No Country for Old Men

By Mike Casey on May 14, 2013
No Country for Old Men
Jack Johnson "understood his art like Einstein understood the theory of relativity."

It was no country for black men. But as Jim Jeffries would painfully discover, it was no country for old men either…

The fight, if it could be called that, is forever etched in the annals of heavyweight championship history. It was a one-sided battle and the winner was never in doubt until the butchery finally ceased in the fifteenth round. On July 4, 1910, in sweltering Reno, Jack Johnson beat Jim Jeffries to retain the richest prize in sport in a dour affair that would have been quickly forgotten but for its huge significance and the multiple subplots that ran through it like huge and bulging veins.

We have heard all about the great white man trying to beat the nasty black man, the cussing of Johnson from ringside, the ensuing race riots and the umpteen theories on how the world would go to hell if some decent chap of the right color and breeding didn’t come along and prick the ballooning Johnson bubble.

As many books must have been written about the Johnson-Jeffries saga as the Ali-Foreman rumble sixty-four years later. Neither fight was thrilling until the climax and the massive fallout. Possibly the most intriguing common denominator is that Jim Jeffries and George Foreman were both perceived as invincible before they were sent tumbling down the mountain.

The myth of invincibility is a tough tag for a fighter to wear, as heavy and burdensome as old Jacob Marley’s chain. However levelheaded the fighter, there comes that tipping point where he begins to believe the inflated assessments of others. Perhaps he’s the one. Perhaps he really is unbeatable.

“Invincible” gunfighters of yore, who played a more dangerous and permanent game, didn’t have to explain themselves when their nemeses came over the horizon and gunned them down. The winning shot was generally fatal and no press conference was required. But a once untouchable boxer has to wake up, shake the cobwebs from his head and somehow describe how the impossible happened.

Strange things happened to even the most reasonable men in these circumstances. Beset by panic and seduced by denial, they invent a story. Then they invent a few others. Even as the gun continues to smoke, they vehemently deny that the other man pulled the trigger.

Jim Jeffries, theoretically at least, was arguably the most unbeatable of all the heavyweight champions and quickly staggered into the realms of fantasy after the Johnson pasting. What could Jeff do? What could he say? He was the great unbeatable and a nation had depended on him. In a far more prosaic and fanciful era, he had assumed almost God-like status.

Johnson had sent him on the equivalent of the worst possible acid trip, so perhaps big Jeff had indeed been drugged. The man who set that ball rolling was the normally sensible Bob Edgren, sports columnist of the New York Evening World. A very good writer was Mr.Edgren, but he also became a little too friendly with fighters he took a shine too, such as Bob Fitzsimmons and Jim Jeffries. A day after the Johnson hammering, Edgren announced that Jeff had been drugged.

Dan Daniel, the great old boxing and baseball scribe, found this claim very amusing. “Bob insisted that somebody had doped Jeff’s tea,” Daniel wrote some years later. “This was interesting from many angles, not the least of which was the revelation that Jeff was a tea drinker.”

Weeks

Several weeks passed after Edgren’s story, during which time Jeffries was recuperating at Catalina Island. Then the former champion opened up and revealed his own thoughts on the whole Reno nightmare. “I am positively sure that I was the victim of trickery,” he said. “Something was done to me. It would have been impossible for me to break down so suddenly in the condition I was in, unless someone got to me in an underhand way.

“That I was tampered with is a certainty. Eight days before the fight – I remember it was on a Saturday morning – I went on a fishing trip. We had breakfast while out, and when I returned that afternoon I went to bed and to sleep. From that day on, I was never myself. I wanted to sleep all of the time. At first I thought I had been working too hard and that a rest for a couple of days would fix me up all right.

“But the laziness never left me. From day to day I tried to make myself believe that I was all right, but the tired feeling would always grab me after dinner and I could do nothing but loaf. I was also attacked with dysentery, for which not even the doctor could account, for I had been extra careful of myself the last two weeks of training.

