The Fight of the Century -- Really

Very few sports events (certainly far fewer than sports fans imagine) merit a place in the history of a society but one that does took place 100 years ago this Sunday. It was on Independence Day 1910, in Reno, Nevada, that heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson defended his title against former champion James J. Jeffries with a knock out in the 15th round. The fight itself was unremarkable. The ringside reporter for the New York Times judged that "scarcely ever has there been a championship contest that was so one-sided." But that reporter -- none other than the great John L. Sullivan, the last bare knuckles champion -- also called it the "fight of the century" as indeed it was, perhaps the only to truly deserve that oft-repeated billing. For Johnson was African-American and Jeffries was the original "Great White Hope" and nothing less than the principle of white supremacy was seen to be at stake in the ring that afternoon.

Johnson had become the first black heavyweight champ by defeating Canadian Tommy Burns in a 1908 bout in Sydney, Australia. As he successfully defended the title in a series of fights, the clamor grew for retired undefeated ex-champ James J. Jeffries to return to the ring and vindicate white superiority. Jeffries responded to the call, got back into training and prepared to face off against Johnson. But when he stepped into the ring, the 35-year-old Jeffries proved woefully overmatched. Johnson dominated from the first bell and knocked Jeffries down three times in the 15th round before the fight was stopped. "The fight of the century is over and a black man is the undisputed champion of the world," Sullivan began his round-by-round account on the front page of the Times.

According to the Times, "for weeks if not months [the fight] has been a foremost topic among all sorts and conditions of men -- and women. The people who most strenuously denounce prizefighting have closely followed the daily accounts of the preparations for the battering match. They have deplored the publication of the reports and read every word." On the day of the fight, thousands of fans streamed into Reno by train. A crowd of 25,000 attended the fight in person. Elsewhere, arenas and theaters featured that era's version of the "simulcast" -- with white and black boxers reenacting the progress of the fight as reported by telegraph in arenas and theaters. Thirty thousand fight fans, almost all white, and "not composed of roughs and sports" gathered around the New York Times Building to follow bulletins on the fight posted at the Times Building as it progressed. Spectators watching the Dodgers play the Giants at the Polo Grounds that afternoon "dropped baseball as a topic of conversation and discussed the enormous clash at Reno" when it was time for the first round to get underway. The death that same day of Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville Fuller passed almost unnoticed.

White reactions to Johnson's decisive victory ranged from disappointed silence to murderous violence. At the end of the fight, the crowd in Reno "filed out glum and silent." The throng in Times Square dispersed "dolefully across town." When the result was relayed by the local telegraph office to President Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill summer residence, it was met with an "exploding expletive" in a voice that reportedly sounded like the President's (perhaps the first expletive deleted in Presidential history).

More seriously, post-fight riots erupted in cities and towns throughout the nation including Washington, Philadelphia, Little Rock, St. Joseph (Missouri), New Orleans, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Roanoke, St. Louis, Macon (Georgia) , Pueblo (Colorado), as well as New York City itself. The geography of violence proved national in scope, a harbinger of the inter-racial urban violence (north and south) that would continue to explode as the century unfolded. The Times editorialized that although "it will be natural for the negroes to proclaim Johnson's victory as a racial triumph... in so doing they incite hostility" and the paper made a point of citing exuberant black fans as the instigators in some instances. However, it was clear that almost all of the violence was precipitated by whites and most of the victims (including all eight of those reported killed) were blacks.

Johnson would lose his title to another white challenger, Jess Willard, in 1915 and his relationships with white women led to his being hounded by federal authorities on Mann Act charges that resulted in a short prison term in 1920. The Times had cautioned in the bloody aftermath of the fight that "in a country of so complex a population racial encounters should be avoided," but that "we need not urge the 'sporting fraternity' not to arrange another prizefight between representatives of different races, for they are not likely to do so." And, indeed, for decades after Johnson's reign as champion, black heavyweights, notably Sam Langford ("The Boston Tar Baby") and Harry Wills ("The Black Panther"), were denied the chance to fight for the title, although fear of losing in the prize ring and not concern about racial clashes among fans was likely the decisive reason why white champions including Jack Dempsey drew the color bar when it came to selecting challengers. It was only in 1937 that Joe Louis would become the first black heavyweight champion since Johnson. But Louis would hold a very different place in the white imagination than Johnson. Johnson had been the target of white American racism. When Louis squared off against Max Schmeling of Germany 1938, his one-round knockout was perceived by many as a heartening victory for the American ideal over Nazi racism.

Looking back on the spectacle one hundred years later, what appears most remarkable about Jack Johnson's encounter with Jeffries was that it happened at all -- that in 1910 an African-American could become the heavyweight champion of the world -- and indeed win a measure of grudging respect (to quote the Times again) as "an uncommonly fine specimen" of a "pugilist" who is "after all, an American citizen." This was only a decade and a half after racial segregation was upheld as the law of the land by the Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (a decision that the newly deceased Chief Justice Fuller had joined) and almost four decades before Jackie Robinson broke organized baseball's color line. Racial prejudice was expressed freely and without embarrassment; in his report on the fight itself Sullivan did not hesitate to acknowledge his "well- known antipathy to [Johnson's] race." And it was a time when on the same day that Johnson vindicated his standing as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, earning $145,000 (about $3,500,000 in today's money), an athletic club in New York City could promote a "battle royal" -- that is, a free-for-all, last-man-standing fight -- "between four negroes." It is in the distance between such a degrading -- but entirely acceptable in the white community -- spectacle and Johnson's own preeminence that his singular achievement can truly be measured.