#548) Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
OR “The Great White Nope”
Class of 2005
NOTE: While the actual Johnson-Jeffries fight itself was 100 minutes long, I have yet to find a complete recording of the fight online, or any information that one even exists. The longest version I could find is the 27 minute video embedded below.
The Plot: Boxing got its first “Fight of the Century” on July 4th, 1910 in Reno, Nevada, when James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to battle Jack Johnson. Throughout the 1900s (when boxing was predominantly played by and for White people), African-American Jack Johnson had been building his reputation as a champion boxer, and although he was named World Colored Heavyweight Champion in 1908, he wanted to claim the title from White champion James J. Jeffries. After several active White boxers were defeated by Johnson, Jeffries was finally coaxed into the fight, with the press calling him “The Great White Hope” that would keep boxing segregated. 20,000 people showed up to watch the match, the racial tension rising with the summer heat. As the surviving footage shows us, the fight was one-sided from the start, and Johnson soundly defeated Jeffries in 15 rounds, simultaneously cementing his legacy and breaking an important racial barrier.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the fight “[a] signal moment in American race relations” and claims the film was “the most widely discussed and written-about motion picture made before 1915’s ‘The Birth of a Nation‘.” You just had to bring that up, didn’t you?
But Does It Really?: Like so many of these early NFR entries, “The Johnson-Jeffries Fight” is on the list for the event it is covering rather than anything noteworthy about the film itself. Jack Johnson is an important figure in African-American history, and this fight was the apex of his career, to say nothing of its historical importance to race relations in this country. I’m glad that the film survives and has found its inevitable place in the NFR.
Nobody Gets One: An NFR rarity: I don’t know who filmed this. There’s lots of talk about this footage’s controversial distribution (more on that later), and while a few names are bandied about, I cannot find one reliable source that can confirm the production company behind the Johnson-Jeffries footage or the person or people who filmed it. You’d think everyone would be tripping over each other for this credit.
Wow, That’s Dated: In 1910, boxing was still a controversial sport in America, and Nevada was one of the few states in which boxing was legal. Also this was back when boxing matches went a maximum of 15 rounds rather than 12.
- When “Johnson-Jeffries” showed up on my watchlist, my first thought was, “Didn’t I already watch this for the blog?” Turns out I was thinking of the “Corbett-Fitzsimmons” fight from 1897. Where “Johnson-Jeffries” is more historically significant, “Corbett-Fitzsimmons” is on the NFR for more aesthetic/technical reasons, which I allude to in that post.
- As expected, the footage of the fight is silent, and I provided my own soundtrack by hitting random on my Spotify “Liked Songs” list. I don’t think Jeffries ever dreamed of getting his butt kicked to the work of Cake, Norah Jones, Cat Stevens, or Neil Diamond. And yes, in hindsight I should have gone with that guy who sings “Flake“. What’s his name?
- The first third of the footage is all the pomp and circumstance leading up to the fight: the boxers entering the ring, etc. Perhaps watching the shorter versions is the way to go. Just fight already!
- Maybe I just don’t get boxing. Half of it is two men circling each other, and the other half is them awkwardly holding each other like it’s a middle school dance. You get maybe three minutes of excitement interspersed over two otherwise-boring hours. It’s like watching baseball or “The Shining“.
- When did boxing move indoors?
- Round 15 finally brings us some real action when Johnson punches Jeffries and gets him on the rope, the first knockdown of Jeffries’ career. To prevent Jeffries from getting his first ever KO loss, Jeffries’ manager threw in the towel, giving Johnson a win by technical knock out.
- Jack Johnson may have won the fight, but he lost the war. For starters, a series of riots occurred throughout the United States in response to Johnson’s victory, the first nationwide race riot in America. As a result, various states chose to ban public screenings of the fight footage. A nationwide ban on distributing boxing footage across state lines was implemented in 1912, and stayed in effect until 1940.
- James Jeffries returned to retirement after his bout with Johnson, although he spoke highly of his opponent in later years. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best…I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
- Two years after his fight with Jeffries, Johnson was arrested for bringing a White woman (his girlfriend Lucille) over state lines “for immoral purposes”. An all-White jury found him guilty, and Johnson fled the country rather than serve jail time. He returned in 1920 and served 10 months in Leavenworth. Johnson continued boxing (even during his international exile), and lost his heavyweight champion title to Jess Willard in 1915. Johnson died in 1946 at age 68 following injuries sustained from a car crash.
- Jack Johnson is still a noteworthy figure in African-American and sports history, with such boxing legends as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson singing his praises. Posthumous tributes and honors for Johnson include a Ken Burns documentary, the play (and subsequent movie) “The Great White Hope” starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, and an official pardon in 2018 from…whoever was president then.