Jim Jeffries: How to Train, How to Hit

By Mike Casey on November 27, 2014
Jim Jeffries: How to Train, How to Hit
The good old days were good in many ways but also hard, unrelenting and dour.

You can almost feel a link to the era of Roman gladiators when you read Big Jeff’s comments on his training methods and technique…

It’s nobody’s fault that today’s fighters live in far easier times and enjoy far easier conditions than those experienced by former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries and his contemporaries. That’s just the way it goes and most of us are grateful that we can eat and live well in a more forgiving and compassionate society. Nevertheless, we should never be dismissive of how it was for our predecessors. The good old days were good in many ways but also hard, unrelenting and dour.

You read about old fighters like Jeffries and wonder how they ever did it. Because it was the only way they knew, that’s how. Nobody picked them up when they fell down. People were expected to get up and get on with it in those days, for better or for worse. A fighter had to take a lot of hard punches and leak a fair amount of blood before he touched the heart of the referee.

You can almost feel a link to the era of Roman gladiators when you read Big Jeff’s comments on his training methods and technique. When preparing for a fight, he attached great importance to eating and drinking only the required amounts. In fact one wonders how this bear-like champion got by on what little he did. “A man can dissipate more and hurt himself more by eating than by drinking,” he insisted.

Jeffries gave himself five months to train for his championship winning match against Bob Fitzsimmons and did so meticulously. Jeff’s physical and nutritional preparations for that historic battle were a telling reflection of his precise and organized mind.

“I trained two months on the road in the ordinary way,” he explained. “Then I put in three months of the hardest kind of work, running, boxing and above all, dieting for the fight. I weighed 247 pounds stripped when I began the real work of conditioning, and that was my normal weight – not fat.

“For three months, I ate hardly anything. You’d be amazed to know how little a big man really needs to eat and how much stronger a man becomes if he doesn’t eat too much. It’s no joke that people dig their graves with their teeth.

“I would eat two small lamb chops for my dinner, with all the fat trimmed off. That made about two small bites to each chop. I had a little fruit and toast. I had dry toast for months – very little. All through that hard training, I ate as little as I could and drank nothing at all but a little cool water with lemon juice in it.”

Jeffries was equally driven in his quest to learn more about the many subtleties and disciplines of boxing. He knew he could punch – and how he could punch – but he enhanced his natural power by learning to hit correctly. An educated left hand, he believed was of the essence. “With it a smart man can whip practically all right hand punchers. If you add to that left the knack of stepping into a blow instead of backing away, a smart man can whip practically anybody.”

Jeff maintained that the true power punches, the devastating short hooks to body and jaw, came from the snap. The way in which the opponent fell would most often be the barometer of the blow’s correctness and timing.

“All the force of the blow is snapped into a few inches, and it doesn’t push a man back,” Jeffries said. “A short blow can be snapped, but a long blow is never anything but a big push. I always tried to snap my punches. I got the idea seeing Fitzsimmons fight Corbett with those little short punches at Carson City, the time we were together up there. I had it knocked into me by the way Fitzsimmons’ punches jarred me when I beat him for the championship. Fitzsimmons was the greatest short punch hitter I ever saw.

“When I knocked Fitzsimmons out with a right on the jaw at Coney Island, he fell forward. When I knocked Corbett out with a left hook on the jaw, he fell on his face. I knocked Gus Ruhlin out in the fifth round with one punch in the body, and he doubled up and fell forward.

“I only remember two fellows who went backward when I hit them. One was Joe Goddard. That was before I learned how to hit. The other was Tom Sharkey. Tom was the toughest bird I ever fought and he gave me a lot of trouble.

“I never could get him just right. He was short and he rushed so fast, he made a bad target. At Coney Island, I hit Tom and knocked him halfway across the ring into a corner, and he bounced right up and ran back at me. After that I kept snapping my right hand into Tom’s body as he rushed, and broke three of his ribs, but somehow I couldn’t stop him.”

Minimize

Jeffries had perfected a somewhat awkward crouch to minimize the punishment he would inevitably absorb in a distance battle. From his peculiar little bunker, he would often let his opponent make the first move as a means of testing the water, before shooting out his highly effective, ramrod jab. His ability as a great jabber was never really acknowledged as fully as it should have been, nor were his other skills. The stock description of Jeffries was that of a phenomenally strong plodder who just kept taking punches until his own formidable blows took their toll on his opponent. Oh, and he was a bit fat, wasn’t he?

If you enjoy hunting down old pictures of past champions, you will doubtless have seen the famous studio shot of James J Jeffries in his vest and sash, arms clasped behind his back and looking mildly bored by all the attention. You will also see that the big body is somewhat fleshy with more than a hint of a paunch. This is how Jeffries is recognized and remembered by many newcomers to boxing who limit their research to a casual glance.

