Jack Johnson defended his world
heavyweight championship by knocking out Jim Jeffries in the 15th round of a
scheduled 45-rounder in Reno, Nevada 100 years ago on Sunday.
Jeffries, who had retired
undefeated six years earlier, was lured from retirement (with noted author Jack
London leading the call for a ‘Great White Hope’ to defend the honour of the
white race), and acknowledged that he was fighting “for the sole purpose of
proving that the white man is better than the negro”.
Johnson’s domination conclusively
disproved that contention, but what should have been the crowning moment of a
proud career was only the beginning of Johnson’s troubles.
His victory in Reno sparked racial
riots around the country, leading to the deaths of many African-Americans.
Films of the fight were banned in
many jurisdictions, and within two years, Johnson was indicted for violating
the so-called ‘white slavery’ law, the Mann Act, and forced to flee the
country. He lived in exile in Paris for nearly a decade, lost his title (to
Jess Willard in Havana in 1915), and eventually returned to serve a year in the
federal penitentiary at Leavenworth.
Reno, which welcomed the 1910
Johnson-Jeffries fight when the promotion was driven out of California, marked
the centennial of the historic occasion over the weekend.
A Friday night gala included an
illustrated recreation of the bout and Sunday was consumed with talks by boxing
authors and historians, a radio broadcast hosted by Showtime analyst Al Bernstein
and a six-bout card at the Grand Sierra Resort.
Descendants of Johnson and
Jefferies gathered at the fight scene in Reno and shook hands on stage.
Johnson’s supporters are seeking a pardon for his conviction for transporting a
woman across state lines for immoral purposes and say it was steeped in the racism of the time.