Review of Adam J. Pollack’s In the Ring with James J. Jeffries

Jeffriesby Zachary Q. Daniels - One of the things you discover in reading Adam Pollack’s series on the heavyweight champions is that while much has changed in boxing over the last century, how much things have also remained the same. So it is with his latest installment, In the Ring With James J. Jeffries . Controversial decisions? Jeffries - Sharkey I fits the bill. Debates about early stoppages? Jeffries’ fight with Gus Ruhlin generated arguments about this. Handlers entering the ring and terminating a fight? The fight between former champ Jim Corbett and contender Tom Sharkey offered this. Controversies over “loaded gloves?” Allegations of “being drugged” as an excuse for losing a fight? Bob Fitzsimmons covered both these bases long before Antonio Margarito or Wladimir Klitschko ever thought them up. Contentious fight negotiations? Jim Corbett offered this prior to his second fight with Jeffries, long before fighters like Floyd Mayweather came on the scene.

Pollack’s books, then, while an excellent resource on the distant past, show us that much of what has occurred in the recent past and present in boxing is not at all new or novel. As usual, he has done an outstanding job in compiling primary source material to give readers a bird’s-eye view into the career of James J. Jeffries, perhaps the first “all-time great” heavyweight champ. At each stage of Jeffries career, Pollack provides context for what is going on in boxing as Jeffries progresses up the heavyweight ladder.. Extensive discussion of pre-fight buildup is provided for every major fight in Jeffries career and for several minor fights. The fight descriptions are better than ever, improving on those provided in his previous works on the earlier champions going back to John L. Sullivan. They are detailed and integrate descriptions provided in all local sources of the time, giving the reader the closest thing they can have to a picture of what happened in these fights in the absence of films, which are not available for most of the fights described. And then, the post fight developments are reviewed, detailing some of the controversies described above, among others.

Another major strength of the book is its inclusion of important fights between contenders, in addition to Jeffries fights. So the controversial Corbett-Sharkey fight, with its allegations of a “fix” is discussed in detail. Bob Fitzsimmons’ battles with Gus Ruhlin and Tom Sharkey prior to the prohibition of boxing in New York state in 1900 are discussed in depth, as is Corbett’s fight with Charles ”Kid” McCoy. Later, Jack Johnson’s important fight with Marvin Hart is reviewed. The inclusion of these important fights between contenders adds to the reader’s understanding of who the key contenders were, why they were considered to be viable challengers to Jeffries, and why some of them were eliminated from contention.

One interesting theme that emerges from this book, and is something that is present in all of Pollack’s books to date, is the legal and political obstacles faced by the sport of boxing at this time. Particularly important in Jeffries’ career was the repeal of the Horton law in New York, which resulted in boxing becoming prohibited in that state after September 1, 1900. This prompted a series of fights in that state just prior to this repeal, including fights between Jim Corbett and contender Kid McCoy, Fitzsimmons vs. Ruhlin and Sharkey, and most significantly, between Jeffries and Corbett. Another related theme is the over-regulation of the sport, something which continues to this day, particularly when compared to other sports such as football which are statistically more dangerous. As Pollack observes, “this illogical, irrational discrimination has continued to this day. .... Federal and state legislatures and athletic commissions regulate boxing to death, while leaving football alone.”

Pollack begins his review of Jeffries’ rise to the top of the heavyweight division with his earliest pro fight in c. 1893 against African-American contender Hank Griffin, and then moves quickly to his return to the ring for an 1895 exhibition against Hank Lorraine, and his 1896 pro fight against Dan Long. Other early fights, such as that against Theodore Van Buskirk and Henry Baker are covered in more detail, leading up to Jeffries’ first major fight against future contender Gus Ruhlin, which although declared a draw, generated some controversy among those who felt Jeffries had won. Jeffries’ first major test against contender Joe Choynski in late 1897 is well-chronicled, and Pollack provides evidence showing how Choynski was perceived to be the favorite at this time, despite the size disparity, and how earning a draw against a well-trained Choynski actually enhanced Jeffries’ reputation.

