July 4, 1910: Jack Johnson knocked out Jim Jeffries in a heavyweight boxing match, sparking race riots across the United States.
In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. The beloved former champion said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
He had not fought in 6 years and had to lose well over 100 pounds to get back to his championship fighting weight. Initially Jeffries had no interest in the fight, being quite happy as an alfalfa farmer. But those who wanted to see Johnson defeated badgered Jeffries mercilessly for months, and offered him an unheard sum of money, reputed to be about $120,000 to which he finally acquiesced.
Racial tension was brewing leading up to the fight and to prevent any harm to either boxer, guns were prohibited within the arena as was the sale of alcohol or anyone under the effects of alcohol. Behind the racial attitudes being instigated by the media was a major investment in gambling for the fight with 10-7 odds in favor of Jeffries.
FIGHT OF THE CENTURY:
On July 4, 1910 in front of 20,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. Jeffries proved unable to impose his will on the younger champion and Johnson dominated the fight. By the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, Jeffries corner threw in the towel to end the fight and prevent Jeffries from having a knock out on his record. Johnson later remarked he knew the fight was over in the 4th round when he landed an uppercut and saw the look on Jeffries face, stating “I knew what that look meant. The old ship was sinking.”
The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $65,000 (over $1.5 million in 2012 dollars) 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. John L. Sullivan commented after the fight that never had there been a championship contest that was so one-sided and that Johnson “played fairly at all times and fought fairly”.
RIOTS & AFTERMATH:
The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening—theFourth of July—all across the United States, from Texas andColorado to New York and Washington, D.C. 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.
In all, riots occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities. About 8 blacks and 5 whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured.
FILM OF THE FIGHT:
The film received more public attention in the United States than any other film to date and for the next five years, until the release of The Birth of a Nation.
In the United States, many states and cities banned the exhibition of the Johnson-Jeffries film. The movement to censor Johnson’s victory took over the country within 3 days after the fight. It was a spontaneous movement.
Two weeks after the match former President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid boxer and fan, wrote an article for The Outlook in which he supported banning not just moving pictures of boxing matches, but a complete ban on all prize fights in America. He cited the “crookedness” and gambling that surrounded such contests and that moving pictures have “introduced a new method of money getting and of demoralization.”
The controversy surrounding the film directly motivated Congress to ban distribution of all prizefight films across state lines in 1912; the ban was lifted in 1940.
In 2005, the film of the Jeffries-Johnson “Fight of the Century” was entered into the United States National Film Registry as being worthy of preservation.
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