The Latymer School History Magazine - page 45

On 4
July 1910 in sports
fans, gamblers and members
of the 'fancy’* descended on
Reno Nevada for what was
by common consent the
greatest event in the history
of sport, the world
heavyweight championship
boxing bout between Jack
Johnson the black champion
and Jim Jeffries the white
former champion. The fight
was given notoriety by the
racist assumptions of the
day. Chief amongst these
was that 'the greatest prize in
sport,' the world
heavyweight boxing
championship belonged to
the white race and that it was
a matter of world-wide racial
shame that the title was held
by a black fighter.
From the time when John L
Sullivan' The Boston Strong
Boy’ became the first
recognised world
heavyweight champion in
the 1880s** only white
boxers were allowed to fight
for the title. This practice
began with Sullivan who
made a point of raising the
colour bar and refusing to
fight black boxers as did his
successor champions Jim
Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons
and Jim Jeffries. Talented
black fighters such as Peter
Jackson and George
Godfrey, known in the
language of the day as ‘Old
Chocolate’, could only watch
from the outside and fight
poorly paid bouts with other
black fighters for the very
second rate Coloured
Championship of the World '
that existed from 1876 to
Jack Johnson changed all of
this. By 1908, through a
combination of talent,
courage and showmanship,
the Galveston Giant, as he
was known, had become
recognised as the best
heavyweight in the world
even if he was not allowed to
fight for the championship.
Three years earlier in 1905,
the undefeated champion,
the formidable Jim Jeffries
had retired and the following
year the Canadian Tommy
Burns became champion.
Unlike his predecessors
Burns was prepared to fight
black boxers as long as the
money was right. Johnson’s
reputation though cast a
long shadow and for two
years Burns avoided
Johnson who retaliated by
taunting the champion,
showing him up in public
and taking out newspaper
advertisements demanding
that Burns fight him. Finally
the champion gave in and on
Boxing Day 1908 at
Rushcutters Bay Sydney he
lost the title to Johnson in a
one sided match. For the first
time there was a black world
heavyweight champion.
There now began one of the
strangest and most
disturbing episodes in the
history of sport. Jack London,
the popular novelist and
author of White Fang and
Call of the Wild began the
search for 'A Great White
Hope' a white boxer who
could beat Johnson and
reclaim the heavyweight
championship for the honour
of the white race although at
the same time London
expressed admiration both
for the new champion’s
talent and his achievement.
As Johnson said of himself
he ‘was a brunette in a blond
For the next seven years
American newspapers
conducted the White Hope
campaign searching for a
white fighter who could
defeat the Johnson, ‘the man
of summer temperament’ as
London described him. The
campaign did not go well.
Between 1908 and 1913
Johnson defeated, with
some ease, each of the
White Hope pretenders that
were placed before him. The
fight that stood out was his
battle against the old
champion Jim Jeffries. For
two years American
newspapers had been
running a campaign
imploring the undefeated
champion to come out of
retirement, leave his
California alfalfa farm and to
once again restore the
honour of the white race or
as Jack London put it to
'wipe the golden smile from
the negroes face'. At first
Jeffries resisted but in March
1910 the 'man of iron',
tempted by a record purse,
finally agreed and embarked
upon a serious training
regime in preparation for a
summer fight.
To add drama to the event
Arthur Conan Doyle, the
creator of Sherlock Holmes,
was invited to referee the
match but after serious
consideration and citing
poor health he declined.
No sporting event had ever
been quite so anticipated. A
procession of five hundred
cars crossed the state line
from California into Nevada
flying banners proclaiming
‘Reno or Bust’ and 'The Iron
Man'. Jeffries promised that
he would do his best to
maintain 'the athletic
supremacy of the white race'
while the world’s press,
knowing their audience,
confidently predicted a
Jeffries victory. Meanwhile
the champion was telling his
black supporters to put all
their money on a Johnson
victory. He sent a final
telegram to his brother
COPPER ON ME.' Johnson
was late for the fight and the
rumour quickly spread that in
a fit of cowardice he had fled
the state and gone back to
The fight took place in front
of 20,000 people, at a ring
built for the occasion. In the
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