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The Great White Hope

Updated on March 13, 2013
The fight between James Jeffries (L) and Jack Johnson (R) was a groundbreaking racial event that changed the course of history.
The fight between James Jeffries (L) and Jack Johnson (R) was a groundbreaking racial event that changed the course of history.

Back in the days of the Jim Crow Legislation, all men were not created equal. If you were coloured, you might have been born with a label with the insignia Slave unceremoniously scribbled on it. A man was only as good as the colour of his skin, so to speak. In any case, the sport of boxing has throughout most of history been a colour-blind spectacle; after all, what should it matter what colour a man is, so long as he is able to endure the entire stretch of forty-five rounds, each of which spent brutalizing his opponent without abandon. Yes sir, it was hard being a boxer back in the day. In order to be a good boxer, you need to have a near-perfect balance of speed and strength, coupled with a tremendous degree of physical stamina, none of which is dictated by the colour of a man’s skin. White boxers such as Sullivan, while being commendable athletes themselves, nevertheless drew the colour line and refused to fight black fighters, due to the fact that for a white man to lose a fight to a black man was considered an ultimate disgrace back in the day.

I was born on the 15th of April 1875 on a farmhouse in Ohio. To make ends meet, I took up a job at a factory as a boilermaker. My natural size and strength enabled me to perform the task with comparative ease, as compared to the average man. Besides being a boilermaker by trade, I was also an amateur boxer, and these amateur fights that I fought more than sufficed in earning my family a comfortable, if not glamorous existence. At the tender age of 20, I would resign my post as boilermaker, and begin fighting professionally, defeating the great, feared Negro Peter Jackson in 1898, and finally, the World Heavyweight Champion of the World, Bob Fitsimmons in 1899. I could not believe my victory over Fitsimmons. I was now World Heavyweight champion of the world! During the next 5 years, I would defend my title against all comers, finally retiring in 1904, defeated not once during my professional career. I would finally live the life I had aspired to; the life of a farmer, which I suppose was my natural calling. I retired content in the knowledge that I was invincible, and that I would be respected for the rest of my life. I wish such were the case.

One fine morning, as me and my wife were having breakfast; I received a rap on the front door. At first, I was annoyed; after all, who would not be annoyed at such an intrusion so early in the morning, halfway through breakfast? Opening the door, I caught sight of an enormous black man, almost my size, staring me face to face. “Can I help you, Mister?” I asked in as civil a tone as I could muster. “Why yes, yes you can”, drawled the man in a deep, slow, remotely unpleasant tone. I disliked this man already. “There IS something you can do for me, Mr Jeffries. YOU can help ME be champ of the world, by facin’ me in the ring, fair and square.” “Excuse me?” I snapped impatiently. My bacon and eggs were by then getting cold. Champ of the world, Mr Jeffries, not just the black people’s champ. That ain’t my style,” he crooned, shaking his big black head disapprovingly. I stood in the doorway, dumbfounded. Had this man actually said what he had just said? Here I was trying to be as civil as I could, and here he was, challenging me point-blank. “Look mister, if you came here to pick a fight with me, then you came to the wrong place. I should make it clear to you that I’m retired, and not interested in fighting you.” However, the man would not give up so easily. “You weren’t beat’n even once, am I wrong? Surely you ain’t scared o’ me now, are you? Wouldn’t it be a mighty good story to tell, hmm? The mighty boilermaker (such was my nickname in the ring), scared of a mere nobody, and a nigger at that.” By this time, the limits of my patience had been tested. ”Who the hell are you?” I snapped. “I’m the one-and-only Jack Johnson”, smirked the Negro narcissistically. “And I’m here to challenge you man-to-man to a fair and square fight in the ring. Of course, if you’d rather not – “... “No, I’m not gonna fight you”, I replied promptly. “Not in the ring at least, because you got no name and we wouldn’t draw flies. But I tell you what I’ll do, though. There’s a cellar in the basement, and if you’re keen, we’ll both go down there, and lock the door from the inside. Whoever of us who comes out in one piece, that’ll be the winner. What do you say?” Johnson flatly refused, insisting that he wanted the world to witness our fight, and that there was simply no point in keeping it a private affair between the both of us.

