I remember being at my paternal grandfather's house on Friday nights. He sat in his favorite chair with a brew and Planters Peanuts. He was faithful to Planters and collected memorabilia of Mr. Peanut with the monocle and top hat. Grandpa's eyes were glued to the black and white 17 inch television screen: Friday night fights. He was too young to remember the Fight of the Century, but my older grandfather, Purl, a character in Yours in a Hurry, remembered it well.
James Jackson Jeffries
Jeffries lived on an Ohio farm until his parents moved to Los Angeles. The boilermaker became a fighter and from June, 1899 until the end of his career he won the world heavyweight title seven times.
After retiring, he slowly lost his athletic physique until he reached 314 pounds. When approached to come out of retirement to fight the then heavyweight champion Jack Johnson on July 4, 1910, he began rigorous training. By July 4 he was down to 226 pounds. But he was also three years older than Johnson and hadn't fought since retiring in 1904.
John Arthur "Jack" Johnson, the "Galveston Giant" was an unusual boxer for his time. The child of former slaves grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Galveston, and many of his friends were white. We were all the same, he would say—all poor. That mind set was unusual, especially for the South.
He left Galveston for Dallas and then Manhattan working as manual laborer. At each job he found opportunities to be mentored in boxing and found he was good at it. He returned to Galveston to start his professional career. In 1903 he became the World Colored Heavyweight Champion, and in 1908 he overcame discrimination to become the World Heavyweight Champion.
The Fight of the Century
The Jackson-Jeffries fight was held in Reno. The pre-fight frenzy was nearly as exciting as the fight. Twenty thousand were in town. Most were rooting for Jeffries. Famous pugilists John L. Sullivan and "Gentleman Jim" Corbett who had feuded for many years were photographed shaking hands before the fight.
Sadly, racism wasn't absent from the event. A newspaper reported the comment, "If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."*
Well, after 15 rounds, the black man won. Jeffries put up a good fight, but just wasn't in condition to match Johnson who would remain the world champion until 1915.
Racial tensions were high. African-Americans were proud and showed it openly, celebrating across the country. Many whites were upset and twenty people were killed in race riots resulting from the fight that July 4.
The moving picture made of the fight and the pre-fight activities was banned from theaters in most states at the time, but you can see them on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzAS-wihuVI
Quote and photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Johnson_(boxer)
Next time: The Moisants—another successful aviation pioneer family