After this, Jeffries’ rise to the top was pretty swift. In 1898, he disposed of aging former contenders Joe Goddard and Peter Jackson. Pollack covers the more significant Jackson fight in greater detail, and shows that while many thought that he was well past his best going into the fight, others thought he would give Jeffries a good fight. As Pollack notes, while “it was not much of a shock that Jeff won...what was impressive was the rapidity in which he did it.”

Far more significant for Jeffries’ rise in the heavyweight division was his fight with fellow contender Tom Sharkey, who had fought well against then champion James J. Corbett in 1896 and was regarded as a rising contender. Although it was later reported that Jeffries injured his hands in this fight, he won a somewhat controversial decision, with some commentators at the time suggesting that the fight should have been a draw. Sharkey, as he did following many of his fights, insisted he had been robbed. Regardless of the controversy, this was a very significant fight. According to Pollack, it was the one that “made Jeffries a top contender for the real title.”

In this period, Jeffries also fought black fighter Bob Armstrong, as part of a scheduled double header where there would be a second fight with journeyman Steve O’Donnell. While the second fight didn’t come off because Jeffries received another hand injury, this time to his thumb, it brings back memories of George Foreman’s later fighting five opponents in a row in Toronto, Canada in 1975. While Jeffries’ injury prevented the second bout from occurring, this event establishes that Foreman was not the first contender to use this sort of novel tactic to draw attention to himself and dramatically establish his credentials by fighting more than one lesser opponent in one night. Like Foreman’s stunt, this one backfired to some extent as Jeffries came under criticism for being out of shape, and some press people questioned if he was being over-hyped. As Pollack puts it, “the post-fight analysis demonstrated a great backlash against the big Jeffries build-up.” As with other aspects of boxing, it appears that fighters being hyped and experiencing bumps in the road to greatness is nothing new.

As indicated, one of the strengths of this book is the inclusion of detailed descriptions of some of the more significant bouts among other contenders that occurred during Jeffries’ career. One of the more interesting is the 1898 Corbett-Sharkey bout, which ended in a victory by disqualification for Sharkey when one of Corbett’s handlers entered the ring. As with Roger Mayweather’s actions in his nephew Floyd Mayweather’s fight against Zab Judah, cornerman Jim McVey claimed that his fighter receiving a foul was the reason for his premature entry into the ring. Unlike the Mayweather situation, it cost his fighter the victory, although it seemed as if Corbett was in at least some trouble at the time of the disqualification. Some, in fact, thought that one potential reason for McVey entering the ring when he did was to save Corbett from being knocked out.

Shortly after this, after his injuries from the Armstrong fight had healed, in May of 1899, Jeffries challenged reigning champion Bob Fitzsimmons for the title. Pollack provides detailed descriptions of this significant fight, the buildup to it, and its aftermath. One of the interesting, and perhaps forgotten, aspects of this fight is that Fitzsimmons was at this time considered the favorite to retain his title. While Jeffries had his supporters, and had become generally well-regarded, he was still considered unproven by some. Some months after the fight, illustrating that allegations of drugging before fights did not originate with Wladimir Klitschko, Fitzsimmons publicly asserted that he had been given mineral water in the second round which contained some drugs that impeded his performance in the fight. These allegations were considered illegitimate and unfounded by most, as Klitschko’s assertions were over a century later. This did not stop Fitzsimmons from repeating them many times, including prior to his rematch with Jeffries.

After winning the title against Fitzsimmons, Jeffries fought a second bout with Sharkey. And as with their first fight, there was controversy over the decision. The fight went the full 25 rounds and referee George Siler declared Jeffries the victor. There were many who seemed to feel that Sharkey had done enough to deserve a draw, although perhaps not an outright victory. Pollack provides extensive coverage of the post-fight commentary on this controversial call, illustrating that public debate over boxing decisions is something that is as old as the fight game itself. One of the things that was particularly interesting is the debate that this decision provoked over the introduction of a round by round points system in boxing, something to which important figures in the game, such as former heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, were vehemently opposed. Perhaps partially as a result of this, these more refined scoring systems would have to wait to be accepted. At the time, it was thought that a competent referee could make a judgment as to who won by judging the fight as a whole.