To skip over Jeffries and deny him sufficient attention in this regard is to do him a great injustice. For the big man can quite justifiably be acclaimed as probably the only true athlete of all the heavyweight champions.

Many moons ago, the BBC ran a TV series called Superstars, in which famous sportsmen demonstrated their overall athletic ability in a range of tests that included the steeplechase, bike riding, swimming and running. Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier was one of the guests and finished well back in the overall standings. As one would imagine, Joe was not the fastest man in the running event, but nor did he prove the strongest or the most durable.

Jim Jeffries would have excelled in such a competition. Although he wasn’t a trained sprinter, Jeff could complete the one hundred yard dash in just over ten seconds. He could high jump over six feet. When reigning champion Jim Corbett took the young Jeffries on as a sparring partner, Jeff regularly out-sprinted his nimble employer in their training sessions. Jeffries had the size and strength of George Foreman, but also possessed the endurance that Big George lacked at critical moments in his career.

Jeff’s strength and stamina were almost the stuff of comic book heroes. Blessed with a daunting physique, Jeffries lived cleanly and worked hard to strengthen his already powerful body. His work as a boilermaker, back in the days when the big rivets of the boilers were driven in by hand, served to hone his great hulk and add further power and muscle definition to his shoulders, arms and chest. The story goes that when Jeff caught pneumonia, he took to his bed and slugged the illness from his system by downing a gallon of whiskey.

Carve

Jeffries was a big man from a young age and it wasn’t long before he began to carve a frightening reputation in boxing circles. Born in Carroll, Ohio, on April 15, 1875, Jeff was already a strapping 220-pounder at six feet two when he was sixteen. He learned to box during his time as an ironworker in his adopted home of California, and it wasn’t long before his strength and ferocity in the ring became noticed. Harry Corbett, a California sportsman, introduced Jeffries to heavyweight champion Jim Corbett’s trainer, Billy Delaney, who quickly spotted the big man’s potential. Corbett was training for his title defense against Bob Fitzsimmons and was on the lookout for a durable sparring partner who could take his blows without tiring or wilting.

Jeffries was a revelation in his ability to absorb punishment and keep coming, but the wily Delaney saw that the giant possessed much more than simple toughness. He took Jeff under his wing and trained him, and found an all too willing student. Jeffries was a shrewd man during his employ with Corbett. Dedicated and loyal, Jeff did everything that was asked of him, but was also studying and learning from the champion all the time. The knowledge Jeffries soaked up during those sessions would prove invaluable.

His coming as the world’s premier heavyweight was a sensation and no man could topple him once he reached the summit with his crushing knockout of Bob Fitzsimmons.

In his excellent biography of Jeffries, Ultimate Tough Guy, author Jim Carney quotes Jeff talking about his style of fighting: “Looking back over my first two fights, I can’t say that my style has ever changed that much. I have fought a lot of champions and have worked with a lot of good men like Corbett and Fitzsimmons in training camps, and yet that trick of crouching a little and using my left hand for the knockout blow has stuck to me.

“I get them all in the body. It’s a great blow. It doesn’t leave much of a mark, but very few men can stand up after being hit fairly under the heart or just where the edges of the ribs come together.

“I have never struck a man with my full strength, because I’ve never cared to risk the result. I knock my men out carefully. Even in the excitement of winning the championship from Fitzsimmons, I put over the last punch just hard enough to do the work. I only needed a tap, and if I had hit full force, I may have injured him. In our second fight, Fitzsimmons cut me to pieces. He was trying to close my eyes and did have me nearly blinded. But for all that, I judged my last punch and put it with just force enough to win. One reason why I’ve never struck a blow with my full force is that I’ve never felt myself being beaten down. If I ever do, then I’ll draw on my last reserve and whatever I hit is going to crack.”

Great

Just how great was Jim Jeffries? He took and survived punishment from big and small heavyweights alike and always found a way to win. He was a crushing puncher and quite probably the strongest and toughest man who ever held the heavyweight crown. In terms of size, strength and the ability to take a punch, George Foreman is probably Jeff’s only real counterpart of all the heavyweight champions.

But was Jeff simply a man of his time or would he still be a formidable force today? I am inclined to very much believe the latter, although today’s championship distance would certainly handicap the big fellow. Over twelve rounds, it is possible that a prime Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes would out-speed and outpoint the Ohio bear. We also need to consider that today’s referees, even in the special circumstances that prevail in world championship fights, would not permit Jeff to take the punishment he did a hundred or more years ago.

