- Historic Sites
“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
By now Johnson was in a state of euphoria. In the evenings, on his big fiddle, he plucked a rhythmical background for “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “I Love My Wife, But Oh, You Kid.” He clowned for the reporters and obliged them by falling in with the traditional vein. of melon-devouring, chicken-stealing humor that was regarded as appropriate to his color.
“No stolen chicken ever passes the portals of my face,” Johnson would say, pointing to his gold-filled teeth. “Chickens see the gleam in my eye and keep out of my way. Chicken and corn fritters are affinities. They are meant for each other and both are meant for me.”
Jocosities of this sort lent credence to the rumors, now rising to their climax, that Johnson did not take the fight seriously; and in some quarters, such comedy was interpreted as meaning that Johnson had gorged himself out of shape to insure victory for Jeffries. A newspaper writer named W. P. McCloughlin went farther. First he posed the question, “Is Johnson a typical example of his race in the lack of that intangible ‘something’ that we call ‘heart’?” McCloughlin thought Johnson had a great need of that intangible something, for he had “observed closely Jack’s ‘impenetrable guard’ ” and could not “see any reason why it is so designated.” However, in “James Jeffries, the hope of the white race,” he discerned “a gradually growing sullen ferocity.” It might be supposed that Johnson was in danger if one also believed that this ferocity had at its service the most powerful physique in America. Indeed, the study of Jeffries’ body in the training ring had inspired many a burst of purple writing, and the following sentence in a dispatch to the Chicago Inter-Ocean was regarded as worthy of Oscar Wilde: “Under his skin of bronze the muscles rippled like the placid surface of a body of water touched by a gentle breeze.”
When Jeffries read this passage, he said it made him sick. Indeed, the more the writers extolled his size and strength, the deeper grew his melancholia. He was by now so dispirited that when Corbett brought John L. Sullivan out to Moana Springs, Jeffries not only failed to turn the fire hose on him, but shook his hand, and said, “I know you didn’t mean what you said about me, John.” Then he asked Sullivan how he should fight Johnson, and before the old champion could reply, went on to remark, “I don’t see why I have to be the favorite.” Sullivan looked him over carefully and said, “Jim, all I know is God Almighty hates a quitter.”
As the time before the fight grew shorter, there came another indication that betting on Jeffries would be throwing money away, and now it was William Muldoon who uttered the caveat. He visited the camp at Moana Springs and returned to the center of town to announce that “Jeffries’ judgment of distance and timing is not what it should be. He will take punishment.” And finally, those who were skeptical about Jeffries saw their doubts expressed on July 1 by a cartoon on the front page of the Chicago Daily News . The picture showed Johnson in ring clothes strumming on a bass fiddle that was labelled “Jeff.” The caption beneath read: “Hush, hush, don’ yo’ talk so loud!”
Three days later, on the morning of July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson got up early. For breakfast he ate four lamb cutlets, three scrambled eggs, and several slices of rare steak. Jeffries took only a little fruit, toast, and tea, but each man issued a statement in hearty style. Jeffries’ manifesto was,
When the gloves are knotted on my hands and I stand ready to defend what is really my title, it will be at the request of the public, which forced me out of retirement. I realize full well just what depends on me, and I am not going to disappoint the public. That portion of the white race that has been looking to me to defend its athletic superiority may feel assured that I am fit to do my very best. If Johnson defeats me, I will shake his hand and declare him the greatest fighter the sporting world has ever known.
Johnson told the public,
Every fighter on the eve of his fight declares that he hopes the best man wins. I am quite sincere when I say that I do, and if Mr. Jeffries knocks me out or gains a decision over me, I will go into his corner and congratulate him as soon as I am able. My congratulations will not be fake. I mean it. Let me say in conclusion that I believe the meeting between Mr.Jeffries and myself will be a test of strength, skill, and endurance. I plan to gradually beat him down and finally make him take the count. However, should I meet defeat I will have no excuse to offer and will proclaim Mr. Jeffries king of them all.