“To show you just how strong it was handed to me, I did not recover from either the dope or the dysentery until I had been here at Catalina for two weeks. Why don’t the experts account for the lifeless hulk that staggered around the Reno ring? The day of the fight, I only remember going down the aisle toward the ring. I cannot recall a single thing before or after that.

“If I could have got my brain working, I would have asked promoter Tex Rickard to call off all bets. I know nothing of the fight except what I have been told. They say I took my introduction with my legs straddled apart and did not even bow to a tremendous ovation. Can you imagine me being such a fool? But I don’t even remember the ovation.

“Once, must have been in the sixth or seventh round, a punch to the jaw cleared my brain for a minute. I shook my head, trying to get myself together. But before I got another punch I went back to the dopey condition. I was not knocked senseless. Of course, I would have been if Sam Berger (cornerman) had not interfered. A woman could have beaten me that day.

“Deep down in my heart, I know that crookedness cost me the fight. I have my suspicions as to the guilty parties and what hurts the most is that I suspect men who pretended to be most friendly toward me. I was doped or drugged in some way, to a certainty. I have letters giving hints regarding the job. Some day the truth will come out. I am positively through with the fight game. I shall never step into a ring again. That is final.”

Dan Daniel, having concluded his investigation into the matter as part of The Ring’s ‘Ring Detective’ feature, remained unconvinced of Jeff’s doping claims.

Daniel wrote: “The day Jeffries signed to fight Johnson, he weighed 316 pounds. Think that over and then decide if Jeff was doped. 316 pounds! The day before the fight, he was down to 217. Can you imagine a man taking off nearly 100 pounds and expecting to be as good as ever? Sure he was doped!

“There is nothing to support the drug charge. The years have not produced any evidence to back up Jeff’s 1910 prediction that they would reveal a story about dope and plotting against him by men whom he had regarded as friends.

“At no time in later years did Jeffries return to the drug guff. Not long before Jim died, Nat Fleischer of The Ring magazine visited with him in California, and Jim never mentioned the dope plot. Jeffries was whipped by a much stronger,  younger, better conditioned man who had been in training uninterruptedly.

“Misplaced pride brought Jeffries into the ring. Misplaced pride prompted him to rig up that dope yarn.

“The fight stands as decided – an honest knockout victory for Johnson, an honest knockout defeat for Jeffries.”

Fairness

In fairness to Jim Jeffries, he wasn’t the only man in denial. An entire generation was burying its head in the sand, suspicious of progress and progressive thinking. Entrenched views and opinions had been shaped by countless years of fear, misconception, ignorance and old wives’ tales. Racial equality wasn’t even close to being on the agenda. The mere suggestion of it was preposterous. Otherwise intelligent and reasonable men such as writers Jack London and Rex Beach. reverted to classic stereotyping when Jack Johnson came up for discussion.

Writing for a syndicate, Rex Beach praised Johnson’s fistic abilities and alienated many of Jeffries supporters by expressing the opinion that Jack would have mastered even the prime version of Jeff. Mr.Beach was doing rather well up to that point, but then wondered aloud if the brains of Negro fighters would ever match their physical prowess. Perhaps old Rex felt the need to balance the scales in case someone came along and burned his house down.

It is easy to be smug and patronizing about all this now, but how many of us would have behaved any differently if we had lived then? Even those who knew that racial persecution was wrong sought safety in numbers by sticking to the populist view of the black man as an inferior being and a major threat to stability. Why take a chance and rock the boat?

This ostrich-like approach to changing times, especially in the uniquely raw arena of boxing, blinded people to the fact that Johnson and Sam Langford had dramatically raised the quality bar in heavyweight boxing and the fight game in general. Joe Gans, the incomparable Old Master of the lightweights, had also taken the sport to a new technical level. Many writers of the day were generous in their praise of these wonderful boxers, but the praise was often balanced by crude observations of their physicality and inevitable comparisons with the ape family.

It was no country for black men. But as Jim Jeffries would painfully discover, it was no country for old men either.

Intelligent

Jack Johnson was intelligent,  very canny in matters of business, fiercely independent and relentlessly contrary in how he was expected to behave. Jack didn’t bow to anyone and he didn’t fall for the two-card trick either.