Other interesting issues emerge in Pollack’s detailed coverage of the various fights in Jeffries’ reign as heavyweight champion. His first fight with former champion Jim Corbett, perhaps his finest fight as champion, showed how Jeffries’ stamina was such a critical factor in his success in an era when fights were routinely 20-25 rounds in length. Pollack makes this point clear at several points in the book, but nowhere is does it seem better illustrated than in the first Corbett fight, where the former champion was clearly winning through about the 17th round, but then badly faded prior to being stopped. Although one could certainly debate if Jeffries would have fought differently in a shorter fight, it is clear that his endurance and stamina made him, as Pollack puts it, “perfect for an era where title bouts were 20-25 rounds.”

Jeffries’ fight with contender Gus Ruhlin produced debates over early stoppages and fighters quitting in the ring, which were of course issues that were to re-occur again and again in the sport. Ruhlin retired in his corner after the 5th round, causing some to question his heart, although according to the sources Pollack provides, it appears the predominant opinion was that his corner and the referee made the right decision. Nonetheless, this fight damaged Ruhlin’s status as a contender, and some argued that the referee should have forced him to come out and take the knockout that seemed inevitable. As one source argued, “We pay our money for genuine brutality and we are filled with wrath when we learn that we have been buncoed.”

Perhaps the most interesting controversy in a Jeffries fight occurred in his second fight with Fitzsimmons, where allegations of “loaded” gloves surfaced long before the recent Antonio Margarito controversy. While Pollack suggests that this “was given little discussion at the time,” immediately following the fight, it was a topic of some debate. Interestingly, Fitzsimmons appears to have insisted prior to the fight that “All I want is a little bit of sticking plaster on my hand where it was hurt before,” to which Jeffries offered no objection at the time. However, after the fight, in which Jeffries sustained multiple cuts, he suggested, “Fitz should never have cut me up at all. The bandages on his hands did the mischief.” Later, he asserted that “he wore bandages which were like a plaster cast.” The relatively underdeveloped nature of the sport, along with the fact that the “loaded gloves” did not affect the outcome of the fight, seems to account for why it did not cause the public outrage that later handwrap-tampering scandals, such as the Margarito controversy, have received. Despite this, the information provided by Pollack shows that fighters’ adding foreign substances to their handwraps is hardly anything new in the sport.

The contentious negotiations prior to his last major fight before his comeback in 1910, his rematch with Corbett, illustrate that difficult and protracted negotiations, such as the recent Mayweather-Pacquiao debacle, are nothing new. Jeffries had already experienced difficult negotiations with Fitzsimmons leading up to their rematch, which took nearly two years to put together following Fitzsimmons prior fight in 1900. The major sticking point in the Corbett negotiations, given the “loaded gloves” controversy in the Fitzsimmons fight, not surprisingly centered around handwraps. Pollack reports that “Jeffries did not want to allow Corbett to wear hand bandages.” The dispute was settled and it was agreed that “either man [would be] able to wear soft bandages, but the wraps were to be put in full view of the audience” and inspected by the referee. Other issues included the size of the ring, on which Jeffries acceded to Corbett’s preference for a larger, 24-foot ring. The fight was originally scheduled to take place in June or early July of 1903, but was pushed back to August at the behest of Corbett who claimed he needed more time to train and complete some theatrical engagements. Postponements, also, appear to be nothing new in boxing.

Thus, Pollack’s excellent book provides readers with both a wonderful account of the career of this important figure in the history of boxing, as well as illuminating things about the current era, showing that there is little in the sport occurring today that did not occur in some form in the early years of the fight game. The distinct strength of this book lies not just in its descriptions of Jeffries’ career, which provide insight into specific fights and developments, but also in providing a context for the state of the sport at this time. The accounts of fights between contenders that occurred contemporaneously with Jeffries’ rise in the heavyweight division are particularly important in giving readers an idea of who the key players were in the division at this time, how they became significant factors in boxing, and why they were considered valid challengers for the title. It is this attention to context that makes this book perhaps the best in the series so far. As usual, Pollack’s research into primary sources is comprehensive, and his descriptions of fights so detailed that it gives fans as close a sense to “being there” as one can have in the absence of films. For those few fights from this era where some film documentation exists, Pollack’s descriptions provide the background with which to understand and interpret them. This book, then, represents an invaluable addition to the historical literature on boxing, while at the same time providing contextual background with which to understand the modern game.

Article posted on 19.01.2010

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