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The 5 Greatest Heavyweight Comebacks: #4 - Southpaw Jab
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The 5 Greatest Heavyweight Comebacks: #4

By Jason Doherty


  1. James J. Jeffries (1910)

It has often been so that boxing has transcended sporting boundaries, into racial, social and political arenas. Perhaps this has never been more the case than when James J Jeffries came out of retirement, to challenge Jack Johnson for the heavyweight crown in 1910. Seldom can it be said that a sporting event could influence the political outlook of a nation, yet it cannot be denied that the bout between Jeffries and Johnson played a major role in shaping 20th century racial relations in the United States.

James Jeffries is regarded by many as one of the first great heavyweight World Champions of the gloved era. Although footage may be scarce, what has been written and said of Jeffries’ in ring capabilities has been largely complimentary. Standing 6 ft 2″ tall, and weighing 220 lbs in his fighting prime, Jeffries could run 100 yards in just over 10 seconds, and was noted for his strength, athleticism and ability to take a punch. He ruled as Heavyweight Champion from 1899-1904, which was also a period of high racial tension in the United States.

Boxing politics meant that black fighters were prohibited from challenging for the heavyweight title, with Jeffries himself stating that “no negro would fight for the title on my watch.” Throughout the latter part of Jeffries career, he was pursued relentlessly by Jack Johnson, who having won the World Colored Championship in 1903, was determined to fight for Jeffries heavyweight crown.

When the pair met in a San Francisco saloon in 1903, Johnson quickly challenged Jeffries to a match for the heavyweight crown. Jeffries informed Johnson that he would not face him in the ring, but would instead fight him in the bar cellar there and then, an offer which Johnson turned down. Jeffries would retire undefeated in 1904, aged 29, with a career record of 19 wins and 2 draws, while Johnson continued in his pursuit of the heavyweight title, eventually receiving a shot at the gold against Canadian, Tommy Burns, in Sydney, Australia in 1908.

Johnson defeated Burns by way of a 14 round decision, to become the first black Heavyweight Champion in history, and hoped that by bringing the title back to American soil he would be welcomed as champion by the American public. Instead, Johnson’s victory was met with outrage by the white community, who searched endlessly for a great white hope to “restore the athletic superiority” of the white race. For Johnson’s part, he continued the trend of refusing to defend the belt against black challengers, citing that nobody would pay to watch two negros fight for the title.

After Johnson easily dispatched of a string of white challengers during the early part of his reign, Jeffries was approached by promoter, George Tex Rickard,  to come out of  retirement in  order to bring the title back to the white community. Jeffries had enjoyed the fruits of his labour since retiring in 1904, retreating to his California ranch, Jeffries smoked and drank regularly and  his weight ballooned to well over 300 lbs.  He was in no condition to challenge for the heavyweight  crown, let alone against someone of the caliber of Johnson. However, the prospect of a $115,000 pay day was too much for the former champion to turn down, and it was agreed that the pair would meet in a 45 round contest on July 4th, 1910 in Reno, Nevada.

It was the first time in history that a purpose built arena was constructed solely for a boxing match, and 20,000 fans were in attendance to view the bout. Despite the six year lay off, Jeffries would enter the ring as the betting favourite, promising to go right after Johnson from the opening bell. However, once that bell had sounded, it became clear almost immediately that this version of Jeffries would be no match for the black champion.

Jeffries may well have lost over 100 lbs in weight, and looked at least in good fighting shape, but gone were the speed and athleticism that the former champion had once been renown for. The fight between himself and Johnson was only slightly competitive for the firs three rounds, with Johnson remarking that he knew “the old ship was sinking” in the 4th round when he landed an uppercut and saw the look on Jeffries face.

The fight became increasingly one sided as it wore on, yet credit must be given to Jeffries who battled on until the 15th round. However, after watching his fighter suffer three brutal knockdowns, one of which sent him crashing out of the ring, Jeffries trainer, former champion James Corbett, stepped in to stop the fight. Humbled by the loss, Jeffries admitted afterwards that he “could never have beat Johnson even at his best, never in 1,000 years.”

Jeffries comeback may only have lasted one fight, but due to the magnitude of this bout it deserves its place on this list. Although the outcome of “The Fight of the Century” lead to over 50 riots across numerous cities throughout the United States, Johnson’s victory ensured that black fighters could no longer be looked upon as inferior to their white counterparts.

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