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Great White Hope: Not Great, No Hope

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  • Great White Hope: Not Great, No Hope

    Great White Hope: Not Great, No Hope

    Jack Johnson, left, and the unprepared James J. Jeffries during their heavyweight bout July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nev. Johnson soundly beat the man called the Great White Hope.
    Published: July 2, 2010

    RENO, Nev. — The night before the fight, Frieda Jeffries awoke and saw her husband standing by a window, staring into the black Nevada night.
    The Times’s 1910 Boxing Article

    Johnson, left, became the first black heavyweight champion with the victory over Jeffries.

    “What’s wrong?” she said.

    James J. Jeffries, the anointed Great White Hope, said nothing. He did not want to be in Reno to fight the younger, slicker, more agile Jack Johnson.

    One century has passed since Jeffries met Johnson in his quest to reclaim the heavyweight title. This weekend, boxing historians, aficionados and descendants of both fighters are here to commemorate the bout. Most of the conversation will be about Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. Little is remembered of Jeffries, who lost the lopsided fight in the 15th round and wished it had never happened.

    Jeffries was a strong, speedy giant in his day. At 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds, he could run the 100-yard dash in 11 seconds. Before he started fighting for money, Jeffries worked as a boilermaker in East Los Angeles and was reported to have saved a man’s life by single-handedly lifting several large timbers off him after several others could not.

    His career was defined by beating top-name fighters in their twilight years. In 1899, at the Coney Island Athletic Club in Brooklyn, he knocked out Bob Fitzsimmons to win the title, then defended it nine times. But citing no worthy challengers, Jeffries retired in 1905 to a ranch in Burbank, Calif., where he raised cattle and alfalfa.

    Black fighters like Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey would have given Jeffries all he wanted. But Jeffries said no black man would fight for the title on his watch.

    In 1908, when Johnson won the title by defeating Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, the novelist Jack London challenged Jeffries to “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile off Johnson’s face.” Jeffries was not interested in race relations, but he figured that a fight to win back the title for white America would fetch a high price.

    “It’s money I’m after, man,” he said.

    He signed papers to fight Johnson for a guaranteed $101,000 purse, movie rights and a $10,000 cash bonus. The fight was scheduled for July 4, 1910, in San Francisco.

    “Jeff is too old and cannot get into condition to fight anybody,” Johnson, 32, told reporters. “He’s all in, and nobody knows it better than himself. He can never get into his former good trim.”

    It was true. Jeffries, 35, was in no physical condition to fight Johnson, or any other professional, for that matter. He had ballooned to almost 300 pounds. Although he lost the weight in training and looked the part, his hand-eye coordination and reflexes had lost their sharpness. Jeffries tried to disguise these weaknesses by changing the schedule of sparring sessions to evade reporters. Instead of sparring with young boxers, Jeffries worked with old buddies. He soaked his hands and face in brine to toughen up the skin and refused showers because he thought they “robbed oil food from the skin.”

    “It was plainly evident that he was suffering a terrible mental struggle,” said Joe Choynski, his trainer and a former heavyweight from the bare-knuckle era.

    On June 15, when boxing opponents in Washington persuaded California to cancel the fight, Jeffries threw in the towel. He refused to fight in Reno, an obvious tactic to pull out. But the wily promoter Tex Rickard claimed impending bankruptcy should Jeffries make good on his threat. Jeffries eventually set up camp outside Reno, and persisted in a litany of complaints about the altitude, crowds, lack of privacy and pesky reporters.

    The great bare-knuckler John L. Sullivan, writing for The New York Times, stopped by for an interview but was turned away nastily by James J. Corbett, and the incident made news. The middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel tried to see Jeffries but was thrown out of camp because he had picked Johnson to win. It was another story for the press and another annoyance for Jeffries. On the day before the fight, Johnson was doing roadwork with his crew when Jeffries motored by.

    “Hallo there, Jeff.”

    Jeffries grunted back. He was angry, frustrated and anxious.

    “He let his trainers assist him in getting his muscles in shape,” Choynski said, “but he kept his own counsel, and the result was worry and the ultimate breakdown.”

    For reporters, Jeffries mustered a few menacing words, saying, “I propose to give him the worst beating ever given any man in the ring.” In truth, he had already been defeated.

    “Going to the arena, when the waiting was all over, I remember being with people and taking a long ride in a good deal of dust,” Jeffries said. “I remember seeing the big plank bowl and the crowd around it. There was a lot of yelling. I suppose there was a mob waiting to watch me go in, but I didn’t know what all the yelling was about. I was in a fog.”

    Moments before the fight, his corner men watched him weep in the dressing room. When Jeffries entered the ring, he refused to shake Johnson’s hand in a defiant gesture.

    Johnson beat him soundly. As he was being led back to his corner at the end of the fight, Jeffries said: “I couldn’t come back, boys. I couldn’t come back.”

    When Frieda saw his beaten body and face, she fainted.

    “Oh my papa,” she said when she came to. “It is over at last.”

    But it was not. The loss to Johnson haunted Jeffries. In his 1929 autobiography, Jeffries argued that he had been doped before the fight by a turncoat in his camp, but his story was discounted.

    Fairly or not, he is remembered as the “great white hope” who was not so great.

    Wayne Rozen is the author of “America on the Ropes: A Pictorial History of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight.”
    A version of this article appeared in print on July 4, 2010, on page SP10 of the New York edition.
    To sit down with these men and deal with them as the representatives of an enlightened and civilized people is to deride ones own dignity and to invite the disaster of their treachery - General Matthew Ridgway