The Ultimate Tough Guy

By Tom Donelson, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: September 6, 2009

Jim Jeffries (left) battles Jack Johnson

Jim Jeffries (left) battles Jack Johnson

IOWA CITY (BASN) — In Ultimate Tough Guy, James Carney tells a story about James Jefferies, the great heavyweight of the early 20th century. From 1899 to 1904, Jefferies was the dominant heavyweight of his era.

But we don’t remember him for his career accomplishment but for his participation in one of the great sporting event of the 20th century; the Johnson -Jefferies championship bout of 1910.

Jefferies was the great White Hope who was to deliver the Heavyweight championship belt back in the hands of a White American Heavyweight.

We know the results as Johnson dominated the fight and knocked Jefferies out in the 15th round but Carney makes the case that there is more to this fight and there is a more nuanced picture dealing with Jefferies and his own view of being the Great White Hope.

During his preparation for the big bout, he often threw away letters from many White Americans imploring him to defend the honor of the White race. Carney makes it clear that Jefferies understood his role and why he is talked into coming out of six year retirement but he also makes the case that Jefferies was ambivalent about African-Americans fighting for the title.

Jefferies may have been uncomfortable about being the Great White Hope; but he did accept the role when he didn’t have to nor should have.

Jefferies fought African Americans before becoming champion and allowed African-Americans to spar with him nor does Carney assume that it was automatic that Jefferies would not have fought an African-American under the right circumstances.

When Jefferies retired, Carney noted that many of the African American fighters such as Sam McVey, Sam Langford, and Joe Jeanette were just starting their career and Jack Johnson claim to a title shot was not as strong as legend would have it.

James Carney wrote, “Johnson- despite seven years of experience-was probably well short of his best and had accomplished nothing by 1904-05 which would have caused the champion to lose any sleep.”

Jefferies had already beaten two of the better African-American fighters of his era and as boxing historian Tracy Callis, fights between white and black fighters generated less money.

Johnson used this excuse not to fight McVey, Langford and Jeanette when he was champion and Johnson drew his own color line as he denied many of his fellow African American fighters a shot at a title. Only one African American fighter was allowed to fight for Johnson’s title and that was fellow Texas fighter Battling Jim Johnson.

Jefferies began his career with a fight against veteran fighter Hank Griffin, who gave Jefferies a boxing lesson for 13 rounds before Jefferies stopped him in the 14th round. ( Griffin was an African-American, so Jefferies first fight was against an African-American and ended his career against another.)

In one of the great ironies, Jefferies would fight early in his career; the veteran Peter Jackson. Jackson was an Australian black fighter who in the early 1890’s wanted his shot at a title.

After being spurned by both James Corbett and John Sullivan, Jackson quit fighting but after a six year hiatus; decided to give boxing one more chance. Going into his bout with the young Jefferies, he looked like the Jackson of old but his skills showed the erosion of age and six year layoff during his bout with Jefferies.

In addition, he may have the first symptom of tuberculosis, the disease that would kill him. Jefferies knock Jackson in three rounds and Jefferies actually felt sadness in beating Jackson; knowing that the Jackson he defeated was not the Jackson of old.

Carney makes the case that the color line was not always just about race. In the case of John Sullivan, it was racial. Carney noted that Jim Corbett fought Jackson to a 61-round bout before he became champion but after Corbett became champion, he showed no desire to defend his title just like Sullivan before him.

Sullivan would often demand opponents to put up money and make financial demands that prevented many opponents from actually fighting him; only Corbett raised the money Sullivan requested and called Sullivan bluff.

Jackson spent two years negotiating with Corbett but never could raise the money. Carney contends that Corbett would have preferred to fight Jackson as oppose to Bob Fitzsimmons but Jackson went to London after it became obvious that Corbett was in no hurry to fight anybody and certainly not him.

Like many boxers of his era, he became an actor and engaged in a hard drinking lifestyle that would catch up with him when he finally fought Jefferies.

Whether it was racism or simply Corbett liked being champion and didn’t want to put his title at risk against a tough opponent, one has to make his or her own decisions. There is one thing for certain; Corbett was not going to get any grief by refusing to allow a black person to fight for the title; regardless of his ranking.

Eventually, he would lose his title to Bob Fitzsimmons in a fight in which he was winning but a beautifully placed body shot by Fitzsimmons ended Corbett reign as champion.

Fitzsimmons repeated the pattern of both Corbett and Sullivan and merely sat on his title. Meanwhile, Jefferies fought his way into title contention. After beating Jackson, he defeated Pete Everett in three rounds before fighting winning two tough decisions over Tom Sharkey and Bob Armstrong.

Armstrong was particularly tough as the tall lanky African-American gave Jefferies trouble but this victory led to a title shot. Bob Fitzsimmons considered that Jefferies, who didn’t look good against Armstrong, as an easy mark.

Jefferies defeated Fitzsimmons in a tough battle as the smaller quicker Fitzsimmons gave the bigger Jefferies all he could handle. Fitzsimmons was one of the hardest punchers but he was essentially a Middleweight and Jefferies natural heavyweight and power proved decisive.

Over the next five years, Jefferies defended his title seven times before retiring.

