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Racism Takes a Blow in Reno

THE FIRST boxing match of the 20th century that transcended the sport occurred on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nev. Jack Johnson, the seventh man to hold the heavyweight title in the gloved era, was putting his crown on the line against former champion Jim Jeffries.

There were several factors that made this fight so special.

Six years earlier, Jeffries, who reigned from 1899-1904 retired, never having lost a fight. He was revered by many people and considered the greatest athlete in the world.

Two unspectacular champions, Marvin Hart and Tommy Burns succeeded Jeffries. But on Dec. 26, 1908 the boxing world changed forever when Burns lost his title to Jack Johnson in Sydney, Australia. Unlike his two predecessors, Johnson was a big man, standing 6-feet-1½ inches, and tipped the scales at 200 pounds.

And unlike the first six title-holders, he was black.

WHEN JOHNSON returned to America as champion after defeating Burns, he was saddened by his countrymen's reaction. Instead of rejoicing in the heavyweight title's return to American soil, Johnson was vilified from coast to coast.

Johnson drove fast cars, traveled in fast circles and kept company with dance hall girls and, in some cases, prostitutes. And all the women were white.

The Galveston Giant's flamboyance alone would have raised eyebrows in post-Victorian age America, but it was also the era of "Jim Crow," and blacks were considered second-class citizens and inter-racial relationships were usually greeted with hostility.

Within a year of winning the title, Johnson made five successful defenses, all against white challengers. As this was happening, the media, boxing insiders and political forces mounted an effort to find a man -- a white man -- who could defeat Johnson. It was decided former champion Jeffries would be the "White Hope."

Jeffries, who had retired and became an alfalfa farmer, had bloated to more than 300 pounds. In his prime the 6-2 Jeffries weighed 210.

BY LATE 1909, Jeffries agreed to meet Johnson for the championship the next summer. When accepting the terms, the former champion said he was responding to "that portion of the white race that has been looking to me to defend its athletic superiority."

Although Jeffries, like all heavyweight champions before him, never defended the title against black challengers, he did defeat several black fighters on the way up.

George "Tex" Rickard, the greatest promoter in boxing history, won the bid to promote the fight, which he planned to stage in San Francisco in the summer of 1910. But in June, anti-boxing crusaders persuaded the governor of California to not allow the fight, which was then moved to Reno.

The prefight publicity was unprecedented. The white press regaled its readers with multi-part series on Jeffries life and at the same time vilified Johnson. The black press reacted to the racist coverage with defiant messages of its own.

Although Johnson said he believed he could have beaten Jeffries in the former champ's prime, just before the bout, he insisted the winners/losers shares be changed from 75-25 to 60-40.

FEARING RACIAL violence in the event of a Johnson victory, the promoters did not allow the sale of alcohol. Firearms were checked at the gate. A crowd of more than 30,000 fans of both races jammed the arena -- built especially for the occasion -- and waited in the sweltering heat for the fight to begin.

Johnson, who had knocked out Jeffries' brother in 1902, was wary of the former champion in the first few rounds. Jeffries, who had lost more than 70 pounds in training, looked physically fit at 227 pounds. But it soon became apparent that the six-year layoff had robbed the 35-year-old Jeffries of his world class ability.

Johnson, 32, slowly began to open up, but remained cautious through the sixth round. Jeffries did land an occasional blow, but the punches lacked authority. The former champion told his corner, "My arms won't work, but just give me time and I'll be all right"

Johnson sprang from his corner to start Round 7 and landed a hard right to the jaw that visibly shook Jeffries. Johnson, who had peppered his opponent's face with brilliant counters throughout the fight, sent the former champion back to his corner with his right eye nearly swollen shut.

FROM THEN on Johnson steadily picked up the pace and only Jeffries' legendary ability to absorb punishment kept him standing.

But in Round 14 Johnson sent Jeffries to the canvas three times -- the first time in Jeffries' career he had been knocked down -- before the former champ's corner threw in the towel.

The outcome should have given everyone a reason to pause and reflect on the ugliness that had preceded the fight. But instead, it set off some of the worst racial violence in American history. There were riots in many cities. Hundreds of people of both races were injured and several were killed.

Afterward, Jeffries said, "I just didn't have it today. Six years ago it would have been different. Now, I guess the public will leave me alone."

Unfortunately, society wouldn't leave Johnson alone. He was twice indicted and once convicted for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. Although he was guilty, the government pursued him because of who and what he was, not for what he had done.

WITH THE authorities on his heels, Johnson fled to Europe in 1913 and lived in exile until 1920. He had two more successful defenses, one against Jim Johnson, who was the second black to fight for the title. The champion retained the title in the first all-black heavyweight championship fight.

Johnson lost the title to Jess Willard in 1915 in Havana, Cuba. He eventually turned himself over to authorities at the California-Mexican border in 1920. He then served less than a year in jail for his conviction on the morals charge.

Jeffries, whose lone career loss was to Johnson, forever damaged his legacy. He's mostly remembered for losing that fight. Over time, Johnson received acclaim as the best defensive boxer in heavyweight history.

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James J. Jeffries, left, came out of retirement to meet heavyweight king Jack Johnson.
Courtesy The Ring