3 heads

3 heads
The Last Great Prizefight: Jack Johnson, Tex Rickard, Jim Jeffries

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Last Great Prizefight

The first chapter of The Last Great Prizefight sets the table for almost everything that is going to come later. It follows the presentation maxim of "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them."  This is the "tell them what you're going to tell them" part. Doesn't everyone already know how this turns out? No matter, it's not the destination that's interesting, but the journey. Enjoy.

1. Cruel Fate

"Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us!" -Samuel Beckett

July 4, 1910. Jim Jeffries, a huge, well-muscled man with bulging biceps, massive shoulders and thick thighs, shuffled anxiously back and forth across his bedroom floor. Signs of age - thinning hair, tired eyes, deep lines in his jaw sagging in a permanent frown - caused him to appear even older than his 35 years. Having failed miserably each time he tried to sleep, the old and formerly fearsome warrior arose, trying in the darkness to pace away his angst. A cool summer breeze blew through the open windows of his second floor cottage apartment. In the room below, one of his sparring partners was awakened regularly by the sound of creaking floor boards caused by his boss' heavy footsteps. The footsteps seemed heavier than normal, as if coming from a condemned man weighed down by the disconcerting knowledge of the exact time of his execution.

It was the night before a boxing match touted as the greatest in history. In a match which pitted the best fighters of two supposedly distinct "races" - the "African Negro" and the "Anglo-Saxon" - Jim Jeffries had reluctantly assumed the mantel of "redeemer of the white race." He had agreed to fight a man he believed himself incapable of defeating. When he had consented to the match everyone knew that this would be a big fight. But no one, including Jeffries, had any idea how the racial significance would grow so large that it would propel this championship prizefight out from its seedy world of gamblers and gangsters and into the lap of mainstream, puritan America. For the first time in history, the sport of boxing completely transcended its underclass roots and its subculture of vulgar and flashy gambling men known as "sports." Broader America had only recently discovered, thanks to relentless publicity and the repugnant behavior of the current black champion, the importance of having a champion with fair skin. Prizefighting, an obnoxious remnant from a less enlightened era, suddenly mattered to civilized people.

Jeffries anticipated neither the pandemic of race consciousness nor the absurd and uncontrollable hype that this fight had spawned. More would be written about this fight than had been written about any prior championship bout or, for that matter, any other single sporting event in history. Now, on its eve, the time had long since passed when Jeffries was capable of controlling his own destiny; he was being carried inexorably forward by the momentum of an event that was much bigger than him. Millions of people expected him to demonstrate white superiority by pounding the black champion into oblivion. They were rooting for Jeffries to prove the invincibility of the "white race," yet he knew that he was not up to the enormous task. He was afraid. The piqued and hopeful white masses had been deluded by propaganda and wishful thinking; Jeffries was a false hope, puffed up beyond all reasonable expectations.

When the black man, Jack Johnson, had captured the heavyweight boxing crown, intense pressure had been put on Jeffries, the great white fighter, to come out of retirement and regain the title on behalf of the "white race." Years of self indulgence and inactivity suggest that it would have been wise to decline. But to admit his frailty would require spurning the temptation of a colossal payday. Instead, he made a Faustian bargain. He would take up the challenge not because he believed that he was capable of beating Johnson, but because he was seduced by the promise of fraudulent victory. The fighters, their managers, and the promoters would earn more money then could have been imagined only a few years earlier. And, for the "sports," it would be the greatest wagering event in history. He could not just say "no." If necessary the fight could be fixed if this would prevent him from walking away. And so it was. The outcome would be predetermined so that his image as an invincible champion would be preserved. His wealth would be magnified and an inflamed white populous would be freed from the stigma of a black champion. That was the plan. But somewhere along the road to the great battle, the plan had gone horrendously wrong.

Now, as Jeffries paced his room in the pre-dawn darkness, hours before the fight that was being called "greatest battle of the century," he faced the consequences of this perfidious deal which had collapsed so late in the game that he could no longer back out gracefully. The responsibility for letting down a country and a race would rest squarely on his shoulders and he wondered how this could possibly be just. Jim Jeffries had sold his soul to assuage the anguish of racist America, yet in a few short hours, his greatness would be obliterated. Today only the most ardent boxing fans remember his name.

In his day, Jeffries was considered by many to be the greatest fighter ever, but if he were to lose to a black man, what would that say about him and previous champions? And what would it say about racial superiority? His title defenses and those of his predecessors might be seen in a new light, as battles not against the best opponents, but against overrated white fighters. Would his entire career and the careers of the greats in whose footsteps he followed be perceived as a sham? Would the achievements of John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jim Jeffries become suspect due to their unwillingness to fight black opponents? In a few hours this question would be answered. After months of buildup, all that remained to either confirm Jeffries as the redeemer of the white race or expose him as its deceiver, was the fight itself.

For years Jeffries had avoided Johnson. Now they would finally meet in a battle that would, in theory, be a moment of truth, not just for Jeffries and an entire generation of white fighters, but for an idea. If Jeffries won he would reaffirm racist views and preserve his own iconic status. If he lost, his reputation would be shattered and a damaging blow would be struck to the foundation of America's "racialist" social structure. Jeffries' responsibility was to prove true the lie of white supremacy and as the fatal hour approached, the overwhelming pressure to do so cracked his psyche.

The original plan for his opponent to "take a dive," which was not such a startling or unreasonable option in the shadowy world of turn-of-the-century prizefighting, was scuttled just days before the fight and was now completely out of the question. Unfortunately for Jeffries, this fight would be on the up and up. And so Jeffries stayed awake, pacing and trying to convince himself that he really could beat the great black fighter. Maybe he really was as good as everybody pretended. Perhaps he could pull off a victory without an "arrangement." He hadn't trained very hard, but then, it wasn't supposed to matter. When it turned out that it did, it was too late; he was trapped. At least he was in excellent cardiovascular shape. He was big, strong and possessed a heavy punch. Maybe that was enough. It had been enough against his other opponents, but none of them were as close to his size, as strong, or as skilled as Johnson. And he hadn't fought them carrying five years of ring rust. To have any hope of survival, he would have to be at his absolute best but on the eve of fight day he frittered away his strength pacing through sleepless hours. Long before he stepped in the ring, Jim Jeffries, the designated demigod of the white race, was a nervous wreck.

Win or lose, this was definitely the end for Jeffries. He would never fight again. After the fight was over he could retreat to his farm where his psyche would heal. But for the sport of prizefighting it was a different story. Its mere existence as a legal sport was tenuous. Prizefighting was an outcast and a contradiction during the Progressive Era and despite the overwhelming focus on this one championship fight, the sport was in ill health and sliding toward extinction. If Jeffries were to lose, the white public, which had staked so much emotional energy (and wagering capital) on their champion, would no longer care if governments, as they had been trying to do as long as prizefighting had existed, banned the sport altogether. Prizefighting's legal standing was so weak that even a Jeffries victory might not save it. And if Jeffries went down he would surely take the entire game with him. Those who attended the fight suspected as much. Prizefighting had all but lost its struggle against reform. This prizefight seemed likely to be the last great prizefight on U.S soil. Thus, the great men of boxing's early years, past champions and near champions, trainers and promoters, as well as famous sports, with their large bankrolls, gathered at the fight like acquaintances at a wake, to bid Jeffries and prizefighting farewell. They traveled thousands of miles, across the country and across the oceans to serve as the honor guard at the funeral for a dieing sport. But the death of prizefighting was like the death of a star; the end would not come quietly. Instead, there would be one final burst of incendiary energy, a supernova, which would leave only faint remnants of its former self.

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