Ah, but we are all cozy creatures in this cozy era of ours. We selfishly insist that fantasy fights be conducted according to today’s rules, but that very word ‘fantasy’ surely means that our make-believe battles can be set down in any era. Let us suppose that we are in a time vacuum where Jeffries and his opponent can negotiate rules and conditions as well as a mutually agreeable distance. Let us suppose that the limit is re-set to fifteen rounds.

I would venture the confident opinion that Jeff’s chances against any heavyweight in history would suddenly soar dramatically. Would Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Liston, Foreman and Tyson have simply got tired of hitting Jeffries and then left themselves open to the bear’s crunching counter shots? One has to wonder. Would Ali and Holmes have been able to steer clear of Jeff’s body punches for forty-five minutes? At the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1966, Ali persistently called on the referee’s help when George Chuvalo was banging him in the ribs and planting the odd shot to the kidneys.

However, my instinct tells me that the really clever ring generals would have kept Jeffries at bay. I do not believe, for example, that even a prime Jeffries could have beaten Jack Johnson over fifteen rounds.

In his aforementioned book (published in 2009), author Jim Carney matches the prime Jeffries with all other heavyweight champions up to, and including Lennox Lewis. Carney believes that Jeff would have taken Johnson when both men were at their best. Interestingly, however, Carney picks Gene Tunney and Muhammad Ali as the only two men who would have scraped past Jeffries and decisioned him in desperate, touch-and-go battles.

However, in that most ultimate of confrontations – the good old-fashioned fight to the finish – Jim Jeffries might well have beaten them all.


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO). Mike is also a highly successful artist at Saatch Art (http://www.saatchiart.com/account/artworks/93559).

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Jim Jeffries in Training (1899)



Jeffries Fitzsimmons fight 1899



Jim Jeffries-Tom Sharkey # 2 - Nov 3 1899



Jim Jeffries training



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



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  1. John P. McKenzie 06:09pm, 02/28/2016

    Jim Jeffries was more than just “a” champion.  He was a superlative man and all around athlete.  Any and every man who has held a championship belt should be accorded respect for what he had to put into his sport to win the championship.  It is a shame that so many supposed boxing fans judge Mr. Jefferies by his last fight - the loss to Jack Johnson.  It is also a shame that some label Jeffries a “racist”.  As if this lessen the man himself.  Jim Jeffries was truly a moral man who treated everyone with (probably more than deserved) respect.  He was especially very nice and gentle with children ... ALL children.  He was and did not mind being a ROLE MODEL.  The old champions KNEW hard times and most of them posted NO EXCUSES.  It just was not part of the makeup of such men.  The modern fighter with all the ADVANTAGES he enjoyed could not stand up to the fire in those old men’s bellies.  And I will tell you one other opinion I hold ... there has been NO ONE who ever walked onto a baseball field of play that could swing Babe Ruth’s bat let alone be compared to the
    GREATEST baseball player of all time.  Thanks for reading.  You do not have to believe anything I say, but it would be nice if you INVESTIGATED before replying.  Know why?  Because “know ye the truth and the truth shall set ye free”.  John P. McKenzie Cosby, TN

  2. Hamza 06:24am, 11/18/2015

    I think for his time Jim was great but against today’s heavyweights or even the heavyweights of the 30s-50s he wouldn’t stand a chance. Today’s boxing is way too advanced in terms of skill and technique.

    Sure he was a great specimen for his time. However a prime Mike Tyson would have destroyed him, Klitschko would have knocked him out and the same would have happened had he faced many of the heavyweights of the modern era.

    This article contains a lot of nostalgic wishful thinking from the author. The techniques used back in those days are so primitive it would be a joke matching them with today’s heavyweights.

    One thing I will give them is that they were tougher mentally due to the times they lived in.

  3. PitBull Petrill 11:27am, 12/02/2014

    Though I do think Jeffries would have wiped the floor with Johnson in his prime. Johnson did not fight the level of opposition during his reign as Jeff did during his. Also, Johnson was dropped by a middleweight Stanley Ketchel and KOed by the much smaller Joe Chyonski. I doubt he could have taken Jeffries best firepower for more than 10 rounds.

  4. PitBull Petrill 11:00am, 12/02/2014

    Jeffries was a splendid physical specimen. I lift weights and supplement like crazy and his legs are still bigger than mine. It’s a shame he did not know modern nutrition and supplementation or he would have been a rock solid 240lbs back in the late 1800’s. He was a great athlete as well: a sprinter and a long jumper. He is easily the most underrated fighter ever along with Sam Langford. Great Article!!!!

