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“jeff, It’s Up To You!”
When the Negro Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries at Reno in 1910, more than the world heavyweight championship seemed at stake. To the many alarmed by Johnson’s unsavory reputation, Jeffries seemed nothing less than the “Great White Hope”
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
Though public formalities still had to be attended to, Rickard was by now clearly in charge, and he carried off the signing ceremonies with his customary flair. In holding a meeting to discuss the fight in New York City, he would be breaking the law: even the planning of a fight to be held in another state was forbidden there. But Rickard wanted the coverage of the metropolitan press and thought the authorities might overlook the meeting, which was to be held on Broadway at the Albany Hotel. Then, on the day before the conference, word came that District Attorney William Travers Jerome had ordered his police to break up any meeting at which a prize fight was to be organized or announced. Rickard solved the difficulty by booking a private dining room at a German hotel across the river in Hoboken. He had already given the newspapermen their gratuities, and all that remained to be done was the ordering of cold meats, sandwiches, whiskey, champagne, and a tub of potato salad. Then as now, reporters numbered free food and drink among their natural rights.
In Hoboken, Tuxedo Ed Graney protested that Rickard had “horned in on the whole thing.” Johnson said that so far as he was concerned, money had always done the talking. Jeffries seemed to be in a bad humor that was not helped by the clownish sight of Jack, Gleason’s overcoat, a tentlike garment that reached within an inch of the ground. Among others present was the politician Sunny Jim Coffroth of San Francisco, who was said to “control all boxing on the Pacific coast.” Someone identified as “a man close to Rickard” passed the word that “Sunny Jim has been taken care of, and Gleason will be in on the deal, but Ed Graney is out in the cold.” From their expressions in the news photographs, this would seem to have been an accurate statement. The fight was definitely scheduled for July 4, in San Francisco, and it became known that no opposition was expected from Governor James C. Gillett of California or San Francisco’s Mayor Edward H. McCarthy.
In fact, everything was set. Rickard called for order, and one of his assistants opened the envelopes containing the bids. Apparently to no one’s surprise, Sunny Jim pledged the fighters a purse of $51,000; Tuxedo Ed Graney offered $81,000; and Rickard’s guarantee was $101,000, which he laid on the table in sight drafts on Thomas Cole’s Minneapolis bank. Rickard was declared proprietor and promoter of the Battle of the Century, and as such his first act was to hand each fighter a bonus of $10,000 for signing the contracts that his lawyers placed before them. With this business concluded, the reporters hastened to the telephones, and then trampled elderly German waiters in a rush at the buffet tables, which they stripped with practiced voracity.
Out to the United States and the world went the news: Johnson and Jeffries were going to fight. Not included was a rumor that in addition to the bonus for each fighter, Rickard had paid $12,000 to settle a gambling debt incurred by Jeffries. Nor did the wire services carry any of the complicated rumors as to the “actual” deal between Jeffries and Johnson. Indeed, there was no deal, other than that Rickard’s guarantee should be divided at sixty per cent for the winner, forty per cent for the loser. But what most mattered now in the public mind was that the “hopes of the white race,” as one newspaper put it, would be carried “on the worthy shoulders of sturdy Jim Jeffries, undefeated champion of champions.”
With their match settled, each of the fighters proceeded in his own manner. Jeffries returned to California to continue training and weight reducing under the direction of James J. Corbett and the famous wrestler Farmer Burns. There is evidence that he had been secretly training even before his trip to Carlsbad. In any event, he now settled down to it under the eyes of the press, and much material got into print about the solidity and strength of his arms and legs and the aggressiveness of his disposition. Johnson set out on a tour of the European music halls, performing an act which consisted of a few songs, a dance routine, a bit of playing on the bull fiddle, and a brief lecture on boxing. Etta accompanied him, along with a party of managers, valets, and secretaries; they spent Christmas of 1909 in London. On this expedition, Etta did something to earn her keep; in previous years she had shown talent in Brooklyn amateur theatricals, and she began to appear as part of Johnson’s act. Thus they unconsciously tapped a deep vein of public emotion, by bringing to mind the folk tale of beauty and the beast.
Back in the United States, Johnson stopped in Chicago as the publicity for the big fight got under way and was arrested for speeding in his scarlet racing car at Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue. Putting into Johnson’s mouth the picturesque language reporters had invented for him, the Chicago Inter-Ocean had him saying, “Stand back, Mr. White Offisah, and let dem colored peoples hab a look at me.” Unperturbed by the linguistic libel, and unrepentant after paying a fine, Johnson went to San Francisco the last week in May, 1910, to start his training for the Jeffries fight.