The Business Of Boxing

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Clearly, though, Rickard wasn’t risking much by offering this guarantee. There was no way this fight could miss, as long as everybody knew when and where it would take place. After all, this was the fight that was supposed to prove—once and for all—that the best white fighter will always be stronger, smarter, and braver than the best black fighter. The hype began immediately. Jack London’s racist newspaper campaign got the ball rolling. A picture of Jeffries and a grinning Johnson sitting behind a row of champagne bottles as they signed the contract for the fight was circulated nationwide—and so were rumors of Johnson’s preference for white women. One white sportswriter wrote of Jeffries, “Let’s hope he kills the coon.”

 

The bout was scheduled to take place in San Francisco on July 4, 1910. But antiboxing sentiment was still strong there, and under threats of economic boycotts, California’s governor, James J. Gillett, suddenly decided that the state’s law permitted only exhibitions—not real fights. So with only a couple of weeks to go, Rickard had to uproot his entire operation.

The search for a new site didn’t last long. The mayor of Reno, Nevada, promised that a twenty-thousand-seat stadium could be built there immediately, that there would be no local protests, and that the town could handle any number of visitors. If Goldfield in 1906 had been a melee, Reno in 1910 was bedlam. For eight or nine days the town overflowed with visitors who slept in hammocks, on pool tables, and on park benches, ate in shifts at the local restaurants, and kept the brothels and casinos hopping twenty-four hours a day.

It’s anybody’s guess whether Jeffries in his prime could have beaten Johnson. But on the day of the fight, Jeff was thirty-five years old, had been out of the ring for six years, and had just shed more than a hundred pounds of flab. He was rusty, tense, out of shape. His timing was completely gone.

Johnson’s plan was not so much to hurt Jeffries physically as to destroy him psychologically, to humiliate him in front of white America. He made a fool of Jeffries, teasing him unmercifully as he beat the stuffing out of him. Jeffries lasted into the fifteenth round on pride alone; finally his corner threw in the towel. In the following few days dozens of blacks were killed in race riots in cities across the country.

In the short run the Johnson-Jeffries bout set boxing back. Distribution of the fight film was officially blocked; Johnson was chased out of the country on trumped-up charges of promoting prostitution; black fighters found it harder than ever to meet white opponents; attempts to repeal anti-boxing laws in several states were stalled.

But over the long haul this fight was a major step forward for boxing as a business. The hype had sparked new interest in the sport, especially among black Americans, who, as they moved in greater numbers from the rural South to the big cities, gradually became boxing’s dominant ethnic group. Rickard had shown that there was an awful lot of money to be made. And now that a black man was the undisputed champion of the world, the search for a white man who could whip him kept a lot of peripheral fans interested.

Still, it was a few years before the greatest promotional coup in the history of sport, the so-called Battle of the Century, took place. In 1915 Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, the “Great White Hope,” who in 1919 was defeated by the great Jack Dempsey.

But Dempsey faced a problem. Talent in the heavyweight division has always been a cyclical thing. Every few years a whole crop of topnotch heavyweights comes along at the same time. In between it seems there’s nobody around who could lick his grandmother. The latter situation held in the early 1920s. Aside from Dempsey, there were no quality heavyweights. If he wanted to cash in on his championship, he’d need some kind of aimmick. Dempsey’s manager, Jack (“Doc”) Kearns, thought of one.

Georges Carpentier was a Frenchman, a hero of World War I, and probably the handsomest boxer of all time. He was thought to be the premier fighter on the Continent, and he had single-handedly made boxing fans out of a long list of Europe’s elite. He was an utter contrast to Dempsey, who was one of the meanest-looking men imaginable, with a killer’s eyes, a prison-style haircut and a perpetual snarl.

 

A good-guy-versus-bad-guy confrontation always sells tickets. Furthermore, Kearns believed that Carpentier was overrated. The Frenchman’s successes against third-rate European fighters had given the public an exaggerated impression of his abilities; besides, he was really only a middleweight. Kearns and Dempsey knew they’d have nothing to fear from him.

There were plenty of promoters itching for a chance to stage a Dempsey-Carpentier bout, but Kearns and Dempsey wanted Tex Rickard. They knew that this match, if promoted properly, would bring in an unimaginable sum—a gate of as much as one million dollars, Kearns thought—and they knew that only Rickard could do it.

But for once Rickard needed persuading. His first instinct was to promote the bout, but his business sense warned him it would be a flop. He would not commit himself. Kearns’s method of persuasion was something O. Henry couldn’t have made up.