Friday, April 23, 2010
Fight of the century perhaps not in the ring
It was billed as “the fight of the century.” But the same billing has been attached to numerous other boxing matches. In this case, maybe it lived up to some of the hype.
On the Fourth of July, 1910, bare-knuckle pugilists Jack Johnson and James Jeffries went toe-to-toe for 15 rounds and Johnson, emerged as the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World. Johnson had won the title two years earlier in fact against Tommy Burns in 1908 but many boxing fans and experts didn’t acknowledge the title until Jeffries was defeated.
“The buildup to the fight was rife with racial tension. Jeffries, a former undefeated heavyweight champion, came out of retirement, he said, solely to prove that a white man was superior to a Negro,” according to Michael Madigan in his recent book “Heroes, Villains, Dames & Disasters: 150 Years of Front Page Stories from the Rocky Mountain News.”
The fight took place in Reno, Nevada, but the Johnson lop-sided win in 15 rounds resulted in riots in Chicago, New York, Georgia, Arkansas, Virginia, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas and here in Colorado.
Johnson, himself, had ties to Colorado.
Though he learned much of the fight trade as a dockworker at a young age in Galveston, Texas, he eventually ended up as camp cook with a group of traveling black fighters from Denver.
Johnson’s marriage to Mary Austin, a black woman, fell apart in Colorado. Johnson became depressed and the couple briefly reconciled, but Johnson writes in his autobiography that the troubles he had with women “led me to forswear colored women and to determine that my lot henceforth would be cast only with white women.”
At that time in the United States, with Jim Crow laws making such relationships frowned upon in many states, that was a dangerous declaration.
Years later he was arrested for violating the Mann Act, the statute prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for unlawful purposes.
“The woman in question was Belle Schreiber, an old acquaintance of Johnson's. The problem with the charge is that Johnson and Schreiber were an item before the Mann Act became law in June of 1910,” according to a Jack Johnson biography at Answers.com.
"It was a rank frame up," Johnson recalled in his own memoirs. "The charges were based upon a law that was not in effect at the time Belle and I had been together, and legally was not operative against me."
Johnson was convicted but left the country in order to avoid serving the one-year sentence.
By 1926, Johnson had returned from exile, served his sentence and even began fighting again, beating boxers half his age when he was 48. In later years he lectured, appeared in plays and in 1925, married Irene Pineal. Johnson called her his true love. He was killed in an auto accident in North Carolina in the summer of 1946.
In reporting the riots that resulted after Johnson’s beating of Jeffries in the July 4, 1910 match, the Rocky Mountain News had the following to say:
“As a result of a quarrel over the outcome of the Johnson-Jeffries fight between an unidentified negro and a white man in the Bessemer park tonight a fight started ended in a riot, participated in by five hundred persons, in which two white men were stabbed seriously in the back and twenty-five or thirty others received slight bruises from blows with sticks.”
The News, like many papers around the country, printed round-by-round accounts with special illustrations and reportage by popular novelist Rex Beach.
“Jack Johnson, the son of two ex-slaves, emerging from the battle royals (dehumanizing fights between blacks for the amusement of white patrons) of his youth, he defeated Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the world's first African-American heavyweight champion. After an interracial marriage and his defeat of several white hopefuls, Johnson was convicted in 1913 under contrived circumstances for violation of a federal law. He fled to Europe and remained a champion in exile until he lost in a 1915 bout in Cuba, knocked out in the 26th round by Jess Willard. Upon his return to the United States in 1920, he served a year in prison,” according to Columbia Encyclopedia.
Perhaps Jack Johnson’s “fight of the century” was not entirely in the boxing ring.