On July 4, 1910, long before the Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 would be dubbed ‘Fight of the Century,’ the original fight of the century had taken place. The fight was between the Black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson aka ‘The Galveston Giant’ and his white opponent, Jim Jeffries. At a time when racial tensions were intense, white America was looking for a fighter who could ‘tame’ the brash and confident Johnson.
They placed their aspirations for a champion fighter in their great white hope Jeffries- a fighter who was retired for over six years and was severely out of boxing shape. Anointed ‘The Boilermaker,’ Jeffries was a big, strong, and fearless man in his heyday but was in no way a worthy opponent for the talents of Johnson.
Johnson on the other hand was a physical specimen who was virtually unstoppable. After years of lobbying, begging, and pleading for a shot at fighting for the heavyweight championship, Johnson got his chance in 1908. He handily defeated Canadian boxer Tommy Burns to become the heavyweight champ and then beat white challenger after white challenger. Frustrated at having a Black man as heavyweight champion, that’s when white America summoned for Jeffries.
Johnson was exactly what America hated- a Black man who refused to ‘accept’ his place in white America, who would fight for the white man’s title and beat the white man’s champion, and most egregiously, would marry the white man’s women. He did everything that a Black man supposedly shouldn’t do and that was a threat to the white American way of life, and for that he needed to be defeated.
At the end of a 15-round lopsided pummeling, Johnson left Jeffries a bloody and mangled mess. As Johnson stood victorious in the ring, police jumped into the ring in order to prevent an immediate riot. Expecting to generate additional revenue with showing the fight later on, film of the fight was impounded and not shown for many years after the fight.
As news of Johnson’s victory spread, race riots broke out across America and more than 20 Black people were murdered as a result of Johnson’s athletic prowess in the boxing ring. In New York City alone, at least 11 riot calls were made to police within the first hour of news of Johnson’s victory. Some of the other places where riots were breaking out were Pittsburgh, Pa, Pueblo, Co, Charleston, Mo, Uvaldia & Atlanta, Ga, Wilmington, De, and Columbus, Oh. In total, riots occurred in at least 25 states and 50 cities.
Some of the grotesque violence that took place was a Black man being clubbed to death, another was strung up from a lamppost and left to die but was rescued by police, and still others were pulled from street cars and assaulted. Feeling extremely humiliated by the defeat of their great white hope, white mobs began to attack and lynch Blacks who were openly celebrating Johnson’s victory. In one instance, a Black man who was simply watching a movie in a theater was viciously slapped behind the head by a white man.
On the other hand, many Blacks viewed Johnson’s victory as an advancement in race relations. Across the country, Black people held spontaneous parades and even prayer vigils as a way to give thanks for Johnson’s win.