In his magnificent prime as a fighting man, more or less between the years of 1905 and 1910, Johnson was not only the perfect boxer but a superb thinker and analyst of other men’s minds and styles.

Boxing historian Mike Silver rates Johnson as the greatest ever heavyweight and explains: “He was one of a kind, both as an individual and as a fighter. Except for one other boxer—Benny Leonard—Jack’s unusual style has yet to be duplicated by any fighter of any weight, past or present.

“Johnson adopted a stance that was similar to the ‘on guard’ position of a fencer. It allowed him to quickly sidestep or shift his weight to either leg for offense or defense. Combined with his cat-like reflexes, the stance caused opponents to misjudge their distance when they tried to reach him. The effort would invariably throw them off balance, at which point Johnson would step in and counter with a solid jab, right cross or uppercut. His superb jab is often overlooked, but it was the main weapon in his formidable and varied arsenal.

“The modern day pundits who erroneously rank as great boxers such athletically gifted but (unbeknown to them) technically flawed and incomplete fighters as Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Roy Jones Jr., would not understand the subtle genius of Jack Johnson.

“Balance, distance, leverage and timing were of paramount importance to Johnson—as they were to all master boxers of his era. Jack always maintained proper balance and distance when he moved his feet or shifted his weight. There was no wasted motion or effort—the mark of a master craftsman. And he was always quick to recognize and exploit opportunities. Johnson was basically a defensive minded counterpuncher. Feinting was still very much in vogue during Jack’s time and he used his head, legs, arms, shoulders and eyes to create openings or confuse opponents.

“Johnson could hypnotize you with his hand motions. They were always moving, sometimes broadly and sometimes in little circular motions, ready to feint, lead, block or counterpunch. Johnson perfected the art of blocking or parrying punches with an open glove—a lost art of today among many others. He was effective on offense or defense, at long range or in close, and was capable of analyzing another fighter’s flaws and adjusting his style to fit the opponent.

“In his prime, it was almost impossible to hit Johnson with a solid shot. In later years, thanks to his superb defensive skills and depth of experience, a bloated Johnson tended to loaf in order to conserve energy, but his superb boxing skills were always in evidence and he did not take unnecessary punishment.

“When he was hit (rarely), it was never with the same punch twice.  Jack understood his art like Einstein understood the theory of relativity. Remember, when everyone was praising a young Joe Louis in early 1936 as unbeatable, it was Johnson who noticed the flaw in Joe’s armor: his vulnerability to a right hand counter.”

Deadly

Johnson was deadly serious at his Reno training camp and meticulously mapped out a program for himself that accounted for every eventuality in the fight proper. In preparing for Jeffries and all the manic and intimidating fan support that would come in Jeff’s wake, Johnson wanted to be in exactly the right physical and mental shape, able to cope with any adverse developments from his opponent or outside agencies.

Jack knew the weather conditions would likely be brutal and worked from the premise that he and Jeffries would be battling long and hard under a relentlessly hot sun. “Sparring sessions” would be a soft and wholly inappropriate description of the hard fights Johnson put himself through in his extensive and exacting preparations.

On June 28, he fought four men in succession at his training camp and lashed them all with a strangely jocular coldness that clearly signaled his steely determination. Jack laughed and taunted in these sessions but he drew much blood and bled continually himself from one of the few stray wallops that penetrated his defense. The sessions were no stroll in the park for his unfortunate quartet of sparring partners, Al Kaufman, George Cotton, Walter Monahan and David Mills.

The temper of each man would gradually boil over as Johnson baited him and punished him with jolting jabs and savage uppercuts. While Al Kaufman and a few others around the camp bemoaned the high altitude, Johnson wasn’t bothered by the searing heat and thin air.

How could the shell of Jim Jeffries have ever beaten Johnson? It was never going to happen.

Conversation

The conversation mentioned by Dan Daniel between Jeff and Nat Fleischer, took place in 1950, by which time Jeffries had mellowed but lost little of the stubbornness and pride that made him such a magnificent champion back in the glory days.