For the next few years, my wife and I would forget about my encounter with the rogue. I truly enjoyed my hard-earned retirement, growing alfalfa and raising cattle. The title of World Heavyweight Champion would fall to a young Canadian by the name of Tommy Burns. Burns was thrown into the exact same scenario that in which I had previously been; he constantly received challenges from that very same rogue who had shown up at my doorstep early that summer morning, issuing a challenge to me. As expected, Burns refused to fight him for the very same reason men such as Sullivan had refused to fight against black men; for to lose to a black man would not only be considered a disgrace; it would be considered to double disgrace. You must understand that that was the mentality in the day; that blacks were generally considered innately inferior to whites in all pursuits. However, Black Jack would not let Big Burns get off so easily; he literally stalked the champion halfway across the world, until the exasperated champ finally agreed to give him a shot at the title. It was a move he would soon regret.

The match between Johnson and Burns was set to be fought in Sydney, Australia in late 1908, and ended up turning into something of a one-sided affair; Johnson clearly had the upper hand against Burns. If Burns was fast, Johnson was faster. If Burns was strong, Johnson was even stronger. If Burns hit hard, Johnson hit even harder. By the end of the affair, Johnson was still dancing around the ring and sneering, while Burns was an exhausted, bloodied mess. I think it would have been far more humane to have simply knocked Burns out in a few blows, but Johnson was no humanitarian. He was eager to teach the white man a lesson in humility, by not only defeating the white man’s representative, but also giving that representative a sound trashing he would not soon forget. He was less vicious towards his non-white opponents, often ending the matches between him and them by the scores on the judges’ score cards.

The sporting media was by now growing desperate for a saviour of the white race to redeem its once glorious position in the sport of boxing. They constantly sent out white fighters with the mission of toppling Johnson, and these missions always ended up in failure. Johnson would accept all comers and take no prisoners; all of these eager young men were subjected to a sound trashing by Black Jack. These “white hopes” were soon regarded as white jokes.

Finally, the media set its attention on me, Jim Jeffries, the retired ex-heavyweight champion of the world. Sometime in 1910, I received a visit at my farmhouse by a pair of esteemed gentlemen of the Police Gazette, the most influential sporting magazine in the country, Mr Harold Burns and Mr Gregory Mac Adams. Despite the stifling formalities exchanged between the three of us, I knew what these fellows were after. I made it clear to them that I wasn’t interested in fighting with Johnson. “I’ll have you know gentlemen, that I’ve no interest in tussling with Jack Johnson, if that’s what you wanted to know. I’m a farmer now, no longer a fighter; but thank you for the offer. Its very kind.” Mac Adams smiled. “We are well aware, sir; that you are quite content as you are, but to us, this is not simply a matter of business; it’s also a matter of principal. You see, many of our more ignorant black brothers and sisters not only view Mr Johnson’s success as evidence of racial equality between the white and black peoples; on the contrary, they are what our friend Mr (Jim) Corbett terms the “new negroes”, black men and women if you will, who not only presume to be superior to the whites, but better. We want you to restore the honour of the Anglo-Saxon race, and remind the blacks of their place in civilized society.” “Yes,” I nodded. “It’s true that Johnson is a dog, and I’m keen on smashing his face in and teach him a lesson in humility. But gentlemen, I’ve long retired, so to be perfectly frank, unless you can offer me something whose benefits exceed the costs of me stepping back into the ring and putting my reputation on the line, I believe this conversation is over.” “Oh, but we do have something you might just be interested in! Mr Jeffries, we are offering you $100, 000; $100, 000 win or lose, Mr Jeffries. “Obviously, you will receive more than $100, 000 if you win, which you probably will”, Burns quipped in. “Consider the $100, 000 as an advance payment if you agree to step into the ring with Johnson once again.” I could not believe my ears. $100, 000, more if I beat that arrogant, trash-talking scumbag; something I would happily to for half the price! You must know dear reader, that prior to the Great Depression of 1929, $100, 000 back in the day was equivalent to a fortune; if you had $100, 000, you could purchase a private mansion facing the most beautiful beachside in any part of the world, and have an army of servants pandering to your every need. It was not that my wife and I needed the money, but it definitely would not hurt to have some extra cash in the bank. “Gentlemen, you have just struck a deal!” I exclaimed. “Jim Jeffries is coming out of retirement!”

