Black Fighter's Victory Showed Nation's Ugly Side

For once, a boxing promoter got it right.

When Tex Rickard matched heavyweight champion Jack Johnson against former champion Jim Jeffries at Reno 89 years ago today, he called it "The Fight of the Century."

It still is.

In fact, probably no 20th century sporting contest revealed more about a nation and its people. And probably no sporting event was more eagerly anticipated than Johnson-Jeffries. And none resulted in nationwide race riots the next day, as this one did.

Why? Prune away everything else and you're down to this:


Jeffries, still Los Angeles' only heavyweight champion, was white and wildly popular. He held the title from 1899-1905, then retired undefeated.

Jack Johnson, black and wildly hated, won the championship in 1908.

In an era when black men could be lynched in some parts of America for merely looking at a white woman, Johnson married two.

Whites seethed as Johnson began knocking over white challengers. Jeffries, fat and happy in Burbank retirement, was talked into a 1910 comeback to fight Johnson in Reno. Amazingly, Jeffries trained down from 314 pounds to 227.

The fight was held at a 16,528-seat wooden stadium Rickard built in Reno. Today, the site is a construction materials yard, marked by a "Fight of the Century" sign.

Tickets were $50 ringside, $10 for the bleachers. Rickard could have sold 50,000 tickets.

To the consternation of white men everywhere, Johnson, who was somehow perceived to have had a "yellow streak," won easily. He laughed as he dominated Jeffries, taunting both him and seething ringsiders.

Johnson earned $110,500 off the live gate, Jeffries $127,166. Both made another $50,000 for film rights. However, Jeffries lost up to $500,000 he would have earned on a nationwide vaudeville tour--if he'd won.

Race riots broke out in many American cities the next day, when whites took offense at the glee expressed by overjoyed black Americans. In two days, 10 blacks died in six states.

Also on this date: In 1919, Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight boxing championship with a brutal beating of Jess Willard at Toledo, Ohio. . . . In 1927, more than 74,000 were in Yankee Stadium as Babe Ruth went five for seven in a doubleheader with Washington. And Lou Gehrig hit two home runs--one a grand slam--as the Yankees swept, 12-1 and 21-1. . . . In 1939, a dying Gehrig gave his "I have an awful lot to live for" speech on "Gehrig Appreciation Day" at Yankee Stadium. . . . In 1960, Mickey Mantle became the 18th player to reach 300 home runs.

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