Jeff never rated Johnson too highly as a fighter, and his opinion of Jack hadn’t changed:  “I had no fear of Johnson at any time. I regarded him as an overrated fighter. I still maintain that in my prime I could have stopped him.”

True enough, Jeffries never repeated his dope accusations in the Fleischer interview. Primarily, the old champ blamed too many years of soft living and a lack of desire for his poor performance. “Soon after I started training, I realized I had made a mistake, but I could no longer withdraw. I had been lured on by my friends and the money.”

Fleischer was at ringside in Reno and saw what most other neutral observers witnessed—the old against the new in every sense of the expression. While Jeff had been enjoying retirement on his California farm, Johnson and other pioneers had redesigned the playing field. Suddenly you had to hit the ball a lot further to score a homerun. This is not to demean Jeffries in any way. He would be a daunting proposition for any heavyweight of any era. It is simply that Johnson was so special. Jack was a genuine innovator and genuinely seminal.

Fleischer’s description of the painful and protracted spectacle at Reno is both a celebration and a lament as he charts the changing of the guard: “Johnson waited for Jeff to lead and punished him hard before the slow left hand of Jeff could land. Then the Galveston Giant, grinning, got away each time, only to come back to repeat the ghastly performance That’s why ringsiders thought that Johnson was toying with Jeff in an effort to embitter those who had been clamoring for a white man to regain the laurels from the black man’s head.

“When Johnson danced out of range, Jeffries went after him, but it was not like a lion going to its quarry. The old dash of Big Jim was gone and he, more than anyone else at the ringside, knew that the jig was up. Only now and then were there flashes of Jim’s old-time splendor, his vivaciousness, his speed and powerful hitting.

“Jeffries was always a brave man, but never braver than on that fateful July 4, 1910. Grimly he stuck to his hopeless task, calm, steady as a rock, but all the time realizing that it was a lost cause. The blood he had to swallow nearly choked him and turned him sick at the stomach, but he wouldn’t give in.”

Fleischer had many conversations with Johnson in which Jack claimed that he carried Jeff to the fifteenth round. Jack explained that he prolonged the fight as an act of revenge for the insults that had been hurled at him from various quarters. Fleischer, although a friend of Johnson, never bought this story.

Said Nat: “I don’t think that Johnson let the bout last longer than he could help. He never took any chances with Jeff until age, wear and tear began to tell on the former retired champion. Johnson knew that as long as Jeff could stand, he would have one big punch left and that wallop might do the trick.”

Epilogue

In the early nineteen-twenties, Jeffries was visited on his farm by his old newspaper pal, Bob Edgren. Edgren discovered that Jeff had kept his weight down to around 230 lbs. since the Johnson fight.

Big Jeff hadn’t lost any of his formidable strength or determination either. He was irrigating an alfalfa patch and motioning to three of his men to move a big iron irrigating pipe to another point. Despite being fine physical specimens in their own right, the men failed shift the pipe with their combined strength. Jeff gave a little smile and proceeded to move it himself.

Job done. The champ was finally back in his element.


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).

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Jack Johnson Vs. James J Jeffries (July 4th, 1910)



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  1. Tex Hassler 05:50pm, 07/18/2013

    Jack Johnson beat just about every contender in his division before he became champion. There was just about no real competition left for him to fight after winning the title. Dempsey and Liston also beat many of the very top contenders before becoming champion. You can learn more about Jack Johnson by looking at who he fought and beat before he won the title. He was one of the two heavyweight champions who came from Texas.

  2. Tex Hassler 07:46pm, 07/10/2013

    Jack Johnson was a great fighter and he would have been great in any era. He had great defensive skills which he made the most of.  If you think a prme Jack Johnson would have not made it to the top today, do not bet on it. Great article and well researched.

  3. Michael Hegan 07:05pm, 05/19/2013

    Eric…..
    here we are….doing a ‘waltz from the past’...nice music…accolades…yada yada…..
    ...and you come in with all those fukn facts and shit…...

    ruined the party….

