Time Tunnel: James J. Jeffries – The Forgotten Grizzly Bear

29.06.04 – By Janne Romppainen: The name of James, or Jim as he was called, Jeffries doesn’t ring many bells in today’s boxing fans’ minds. From the old-time heavyweights he is not among the best remembered. Anybody who has read a bit of boxing historic knows who was Jack Dempsey or Jack Johnson, many recognize the names of John L. Sullivan or Gene Tunney, but few remember The Grizzly Bear. Movies have been made about plenty of past champions, James J. Braddock being the last who has gotten his own autobiography filmed, but nobody has made a movie about Jeffries. But why is it that Jeffries has been virtually forgotten? After all, there was a time when he was considered to be the toughest and greatest fighter who had ever lived and who reigned in the division for six years and never lost his crown in the ring.

James Jackson Jeffries was born in 15th of April in 1875 in Carrol, Ohio. When he grew up he moved to the west coast and earned his living as a boilermaker. He stood at 6’2 and weighed about 210 lbs being at that day’s standards a very big man who had huge natural strength. To earn some extra cash he started boxing in 1896. In those days there were no four- or six-rounders to start with but even the novices fought for twenty rounds. In the next year Jeffries studied his profession the hard way: he was hired as a sparring partner for the reigning heavyweight champion James J. Corbett. In that role he was not allowed to do much else than to take punishment, but already then it became evident that he did just that exceptionally well. Usually the sparring partners had had enough quickly and changed their professions, but Jeffries took everything the champion could offer day after day. In the same year the inexperienced young fighter fought two notable contenders, Gus Ruhlin and Joe Choynski and held both to draws. It was apparent that he had future in the game.

In 1898 Jeffries’ good run continued as he knocked out the Black Prince Peter Jackson, once a formidable contender whom the great John L. Sullivan had avoided throughout his career and who had held Corbett to a draw. A decision victory over “Sailor” Tom Sharkey was noted also in the Eastern newspapers. After these victories Jeffries traveled to New York for the first time, which at the time was the capital city of boxing along with San Francisco. His trip was a failure however as he struggled badly his first bout against a fighter named Steve O’Donnel. He also injured his hands in the bout and had to cancel his next fights. Disappointed Jeffries returned back to California and considered giving up with boxing.

Jeffries’ manager William Brady made him change his mind however and in 1899 Jeffries made a new trip to New York. There he got a lucky shot: the new heavyweight champion of the world Bob Fitsimmons had concentrated to everything other than boxing for his two-year reign as a champ and he was searching for a soft touch to get back in business. He had seen Jeffries’ bad performance against O’Donnel earlier and offered him a chance. These days such a fight would never be allowed as Jeffries weighed 220lbs to mere 170lbs of the champion. Even so, Fitsimmons was the big favorite. His punching power was noted and he was much the better boxer.

Jeffries had taken a psychological advantage already before the first punch was thrown. Before the bout Fitsimmons went to his dressing room to discuss about the rules in order to disturb Jeffries’ concentration. Jeffries was not upset. “What about the break on the clinches?” he asked. “How d’you mean?” the champion asked back. “I mean like this”, Jeffries replied, grabbed Fitsimmons and threw him back to the other side of the room. Fitsimmons turned his back and walked out. The bout was, as was the case back then, a slow-paced fight compared to the fights of today. Jeffries had learned some basic boxing skills from the great welter- and middleweight champion Tommy Ryan who had instructed him to stand in a crouch and hold his gloves up to avoid being hit. The biggest problem for Fitsimmons was however that even when he did land his best, usually destructive punches, he couldn’t do anything with his muscled opponent who just kept grunting and coming. Jeffries ended the fight with one big left in the eleventh round.

As a champion Jeffries was not a very popular figure. He was not a colorful character as his predecessors had been but rather a laid-back family man who took care of his job, nothing more or less. He was in big trouble in his very first title defence with his old nemesis, Sailor Tom Sharkey. Sharkey punished him brutally early, but Jeffries once again took everything that was dished out at him and kept coming. He won the bout controversially on points, the rumours were that the referee George Siler had been bribed, but Sharkey was hospitalised for three broken ribs. Later Jeffries praised Sharkey as the greatest fighter he had ever met and the two became friends.

In his second defence the situation was teacher against student as Jeffries faced his old master, James Corbett. 35-year old Corbett boxed Jeffries silly for twenty rounds, but Jeffries kept trying, kept marching and finally found a place to land a knockout punch in 23rd round. Jeffries then had a rematch with Fitsimmons. Strong rumours suggest that Fitz used Plaster of Paris in his gloves that night and it might be true, considering that he broke Jeffiers’ nose and cut his face horribly. But Jeffries was impervious to pain. He kept slugging and knocked Fitsimmons out. Later Jeffries also helped Fitsimmons when the latter had economical difficulties; he really knew how to keep things purely professional. After that he granted a rematch to Corbett and this time he defeated him easily. This created one of the best-known anecdotes of boxing: “They never come back”. It was Jeffries who gave a reason for this one-liner.

