A Champion Lost and Found

By The Fight Film Collector on August 14, 2013
A Champion Lost and Found
James J. Jeffries’ misfortune was to reign during the dark ages of early fights films.

Jeffries is often likened to Rocky Marciano, but in watching him here, his rigid stance, ever stalking and “slam-bang” attacks compare more to Gene Fullmer…

James J. Jeffries vs. Gus Ruhlin
World Heavyweight Championship
Mechanic’s Pavilion, San Francisco, California
November 15, 1901
Muteoscope Film Restoration

The Champion

Few boxing champions have been so revered in their time, and so dismissed by history as Jim Jeffries, Undefeated Heavyweight Champion 1899-1905. He was perhaps the first post bare-knuckle champion who showed that even gloved boxing could be brutal and explosive. He reigned supremely over the last and best heavyweight division of the 19th century. His retirement in 1905, followed by the brief but prolific campaign of the next champion Tommy Burns, left the heavyweight division all but swept for the 10 years that followed. This summation excludes of course the handful of brilliant African American boxers who were denied title fights because of racism, not only by the establishment including Jeffries, but also by one of their own who was not denied, the great Jack Johnson.

The Defeated

Against his better judgment, Jeffries came back to fight Johnson in 1910 and lost “The Fight of the Century” which was as equally anticlimactic as was the promotion overblown. Jeffries stature all but crumbled to dust under the Nevada sun. This single professional loss tarnished Jeffries entire career, not only due to the fight result, but from the unfair public rejection expressed by many whites toward Jeffries in the aftermath. It wasn’t until the second Louis-Schmeling fight that boxers such as Johnson and Jeffries fought each other with so much social and political weight on their backs.

Adding insult to injury, the Johnson-Jeffries fight films triggered race-riots which resulted in the banning of boxing film distribution for the next 30 years. With each new telling of this chapter, and from ever more youthful and contemporary perspectives, the old footage is run over and over with Jeffries gleefully described as a tired old man, and Johnson as a superhuman athlete. Neither was true, but it’s not a difficult argument to make, due to the wealth of Johnson footage against inferior competition, and to the lack of film showing Jeffries in his prime.

Lost and Found

Jeffries’ misfortune was to reign during the dark ages of early fights films. Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, who preceded Jeffries as champions, were both filmed in action with some success and the movies were widely distributed and have since survived. However, beginning with the attempted filming of the first Jeffries-Fitzsimmons fight in 1899, there were a series of failures in fight film production. Between 1902 and 1906, nearly all major bouts went partially or completely un-filmed due to equipment breakdowns, lack of investment, court battles over copyright or the constrictive demands of the promoters. It wasn’t until 1906 that these issues began to shake out and film crews with better technology began recording fights on a more frequent basis.

Fortunately, just prior to this period, Jeffries was filmed in at least two of his championship fights. The first was the Jeffries-Sharkey fight in 1899. By all descriptions and based upon the few movie frames that still exist, the film and fight were a success in capturing Jeffries and the great Sailor Tom Sharkey in their primes. But that footage has been lost, though a movie of the same bout was also taken independently by a cameraman in the audience. That film, distant and shaky, offers only a glimpse of the event.

The Edison Company

Fortunately, there is one more Jeffries fight film that exists today. In 1901 the Edison Company, who had previously filmed Jim Corbett in a staged studio match in 1894, wanted a bigger stake in the fight film business. Traveling from New Jersey to San Francisco, the Edison crew set out to film Jeffries defending against contender Gus Ruhlin in San Francisco on November 15. The fight is among the most obscure heavyweight title bouts in boxing history, but there was great anticipation at the time. Jeffries was immensely popular and Ruhlin was considered a real challenge. Both Jeffries and Ruhlin were first filmed in training as they prepared for the match.

The Fight

As for the fight itself, the contest failed to deliver the excitement that Jeffries was known for. To make matters worse, Ruhlin quit after only five rounds. There were calls of a fake, but Jeffries later wrote in a biography published in The Pittsburgh Press, “Ruhlin was a good fighter…who just couldn’t get up for the next round. My heavy body punches had nearly broken him in two.”

