In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro” Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose around 100 lb (45 kg) to try to get back to his championship fighting weight.
The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 22,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno Nevada, and the ringside band played “All coons look alike to me”. The fight had become a hotbed of racial tension, and the promoters incited the all-white crowd to chant “kill the nigger”. Johnson, however, proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.
The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $225,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty,” claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.
Johnson’s boxing style was very distinctive. He developed a more patient approach than was customary in that day: playing defensively, waiting for a mistake, and then capitalizing on it. Johnson always began a bout cautiously, slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. He often fought to punish his opponents rather than knock them out, endlessly avoiding their blows and striking with swift counters. He always gave the impression of having much more to offer and, if pushed, he could punch powerfully.
Johnson’s style was very effective, but it was criticized in the press as being cowardly and devious. By contrast, World Heavyweight Champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, who was white, had used many of the same techniques a decade earlier, and was praised by the press as “the cleverest man in boxing”.
By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating “Denver” Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted, as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him then. Black and white boxers could meet in other competitions, but the world heavyweight championship was off limits to them. However, Johnson did fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.
Sydney Stadium during the Johnson-Burns match on December 26, 1908.
Johnson finally won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, after stalking Burns around the world for two years and taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police in front of over 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee’s decision as a T.K.O., but he had clearly beaten the champion.
After Johnson’s victory over Burns, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that Jack London called out for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from Johnson. As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as “great white hopes”, often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. The match with Ketchel was keenly fought by both men until the 12th and last round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson’s head, knocking him down. Slowly regaining his feet, Johnson threw a straight to Ketchel’s jaw, knocking him out, along with some of his teeth, several of which “supposedly” were embedded in Johnson’s glove. His fight with Philadelphia Jack O’Brien was a disappointing one for Johnson: though weighing 205 pounds (93 kg) to O’Brien’s 161 pounds (73 kg), he could only achieve a six-round draw with the great middleweight.
The “Fight of the Century” 1910.
In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said, “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. . . . I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.” Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose weight to get back to his championship fighting weight.
The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 20,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. Johnson proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.
The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $65,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty,” claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.
Riots and aftermath
The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening — the Fourth of July — all across the United States, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, DC Johnson’s victory over Jeffries had dashed white dreams of finding a “great white hope” to defeat him. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries.
Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant, and celebrated Johnson’s great victory as a victory for racial advancement. Black poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the black reaction to the fight in his poem “My Lord, What a Morning”. Around the country, blacks held spontaneous parades and gathered in prayer meetings.
Some “riots” were simply blacks celebrating in the streets. In certain cities, like Chicago, the police did not disturb the celebrations. But in other cities, the police and angry white citizens tried to subdue the revelers. Police interrupted several attempted lynchings. In all, “riots” occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities. About 23 blacks and two whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured.