“jeff, It’s Up To You!”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

When Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns for the world heavyweight professional boxing championship at Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908, he became the first Negro to hold the highest title in boxing, with all its symbolic and economic importance. It was not a popular victory. Perhaps the white public at this period would have accepted a modest and respectable Negro as champion, but never one like Johnson. A former drifter who had seen the inside of countless jails throughout the United States, he had begun his pugilistic career fighting in barrooms and back streets. He cut a figure in international café society, was frequently drunk and in trouble for speeding in his racing car, played the bull fiddle, and made no secret of his liking for handsome blonde white women of the sort who generally travelled with boxers, jockeys, and criminals. So it was that the famous writer Jack London, covering the Burns fight for the New York Herald , ended his dispatch with the appeal that James J. Jeffries, who had retired undefeated in 1905, should “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you!”

Thirty years old when he won the title, the Texas-born Johnson was a superb fighter—some authorities say the best who ever came along. It seemed so, after he defeated Burns, although other powerful Negroes like Sam Langford, whom he had previously beaten, might have made trouble had Jack allowed any of them a return match. But his virtuosity was now so great that he could show disrespect both to opponents and audiences in a way that set the brutal fight crowds gibbering with rage. In vain were the “White Hopes” sent against him. The burly Al Kaufman, who was taller and heavier, could do nothing. Victor McLaglen, the future movie star, was badly beaten. Capable boxers like Tony Ross, Billy Delaney, and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien were helpless against him, and the middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchel, was floored in twelve rounds. There grew up a general belief that only Jim Jeffries could put Johnson on his back. Flourishing in a thousand barrooms, the desire to see the Negro defeated at last became so intense that it focussed attention on Jeffries like the converging of the sun’s rays through a burning glass.

Born in 1875, James Jackson Jeffries had grown up in the boiler-making trade in California and turned to the ring as a young man. In 1899, after only twelve professional fights, he won the world’s heavyweight championship by knocking out Bob Fitzsimmons. When Jeffries retired six years later, he had never been knocked off his feet. After an elimination bout, which he refereed, he conferred the title on Marvin Hart, who promptly lost it to Burns. An awesome figure in retirement, Jeffries had ballooned to a weight of more than three hundred pounds, but retained his great strength, and could still break any man’s grip with either hand. He had the myth-making quality of a real folk hero; people believed, for example, that he had cured himself of pneumonia by drinking a case of whiskey in two days. It was widely held that he had a mortal hatred for Johnson, and bartenders told steady customers that if the fight could be arranged, Jeffries would “probably kill the Negro.”

Though flattered by the general confidence in his strength and skill, Jeffries had doubts as to the wisdom of returning to the ring. All the same, there was something hypnotic in the way the sporting public pressed its consensus upon him by assuming that the match was made. “Proud to shake the fist that’s going to kill Jack Johnson!” a barfly would say, grabbing Jeffries’ huge paw. “When’s it going to be, Jeff?” Hundreds of letters from strangers came into his California home, the writers telling Jeffries of their certainty that it was his duty to fight Johnson and his destiny to hand him the biggest defeat in the history of the boxing ring.

Early in 1909, Jeffries decided he must take inventory of his life and career, look into the business aspects of a match with Johnson, and decide what to do about it. He appointed a sporting San Francisco hatter named Sam Berger as his personal manager, and sent him to hold confidential talks with Johnson’s representatives. These preliminary negotiations took place in various Chicago and San Francisco hotels; their successful concealment from the press showed that Johnson, who had been called crazy over publicity, could keep a close mouth when it suited him.

Roving in the hotel barrooms, reporters sensed the drama of high contracting parties moving to a deal. Lacking information from the principals, they circulated rumors that Johnson was agreeing to throw the fight to Jeffries for a large sum. How this money was to be raised no one seemed to know, still less why Johnson would bargain away his earning power. Johnson and Jeffries made a private agreement to fight. The exact date on which they came to the decision still is not known, but it can be deduced that Jeffries made a conditional agreement late in the spring of 1909, the condition being his ability to get down to 227 pounds without ruining his health. With this problem in mind he set out for the weight-reducing headquarters of the time, the mineral baths at Carlsbad in northwest Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia). Here he proposed to consult the medical staff; he would begin heavy training only if they said it was safe. And at Carlsbad Jeffries received final proof that the world took it for granted he would destroy Jack Johnson.