Then, Jeffries, who was “chewing gum and smiling, sent Munroe to the floor with a left hook to the jaw” (Desert Evening News). This punch, the first landed in the fight, actually seems to have been the one to have settled the affair. “The first punch on the puss did the trick,” said Jeffries, “I caught him with a nice little hook in the first round and after that he was in.” Munroe agreed: “That first one did me.” But to credit Munroe, he appears to have risen almost immediately, to no great affect. Jeffries drove him back to the ropes. A mixture of body and head punches driven in as part of a two-fisted attack dropped Munroe once more, this time for an eight count, and then again. Upon his rising, Jeffries “started a vicious right for the jaw, but the bell rang, and the champion stayed it’s progress” in a wonderful showing of sportsmanship that I’m sure Munroe was mostly unaware off. According to The San Francisco Call and The Times Dispatch , Munroe had not landed a punch in the first round. He looked “nearly out” as his seconds attended to him in the precious minute between rounds. The second round: “Jeffries was unrelenting, smashing Munroe all over the body with left and right…another terrific right to the face rendered him helpless. He sank slowly to the floor and attempted to rise. Jeffries was waiting for him…”

When Munroe eventually regained his feet, possibly having already being counted out by the ringside timekeeper, the referee stepped in. “I prevented a fatality.” Stated Graney. The San Francisco Call seems to have agreed in spirit. Discussing the punch the referee interrupted: “Had Jeffries landed on Munroe in the latter’s helpless condition it is possible another tragedy would have been recorded.” It seems that Jeffries was really regarded as a class above Munroe (who, in truth, did not have great title credentials) and was seen as placing the weaker man’s life in danger. Also, it seems much in the sense in which Mike Tyson and Sonny Liston would later intimidate their terrified opponents out of fights, Jeffries had developed a similar aura: “Munroe was a defeated man when he stepped into the ring. He had lost all the boyish buoyancy he displayed during the months he had spent training here, and looked white and haggard. He peered furtively at Jeffries, who was partly screened from his view by the second in the ring. What he saw did not relieve his anxiety.” And upon answering the bell’s call, Munroe seems to have failed to have landed even one punch, and thrown only a handful. A man frozen by fear.

Throughout his career Jeffries boxing abilities had been improving. He is described by the time of the Fitzsimmons rematch as being both faster and cleverer in his approach to boxing; it seems that Jeffries learning did not stop there - I believe Jeffries had reached a rare peak indeed for his fight with Monroe. “Jeffries was the most perfect type of fighter that ever entered the ring…he weighed 223lbs, most of which seemed taken up by his immense sloping shoulders and arms.” (San Francisco Call). Referee Graney, who also refereed the rematch with Fitzsimmons: “Jeffries is bigger, faster, and better thane ever. He improves with each fight. Nature has been kind to the champion. He is too strong and hits too hard for any man….Munroe should not take the defeat to heart as he was beaten by the champion of champions.”

Munroe did seem to be philosophical about the defeat. He was another person able to speak of James J’s apparent improvement having met him in a four round fight or exhibition some years previously: “I have absolutely no complaint to make. The world is yet to produce a man who can beat Jeffries and for years to come he will remain champion. He is a better man than when I met him [previously].” (The Times Dispatch)

Jeffries himself: “I am stronger, faster and heavier than at any time in my ring career, and I cannot see the championship passing from me.”

As to the specifics of his offence, Jeffries does seem to have sharpened up his attack. His punches are described as “short arm” punches, thrown with “such ease that the spectators never appreciate the power he puts into the terrible blows”. Relaxed punches thrown sharply and accurate without being sold to the opponent, which also seemed to carry savage power. Regardless of Munroe’s class (And he seems to have landed the title shot on the strength of a good previous showing against Jeffries and wins over washed up name opponents), Jeffries uses these blows to beat Munroe senseless in the opening round, taking only three minutes to close one of his hapless opponents eyes. Body punching and head punching are both in place and both do damage, in fact newspaper reports at the time show some disagreement as to whether it was a left hand shot to the head, or a left uppercut to the body which separated Munroe form his ability to defend himself properly, though this would later be cleared up by the fighters themselves, as we’ve seen. Jeffries also moved well, “dancing around his opponent” before baiting him into a clinch and beating him to the punch. Clever, his crouching style (accidentally discovered upon his being hit in the body according to an interview Jeffries gave Ring magazine on the occasion of his 75th birthday) in the prime of life, a seemingly terrifying aura in place, having the appearance of hitting harder and better than ever before whilst avoiding a “single significant blow” in a title match, Jeffries seems to have been a rare fighting machine indeed. So why did he retire?

Bill Delaney, James J’s trainer: “This may be Jeff’s last fight. He has met and beaten them all, and now I do not see whom they can bring in front of him. I would like him to retire. If he waits a couple of years [for a viable opponent] he may not be in such good form.” But Delaney himself goes onto say, “Jeff hit harder tonight than at any other time.”

To me, it is clear that Jeffries was better than ever before; he would, famously, fight again, but only after a six year lay off - to be hopelessly out classed by a primed Jack Johnson. Jeffries denied himself the chance to meet Jack in his own prime by drawing the colour line - in honesty, it is hard for me to favour Johnson over Jeffries at this time given the form James J found himself in, but Jack was still a viable contender, having called Jeffries out as early as the end of 1903, after his 20 round defeat of Joe Jeanette. Still, I’d make Johnson around two years from his prime at the time of the Jeffries-Munroe fight, and I wouldn’t have liked to have seen him in the ring with the champion until 1906, when an imagined active Jeffries and a peaking Johnson would have been a battle for the ages.

A small point of interest as regards these two - Johnson was actually at the Munroe fight. “Johnson had announced his intention to challenge the winner, but one glance at Jeffries changed his mind. He maintained a discreet silence.” (San Francisco Call) For my money Johnson is one of those rare men who experiences fear in a different way to the average human being - there is just no other way to explain what Johnson did in his life. But I do confess that I find Johnson’s silence - discreet or otherwise - interesting. He was not a man to hold his peace where a chance to make a noise presented itself. Johnson would unquestionably elevate himself into Jeffries class, and arguably beyond, but perhaps even he knew, on that particular day, that the step Jeffries presented was perhaps a step too far. Having said that, a match between these two in 1905 would still have been fascinating to see.

Alas, Jeffries was to retire, in my opinion joining Muhammad Ali as a fighter whose very, very best was arguably not seen in the ring. “He gets better with every fight”. A shame there were not a handful more.

Article posted on 07.09.2009

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