  5. Mike Silver 02:04am, 11/30/2014

    I would also add that Jeffries’ obvious athletic intelligence made him even more dangerous. It’s obvious from the quotes he was a thinking fighter. Jeff talks of stepping in with a punch (how many of today’s boxers correctly execute that fundamental move?) the value of a slight crouch, the importance of his jab, snapping short punches for greater effectiveness and hitting under the heart or “just where the edges of the ribs come together”. (Just the thought of that makes me wince in pain!). Big Jeff knew something about anatomy and the importance of placing his punches where they would do the most damage.

  6. Mike Silver 01:44am, 11/30/2014

    Great stuff as usual Mike. We cannot take too much from these old time pre-1920s film footage. I’ve seen early 20th century film of Nijinsky, considered the greatest ballet dancer of all time, but the herky jerky film and primitive equipment do not do him justice. Same with the films of some of the early boxing greats. Jeffries went up against superior boxers but what decided the outcome, aside from his incredible strength, power and stamina (not too mention those horrific body shots—a lost art today) was his mental toughness. Let the know-it-alls talk about today’s “superior boxing technique” which we know is so much b.s. As anyone who truly understands this sport realizes far more has been lost than gained over the past quarter century. What cannot be argued is the “mental toughness” of these prehistoric monsters. They would have crushed most of today’s belt holders with that alone.

  7. Koolz 02:55pm, 11/28/2014

    Watching the Videos and I am not impressed at all. 
    I don’t think either of these guys could beat Wlad. 
    Watching them train and fight there foot work is horrible, the motions completely wasted.  you think Ali would have had a problem with this style of fighting.  That’s a joke right?
    Boxing is much more advanced and technical then what these guys did back in the 1800’s in the US.  Boxing is a lot smarter now. 
    Cool read though.

  8. Eric 11:10am, 11/28/2014

    If the heavyweight champs had to fight in an alley or barroom there is no question that Jeffries would be one of the last standing. Too strong for Dempsey, Louis, or Marciano to handle in a no-holds barred slobberknocker. Jeffries’s former opponent, Tom Sharkey, would’ve been hell in a street fight too. I can see someone like Foreman or Jeffries destroying “boxers” like Ali or Holmes in a street fight. Foreman vs. Jeffries would’ve been something to see in a cage, the street, or even in the ring. Big Jim was suprisingly light on his feet for a man of his build.

  9. JS 10:48am, 11/27/2014

    Great article, Mike. I’ve always been fascinated by Jeffries. By the way - for those that might be wondering about the less-than-scintillating action of the Jeff / Fitz footage imbedded above - that film is a reenactment of their 1899 title fight. According to Dan Streible’s excellent book about early boxing films, “Fight Pictures”, the footage of the actual fight was spoiled, and there were at least 2 recreations for the cameras. This appears to be the one with actors playing Jeffries and Fitzsimmons. (There was apparently another one where they played themselves.) This was not an uncommon practice at that time, with filmmakers reenacting all sorts of events and passing them off as if they were shot live. Keep up the great work!

  10. Tex Hassler 09:34am, 11/27/2014

    This is really a fantastic article on Jeffries.  Jeffries in his prime physical strength and his endurance he would have given any heavyweight who ever lived a hard time. By the time he fought Jack Johnson, he should have stayed retired. I am always interested in how old time fighters trained. One thing is for sure, they took getting in shape seriously. Many of today’s fighters could learn much from their training methods.

  11. Eric 07:51am, 11/27/2014

    Looking at Jeffries physique it is amazing that he had this type of musculature without ever touching a barbell. His physique is certainly more impressive than the one sported by old-time strongman, Charles Atlas, especially in the lower body. I saw an alleged training routine done by Jeffries while preparing for Fitz and I couldn’t believe the volume of training this guy did in a routine training day. Supposedly, Jeffries would do 14 miles of roadwork in approximately 2 hours, nothing spectacular if you are a 110lb marathoner, but for a Clydesdale like Jeffries running in work boots, pretty impressive. Jeffries would spar 12-16 rounds, hit the heavy bag for 20-25 minutes, skip rope, throw around a 18lb medicine ball or wrestle to finish it up. No mention of floor exercises or the speed bag, but it mentioned that the Boilermaker would play 3 games of handball. Notice a lot of the old-timers played handball, seems like a great exercise for boxers. Saw Joe on Superstars, Frazier wasn’t much of an athlete, great fighter, but no jock for sure. I would have thought Norton would’ve performed better when he competed. Norton was an all around jock in high school but Ken really wasn’t that impressive either. Norton and Quarry did about average in Superstars, but Frazier was awful. Great article. Happy Thanksgiving!!

  12. Mohummad Humza Elahi 06:53am, 11/27/2014

    Superb, no other word for it.

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