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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
“Just tell me, man to man, it’s on the level, Tex,” said Dickerson. When assured that the bout would be honestly fought, the Governor gave his blessing; the promoter shipped the stadium timbers to Reno, and the boxers followed with their staffs of trainers, advisers, and jesters. It should be noted that Governor Dickerson’s doubts about the honesty of the fight seemed not entirely baseless. On all sides the tale was told that Johnson had guaranteed a victory for Jeffries. “You heard nothing but fake, fix and double cross everywhere,” wrote the foremost boxing expert of the day, Tad Dorgan. Partly because of the incessant rumor, Jeffries was a ten to seven favorite in the betting when the boxers encamped near Reno. Few people asked why a fix would be necessary if Jeffries was so powerful he could kill a man with one blow. And no one tried to explain what advantage there could be for Johnson in such an arrangement. Johnson had in cash a $2,500 loan from Rickard plus his f 10,000 bonus; even if he managed to get his training expenses entirely on credit, and so had this bankroll intact to bet on Jeffries—and getting the money down would be an extremely delicate transaction—the returns at the quoted odds would be less than $9,000. But the winner’s end of the purse would be $60,600, and if Johnson bet his roll on himself to win, and beat Jeffries, there would be around $17,000 more. So it was clear that someone would have to find a great deal of money to buy Johnson off. Moreover, it would have to be assumed that Jack had no pride—an assumption not justified by the facts of his fighting career: pride, indeed, was the power of his life.
It should be borne in mind, however, that amid the babble about fixes, frames, and yellow streaks there were men of judgment and discrimination. Governor Dickerson was one of these, and he went to Johnson’s camp at The Willows, a roadhouse four miles outside Reno, to have an unbiassed look at what was going on. Wearing a wide-brimmed Panama hat, the Governor bowed in courtly fashion when presented to Belle Schreiber and looked on with interest as Johnson boxed with the gigantic Al Kaufman, once an opponent and now a training partner. The newspapers reported that the Governor remained calm when Jack “drew the claret” in “tapping Kaufman on the beak.” The next sparring partner was George Cotton, who “drew the ruby” by cutting Johnson’s lip. Jack’s return was so rapid that Dickerson did not see the movement of his arm; Cotton’s knees gave way, and he held himself up by the ropes. Johnson stepped back, Cotton left the ring semiconscious, and Johnson’s manager, Sig Hart, threw a bucket of water over his head to bring him around.
“What happened to him there?” asked Dickerson.
A reporter answered, “Johnson hit him on the jaw with his left and almost put him out.”
“Put him out of where?”
“Quit your kidding, Governor,” said the reporter. “You know what I mean. He was nearly knocked out.”
“Oh, I see,” said Dickerson.
“Didn’t you ever see a fight before?”
“Lots of ’em, but not like this. The others were with guns, where men sank to their death. In this affair, no one seems to suffer much hurt.”
Though disappointed at the lack of fatalities, Governor Dickerson called the reporters together at the conclusion of his visit and announced, “I have never seen a man who can whip Jack Johnson as he stands today, and I am forced to bet on him.”
The Governor was too sensible to issue such a statement without having first seen Jeffries; but this made no impression on the thousands of bettors throughout the country who were putting their money on “Big Jim.” Nor did Dickerson’s estimate have any effect on the experts who were now beginning to flock into Reno. It was turned aside, for example, by the elderly and famous trainer and physical culturist William Muldoon, who was later to be New York State Boxing Commissioner and who possessed such immense rectitude that he was called “the Old Roman.” Muldoon faced an attentive half-circle of reporters in front of his hotel and said, “The Negro won’t fight. I pick Jeffries.”
Equally sure of the outcome was Jack London. He arrived in the town accompanied by two tramps called Watertank Willie and Seattle Sam; the author’s face was swollen with bruises he had sustained in a fight with a bartender at Ogden, Utah. London at once began to load the wires with copy and generally to take himself with the intense seriousness that seems to overcome literary men amid the aura of importance and significance surrounding a heavyweight championship fight.
London’s first dispatch had hardly cleared the wires before the renowned old ex-champion John L. Sullivan arrived on the scene. He was there on Rickard’s invitation as the elder statesman of boxing and was also under contract to report the fight for the New York Times . Sullivan had not touched liquor for five years; he had grown immensely fat and wore a little gray cap that made him look like Tweedledum or his twin as he waddled down the main street of Reno. Sullivan’s first statement was, “It looks like a frame-up.”
When Sullivan’s remark reached Jeffries’ training quarters at a roadhouse called Moana Springs, on the Truckee River, he was so annoyed that he cried, “That big stiff better not come here or I’ll turn the fire hose on him! I always hated a knocker!”