I knew that if I were to stand any chance at beating Johnson, I would have to work hard, very hard. My body at the age of 34 was a stark contrast to my body as it was at 24. While I weighed about 100kg of almost pure muscle in my prime, I had now ballooned to 140 kilograms of mostly fat, due to lack of physical exertion following my retirement, as well as overindulgence in rich, luxuriant cuisine. Getting into shape for Johnson involved running, rope skipping, calisthenics, and weight lifting, not to mention several sparring sessions throughout the day. I reminded myself that the pain would all be worth it; the money was pretty much guaranteed, but I was doing this for myself; to teach my nemesis a lesson in humility.

The fight was scheduled to the 4th of July 1910, and would take place at the official boxing stadium at Reno, Nevada. In a few short months, I had transformed myself from a hog-fat block of blubber into a fairly well-developed specimen of a man, despite being a couple of pounds overweight; I had not quite regained the body of my youth, but I supposed it would do. At 3.00pm, an hour before the match, Johnson paid me a visit in my locker room. “Oh dear, Mr Jeffries; You don’t look too good,” he sniggered obnoxiously. “Surely spending all those years without exercise couldn’t have been good for you”, he sneered, shaking his head disapprovingly at my still slightly overweight frame. I was tempted to lunge forward and break his nose right there and then, but I also wanted the satisfaction of humiliating him in front of the world, not in the privacy of our dressing rooms. “We’ll talk in the ring”, was all I said.

The fight began at approximately 4pm, in the blisteringly hot sun. Thousands of fight fans flocked to Reno Stadium to witness the “Battle of the Century”, the ultimate struggle between black and white. I knew that if I had to have my reputation intact, I would need to win this fight. Not only survive it, but to win it. The both of us squared each other, sizing each other up. We traded a few mock jabs, and clinched a couple of times. In the first few rounds at least, we were evenly matched. However, in the seventh round, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I could not penetrate Johnson’s iron-hard defense. Every time I sensed an opening and went in for it, I realized that that opening was in fact, simply a taunt by Johnson to bait me to attack him, so as to tire me out. I could see the man’s lips curl into a sneer, and at that moment, I never hated anyone more than that man in my life. I swung a vicious left hook at his torso, which he did not even bother to evade. He just laughed it off and took my upcoming right body hook with equal contempt. “HIT ME!”, snarled Johnson. “HIT ME, BOY!” I tried to land blow after blow, but Johnson was simply too strong and quick on his feet. “Jeffries is beginning to show frustration”, announced the commentator with a tone of professional sympathy directed towards me. “Each time he launches an attack, Johnson quickly stifles it!” “Come at me, motherfucker!” Johnson laughed as he danced around the ring. I said, come at me, motherfucker! I came at him, only to be met by a crushing right hook. “WHO DA NIGGER NOW HUH?! WHO THE NIGGER NOW, MOTHER FUCKER?!” bellowed Johnson. I realized that it was hopeless. Like Burns, I had been reduced to a bloodied pulp of mess, and had no more desire to fight. All I wanted was to end this fight, and salvage as much dignity as I possibly could. “GET UP!” screamed Johnson. I got up, and allowed him to hit me with a thunderous left hook. “And Jeffries goes through the ropes!” went the commentator. “The Great White Hope... Humiliating. Beaten! Betrayer of his race”.

Epilogue

The aftermath of that historic match between me and Johnson did not sit well with the general public. In the coming days, numerous blacks were murdered by angry mobs, and this horrific event came to be known as the 4th of July Massacre. However, with every rainy day comes sunshine. Johnson served as a symbol of black autonomy, and as much as I am loath to admit, was a man of tremendous courage and fortitude, who bowed down to no one and inspired millions of oppressed black men, women and children to rise up against injustice. One more point perhaps, I should make is that I could never have beaten Johnson. Not even at my best.




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