By 1905, Jefferies not only retired but he determined his successor when he had Marvin Hart fight Jack Root for his vacant title. Hart won the bout but no one viewed him as the real champion and Hart eventually lost to Tommy Burns.

(Hart did defeat Jack Johnson in a close controversial bout before he fought for the title but his victory ensured that he didn’t have to fight Johnson for any title.)

Burns was one of those fighters who were never given the credit he deserved. He fought every legitimate white heavyweights; defending his title a dozen times in a year time but Jack Johnson chased after him before getting his title shot. Johnson demolished Burns over 14 rounds before stopping him and now the chase for a White Hope began.

As Carney noted, that forcing Jefferies out of retirement to be the Great White Hope. Jefferies enjoyed his retirement and had no desire to fight again but the pressure to have him defend the White man honor as well as the financial reward combined to force Jefferies’ hand. Jefferies was a conflicted man.

He had to lose to 70 pounds and much of his training showed his rust. Sparring partners would having their way with the old champion but as the fight came closer, Jefferies became more depressed and agitated. It was like a prisoner on death row awaiting his fate as he knew from his own training that he had nothing left.

Jefferies hid from the media as the match became closer whereas Johnson actually enjoyed the media attention. Johnson own personality was that of a man who wanted just to be himself and his penchant for white women as well as cockiness shocked much of White America.

While many reporters actually found Johnson note worthy and even liked him; the reality was Johnson flamboyant lifestyle shocked the public. Nor did it help that during the fight; he taunted Jefferies and his corner, including Jim Corbett. While Jefferies had his moments but six year rust and an opponent at his peak conspire to work against Jefferies.

This fight was the biggest grossing event of the early century but it had its own impact on both fighters. Johnson became the victim of White America attempt to stop him as the Mann Act was used against him. (The Act made it illegal to transport women across state lines for sexual purpose.

Johnson’s relationship with his fiancé became the focus of investigation.) Johnson would be forced to leave the country and spent the rest of his championship reign over seas before losing his title in Havana Cuba against the tall strong Jess Willard. His wife would commit suicide plus he would spend one year in jail after he came back from his lost to Willard.

Carney own thesis that if any of the other African-Americans had become champion instead of Johnson, the color line would not have been closed for the next two decades and one of those fighters, Sam Langford, actually rooted against Johnson.

As for Johnson, he would not only irritate White America but his own actions created enemies within the Black communities and this become more evident when he showed no respect for Joe Louis in the 1930’s and even appeared gleeful when Max Schmeling defeated Louis in 1936 for Louis’s first lost.

Johnson enjoyed the notoriety of being the first and hopefully only African-American but eventually he learned to accept Louis’ accession and eventually history made its peace with Johnson

Jefferies had his own lost decade as he struggled with his only lost and difficult financial times. He eventually recovered as he began new businesses including a boxing gym as time wore on; his whole career became the object of respect as many old timers viewed Jefferies career as more than just one fight.

Carney reviews Jefferies career as well as the thoughts of many boxing historians on his place in history. Carney, like myself, viewed Ali as the greatest heavyweight but he does give Jefferies his due as he does not dismiss the notion that Jefferies at his peak would have defeated Jack Johnson and many of the boxing historians he quote agreed that Jefferies may have been a greater fighter.

There is no doubt that the Johnson-Jefferies fight was tainted by racism and Jefferies himself was tainted as well. Carney does not excuse Jefferies own culpability since he knew why he was asked to fight but yet throughout his career, he never seemed be bothered to fighting African American fighters and Carney own view that while Jefferies never truly like Johnson but he did like and respect other African-American fighters.

No African-Americans ever were allowed to fight for the title when Jefferies was champion but Carney present dual theories that it was not all racial since many of the top African American fighters had already lost to him previous to him becoming champion or simply did not have the gravitas to be contenders.

As previously mentioned, he makes the case that Johnson of 1904 or 05 lacked the stature to fight for a title. Carney had a point but Johnson certainly had as much claim as Jack Munroe, Jefferies last opponent. Now the real question, would Johnson have defeated the 1905 version of Jefferies.

The truth is that Jefferies did not have to fight Johnson, there were no big public demand for the fight and no one would mind if an African-American fought for the Heavyweight title during the Jefferies era as they didn’t mind during the Corbett reign.

Race played a role in Johnson being denied a shot of the title until 1908.

Jefferies and Johnson are tied to one another. Jefferies own career has become nothing more than a footnote to Johnson own career but Carney does a good job of reminding us about Jefferies’ own career whereas he put Johnson career in perspective.

He takes Jefferies’ career out of Johnson’s shadow and he showed us two human beings thrust into historical fight with implications that neither men could escape. Jefferies may have been uncomfortable with his role as he would often throw away letters reminding him to defend the white man honor but he also participated in the event. He can’t escape his own responsibility.

For Johnson, he was his own man with no desire to be a representative of his race but he was forced to be a symbol of something greater than himself. For both men, they would suffer for being symbols of a cause and in the case of Jefferies, he represented the cause embedded with racism. Jack Johnson was a man ahead of his time; a man more for our times than his.

Jefferies was a man of his era forever remembered not for a career but for one fight.