Cameras rolled throughout the entire fight, but it was another production failure. The exposure was poor, and the inexperienced director positioned the camera much too far from the ring. The film had a limited release, but with the fight being a bust, the movie was promoted as a “sparring session” to lower audience expectations.

The Restoration

The surviving footage of the Jeffries-Ruhlin fight is taken from Muteoscope cards (vintage hand-cranked flip card viewers) and not directly from the film negatives. This is likely the only reason the film survived. The image is cloudy and poor. I used several restoration treatments to improve the film. Nearly every frame is either washed out or very dark, which results in the flashing effect, but I did adjust the exposure of several sections. The sharpening tool helped restore some detail, though resulting in some pixilation. Finally, the video stabilizer softened the frame jitter and during key exchanges, I also zoomed in on the fighters, despite the poor quality, to bring the action a little closer. The technology didn’t perform any miracles here, but this humble restoration gives us a better look at Jeffries than the original copy. 

The Film

As the film starts, there are two very brief clips including the end of a round and the rest period as cornermen fan the boxers with towels. Jeffries is wearing dark trunks, and he stands in front of his stool in the left corner, oddly bending over. Only a single full round of the fight is shown, and it’s unclear if it is round three or four since Ruhlin was knocked down in both. We see Ruhlin score a good right to the body early in the round, but it’s all Jeffries thereafter, primarily using his left hook. As witnesses testified, Ruhlin was outclassed from the start and Jeffries spent much of the fight in pursuit. But there are some vivid moments of the champion during the exchanges that show what a dangerous fighter he was; including his speed, power and ability to cut off the ring. Jeffries is often likened to Rocky Marciano, but in watching him against Gus Ruhlin, his rigid stance, ever stalking and “slam-bang” attacks compare more to Gene Fullmer. In any case, the Jim Jeffries in this film is not the same man who lumbered after Jack Johnson nine years later.

The Fight Film Collector is a producer and film archivist who has been collecting boxing films for nearly 40 years. He has consulted for Sports Illustrated, provided footage to ESPN and recovered films for the families of retired boxers. He is passionate about the sport of boxing and its history. His blog is http://fightfilmcollector.blogspot.com/. He can reached at rotoscope66 at yahoo.com.

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Jim Jeffries -vs- Gus Ruhlin, San Francisco 11/15/1901 (Rare Film Restoration)

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  1. travis roste 04:02pm, 10/13/2013

    Jeffries was one of those rare athletes, all around natural talent, could run, wrestle, box, etc, multi-talented.  bo jackson before bo jackson so to speak. he could do it all.

  2. Mike Casey 06:36am, 08/15/2013

    Jeffries was an excellent athlete and an outstanding sprinter. In the ring, he also had an excellent left jab. Eric is right in his comparison with Foreman. Both boys in their prime scaled around 220lbs, but their natural physical strength and punching power was beyond that. Unlike George, Jeff was a little awed by his power and often held back and won fights with only as much as he needed to. He had a genuine fear of killing an opponent.

  3. Lee 03:03am, 08/15/2013

    Hmm. I see what you mean about the Gene Fullmer comparison. On this evidence there does appear to be that same dogged, relentless quality about Jeffries doesn’t there?

  4. Ted 05:24pm, 08/14/2013

    Thanks FFC

  5. Eric 12:42pm, 08/14/2013

    Always thought that Jeffries had a lot in common with George Foreman and never really likened him much to Marciano. Jeffries, like Foreman, was a huge heavyweight for his time and just beat down smaller men with his brute strength and powerful punch. Of course Big Jeff had a lot better stamina than Big George. While Jeffries was known for his great stamina, Foreman was known to have a stamina PROBLEM. However, Sailor Tom Sharkey, one of Jeffries opponents, had a great deal in common with Rocky Marciano, more so than Jeffries. Both Sharkey and Marciano were squat, short armed fighters with excellent power, stamina, and about as tough as they come.

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