|On 4 July 1910, Reno, Nevada was proclaimed "The hub of the universe." This was a bout that many thought would never happen. Johnson, born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, had many jobs before becoming a boxer. When he became a fighter, he was forced as a Negro to participate in many humiliating contests such|
as all-black battle royals. Jeffries, born in 1875, had won the heavyweight championship in 1899 from Bob Fitzsimmons in a bruising contest. After defeating all white challengers, Jeffries retired in 1905 and chose the two challengers to fight for his vacated crown. The two challengers chosen were Marvin Hart and Jack Root. Jeffries even refereed the bout, declaring Hart the winner after twelve rounds. Frankly, nobody cared.
One year later in 1906, Canadian Tommy Burns beat Hart for the title. Prior to these bouts taking place, Jack Johnson had issued public challenges to all white champions in the twentieth century. In all instances, Burns ignored Johnson. Finally, Johnson got his chance against Tommy Burns in 1908. On December 26 1908, Johnson literally toyed with Burns like a small child before the police stepped in and stopped the bout in the fourteenth round.
After one successful defense against middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel, there was just one bout Johnson wanted: former champion James J. Jeffries. At first, Jeffries who had been retired for five years was reluctant to face Johnson but it appeared that it was his public duty to rid the sport of the grinning champion. Jeffries, the latest white hope, had also ballooned in weight to over 300-pounds. Johnson was in the shape of his life and stated that he wanted to punish Jeffries for all the years he had ignored him. The fight’s official announcement saw it scheduled for July 4, 1910, and Jeffries’ first task was to build a handball court to shed the massive weight he had gained.
On the day of the fight, the crowd was massively pro-Jeffries. Certainly, a smiling negro boxer who made his opponents suffer, fought with a grin and had a preference for white women was not popular in early twentieth century America. Johnson as ever was first into the ring and as usual received a hostile reception while Jeffries received a hero’s welcome. The bout itself was no contest with Johnson fighting his usual patient fight, flicking out punches and using his excellent defensive skills while Jeffries tired in the 100-degree sun.
The fight was over in the fifteenth round after three knockdowns. The result instigated racial riots throughout America with many Negroes paying the price with their life. Johnson remained champion for five more years before losing the crown aged thirty-seven to Jess Willard in 1915. He was finished as a top line boxer although he tried to save face by claiming he threw the fight against Willard. Johnson continued to fight for a further thirteen years due to financial problems. Johnson also had a love of fast cars and fast women and he ended his days in a car crash aged sixty-eight in 1946.
So how will wee remember Johnson in Boxing History? In my opinion, he was the finest defensive fighter of his generation. Obviously fighting styles and conditions were very different to the ones we see these days. In my all time list of heavyweight champions he is in the top five, but as in all sports, conditioning, facilities and training methods all evolve. I think if Johnson were fight in this era, he could struggle. Not due to ability, but to the length of fights. It is conceivable that fighting an opponent over ten or twelve rounds Johnson could find himself out-pointed due to his patient style.
All this of course is merely speculation and my opinion. My opinion is also that it is virtually impossible to judge fighters from different eras. Judgment on Johnson should centre on the era he was fighting and there is no doubt that between the years 1908 and 1915 he was the number one man in the division.