After a couple of more defences Jeffries decided to retire. There were no more willing and deserving contenders in his sigh. This was partly true. Jeffries was indeed a scary and an avoided figure inside the ring, which also can be seen from his ring statistics, he only fought 21 times in his career. But there was the other part: there were indeed plenty of fighters who might have beaten Jeffries, but they were all black. Jeffries, as every champion before him, shamelessly avoided black contenders. As a fighter he was ahead of his time but as a person he was not brave enough. Jeffries granted his crown to a white contender Marvin Hart in 1906 and retired from the ring to his farm. The boxing audience still remembered him as the real champion however and Hart never received true recognition.

Jeffries’ biggest fight was still to come. When the hated black fighter Jack Johnson became the champion, the white race needed to find its “saviour”, as it was put back then, a fighter who would proof the racial supermacy. Famous writer Jack London wrote in a newspaper that Jeffries should leave from his farm and wipe the golden smile off from Johnson’s face. “Jeff, it’s up to you”, London cried and the audience took up to it. Jeffries wasn’t interested, but when the promoter Tex Richard offered him 158 thousand dollars if he lost and 668 thousand if he won, both enormous sums in that day, Jeffries agreed to take the fight. So the original “Fight of the Century” was created for 7th of April 1910. The date was no coincidence.

Jeffries had ballooned up to 300lbs during his retirement and training was not easy anymore for a 35-year-old man. He had no time for tune-up contests. He had no option but to win the fight. He needed to be the great, unstoppable Grizzly Bear once again and take out supreme champion. Jeffries knew himself that Johnson’s techniques were far a head of him and that he wasn’t nearly the man of his youth anymore although he was able to slim his body to about 230lbs. His handlers tried to encourage him by telling him that the bout was fixed in his favour, but then the word came that it was on the level and would go for 45 rounds if needed. Jeffries became desperate. The pressure on his wide shoulders was unbearable. The money of the bettors poured onto him. The interest that the fight drew was bigger than anything seen before. All advertisements of the fight declared that Jeffries would win. In truth he was beaten man before the bout had even started.

Jeffries, as brave as ever, did give it a try. He took the fight on Johnson, but the new champion gave him no chance. His outstanding defensive technique stopped every shot of Jeffries and in the return he busted Jeffries up. Jeffries kept trying as before, but this time his efforts were futile. Johnson just laughed at his once so mighty punches, mocked Jeffries and tortured him. Jeff could do nothing back. It was like the Ali-Holmes fight 70 years later: the torture kept getting worse and worse, but the crowd hoped for a miracle that had happened often before. This time it never came. In the fifteenth round, Johnson downed him three times and Jeffries’ corner stopped the contest. It was the 21st contest of Jeffries’ career and the only one that he lost.

After the fight, all the glory around Jeffries was gone. He was no more the invincible champion, but a fallen hero who had let his people down. He retired again, this time for good, and was soon forgotten. In the 1940s he visited the American soldiers in their camp to encourage them in battles, but nobody knew who he was before they were told. Jeffries lived unknown but apparently happy life in his farm ever after before he died in 1950s.

How great was Jim Jeffries after all? Promoter Tex Richard declared that there was no doubt he was the greatest ever. An old time fight fan who had seen every champion from Jeffries to Cassius Clay declared that Jeffries would have murdered a guy like Clay. While we probably can’t take this kind of opinions totally seriously, they do tell us that Jeffries in his day was really seen as a formidable champion.

Times have developed and if Jeffries would step in the ring today, even club fighters would very probably butcher him. At 6’2 and 220lbs he would not have the huge size advantage over his opponents. His techniques were poor even back in his day, he was clumsy of his feet and easy to hit and boxing technique has developed dramatically since then. However Jeffries did have heart and guts, two things that cannot be learned and which are still in value these days. His attitude in the ring was something that today’s over-protected and cocky contenders should learn from.

Jeffries did beat up everybody that was put in front of him and he did carry his throne for six years. These achievements cannot be overlooked either. Had he not taken the ill-adviced comeback against Jack Johnson, he surely would be remembered with much more glamour now. Perhaps he would be seen as another Rocky Marciano, a big-hearted warrior who never gave up and who never lost. That kind of a career would have created enough stories for multiple of movies. Unfortunately Jeffries is now another example of a fighter who is best remembered for one lone loss.

Comments/questions: janneromppainen@hotmail.com

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Boxing News Time Tunnel: James J. Jeffries – The Forgotten Grizzly Bear