    Just kidding ...great posts…harsh ...but truthful

  4. Eric 06:03pm, 05/15/2013

    Johnson whipping Jeffries is no different than Holmes over Ali, Marciano over Louis, Lewis over Tyson etc., if not more of a mirage. None of those fighters had been retired for over 5years and had to lose 100lbs to get in fighting trim. By the time the fight actually took place, it was nearly 6 years since Jeffries had set foot in a boxing ring.

  5. Mike Casey 12:31pm, 05/15/2013

    Thanks kindly, Nicolas. Yes, Schmeling too spotted the Louis flaw. “I have seen something,” were Max’s famous words.

  6. nicolas 12:22pm, 05/15/2013

    An excellent article, and so beautifully written, pure poetry. I always though thought it was Max Schmeling who discovered the flaw in Louis’s defense. Also though regarding the description of black people at the time. Even in the thirties, when there was suspicion about the loss of George Godfrey to Primo Carnera by foul, Time magazine (or was it Life) called Godfrey the ‘Lazy Negro’. Also interesting to note, George Foreman thinks he was drugged in Zaire, which I would find more believable. One can only speculate what would have happened had Jeffries defended the title against Johnson in 1905, when Johnson was calling him out. I suggest that Jeffries might have gotten a controversial decision, almost like the one Marvin Hart got over Johnson.

  7. Ted 09:06am, 05/15/2013

    This is how I learn my boxing bhistory

  8. Mike Casey 06:41am, 05/15/2013

    Yes, Johnny, Jeff looked awfully drained.

  9. johnny yuma 06:30am, 05/15/2013

    Jeffries looked haggard in the face coming in. Johnson was great, he was in tip top shape. Too bad this fight made him & Ruined; him at the same time.

  10. Mike Casey 12:38am, 05/15/2013

    Ah, Ted, you rascal!

  11. Ted 05:03pm, 05/14/2013

    “Jim Jeffries, theoretically at least, was arguably the most unbeatable of all the heavyweight champions and quickly staggered into the realms of fantasy after the Johnson pasting.”

    Great line. I shall have to steal it.

  12. Michael Hegan 03:06pm, 05/14/2013

    I look forward to Mike Casey’s articles….Great information…lots of research .

    When ‘THe Boiler Maker’ lost a hundred pounds…..to get down to 215 for his fight with Johnson…..that….and that alone drained him.  He wasn’t lazy…he was tired.
    Jim Jefferies was a man who shouldn’t have come back…..and he is not alone.

    While he was Champion…he was , seemingly, undefeatable…and after he retired….he believed it himself.  I’m sure he thought he could easily beat Marvin Hart and Tommy Burns….(maybe he could have)

    Jack Johnson was another movie altogether…

  13. Eric 03:00pm, 05/14/2013

    Jack Johnson beat a shell of Jim Jeffries. Not only did Jeffries have to lose 100lbs but he hadn’t fought in five years and was 35 years old. Back in 1910, 35 wasn’t the new 25, and it was ancient for a prizefighter. Jack Johnson has got to be the one of the most overrated, if not the most overrated of all heavyweight champions. The whole myth about Johnson throwing the fight to Willard is hysterical. Why in the hell would you fight that many rounds in the blistering Cuban heat with a giant 240lb Willard draping his huge body all over you, before deciding to “lay down.” Johnson big wins were against a 5’7” Sam Langford, a geriatric Bob Fitzsimmons, a totally washed up Jim Jeffries who hadn’t fought in five years and had to lose 100lbs,  tiny little Tommy Burns who was the shortest heavyweight champ ever at about 5’ 7 1/2”, and a middleweight legend named Stanley Ketchel who stood only 5’9” and was conceded at least 30lbs to Johnson. Langford and Burns weren’t even 5’8”, Fitzsimmons wasn’t even a light heavyweight and stood less than 6’, Ketchel was but a middleweight, and Jeffries had grown old and fat in retirement.

  14. Mike Casey 02:18pm, 05/14/2013

    Thank you, Ted!

  15. Ted 01:30pm, 05/14/2013

    Really a great effort, Mike, and also a great title. I will comment some more as I am on the road.

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