Mere months and 45 years after the end of the Civil War, it was fought again, albeit by proxy.
Galveston-born Jack Johnson had, the day after Christmas in 1908 in Sydney, Australia, beaten down a Canadian boxer who went by the name Tommy Burns.
In so doing, Johnson delivered a belated present to America’s black population in becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. The following year he defended his crown five times, each time defeating yet another white contender.
Outraged, white America turned its eyes to the former, and unbeaten, champion Jim Jeffries, hailing him as “the Great White Hope.” If that left any doubt as to what that implied, the famed San Francisco writer Jack London laid it to rest.
“Jeff, it’s up to you,” London beseeched his fellow Californian. “The white man must be rescued.”
Jeffries, who had retired to an easy life on an alfalfa farm outside San Francisco, took up the challenge, and made clear why: “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
The fight would take place in Reno, Nev., on July 4, 1910, 134 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which, of course, offered no such thing to the nation’s slaves.
“The Battle of the Century” — not the fight of the century; this was war, after all — gripped the nation, whites and blacks alike awaiting the outcome. Some 30,000 people took to New York’s Times Square that Fourth of July to follow the fight, round by round, on the newspaper’s huge, newfangled, illuminated ticker.
Jeffries entered the ring at 227 pounds, 19 more than his opponent carried.
Johnson was savvy and resourceful, capable of adjusting to whatever his opponents posed; Jeffries was a brawler and had never lost.
The lead-up to the fight made the front page nationwide. The Times-Dispatch of Richmond, Va., the former capitol of the Confederacy, announced two days before the fight that it was dispatching the former bare-knuckle champion John L. Sullivan to cover the bout, assuring its readers that “John L. will tell the story as he always fought — straight, fair and without frills.”
The paper that day also offered firsthand reports from the fighters, Jeffries promising that “I am confident that I can beat this big black man.”
It was widely presumed that the fix might be on in Jeffries’ favor, and Johnson attempted to allay any such concerns, writing that “All the arrangements made by the promoters have been satisfactory to me so far, and I don’t think there be any kick from my camp about anything connected with the fight.”
In fact, the fix was in. Johnson had agreed to take a dive for a hefty share of the gate, until, that is, he changed his mind the day before the fight and told Jeffries as much.
That night, a Jeffries confidant later wrote, the Great White Hope didn’t sleep a wink.
July 4 dawned clear in Reno and as the hour of the fight neared and the sun rose to its awful height, its heat matched the fervor of the boisterous crowd of more than 15,000 who had gathered to witness Johnson’s comeuppance.
The bell rang and Johnson and Jeffries felt one another out in the early rounds, often clinching. By the seventh round of the scheduled 45-round bout, however, Johnson’s superior skill began to show. By the 11th, according to an account published that evening in a New York Daily Tribune Extra!, “the crowd began to get a clear idea of what was impending. One of Jeffries’ friends left the ringside crying, and the end came four rounds later.”
In the decisive 15th round, Jeffries was, for the first time in his life, felled to the canvas, but rallied, rising at the count of nine, only to again be pummeled, this time knocked out of the ring. Fans and his corner men helped him back up through the ropes. They shouldn’t have.
Before the referee could count to 10 as Jeffries lay on his back for the third time in his career, his corner — at precisely 2:27 into the 3-minute round — threw in the towel.
Johnson, “the son of an American slave, is now the undisputed heavyweight pugilistic champion of the world,” the Daily Tribune’s correspondent reported. “He was simply unbeatable.”
Even Jeffries, who had promised, “I will lick Jack Johnson, and I will lick him quick,” had to admit his folly.
“I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” he told reporters that evening. “I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
Johnson with grace offered that, “One thing I must give Jeffries credit for is the game battle he made. He came back at me with the heart of a true fighter.”
That same night, Johnson’s mother exulted.
“All the North and all the South never turned out such a hero as he is today,” Tiny Johnson said in Chicago, where her son had bought her a grand home, and then she enumerated the nation’s white population at the time. “There were 80 million people against him today, but he beat them all. If his father had only lived to see it!”