World Heavyweight Champion: 1899-1904
Had it not been for an ill-advised return to the ring when he was 35, James J. Jeffries would have joined an elite group of boxers who retired from the ring undefeated. Public pressure, born of racial prejudice, brought Jeffries out of retirement to face reigning champion Jack Johnson in 1910. It was a decision which brought him a big payday, but cost him a place in the record books and diminished his reputation.
A decade earlier it was a very different story. Jeffries was an unsophisticated but destructive champion. He had a seemingly limitless capacity to absorb punishment, often using his body as a means of wearing down his opponents. And when they had punched themselves out and began to tire, Jeffries, who weighed in at 2201b, didn’t need to catch his adversaries too many times to put them away for good.
Jeffries was born in Ohio, on 15 April 1875, his family moving to Los Angeles when he was a child. Powerfully built and 6ft 2in tall, Jeffries sought to supplement his meagre income by stepping into the ring. He became known as the Fighting Boilermaker, after one of his early jobs.
Corbett’s sparring partner
Jeffries sparred with Corbett when the latter was heavyweight champion. He took all the punishment that the mercurial Corbett doled out to him, then set about forging a professional career in his own right. By the time Fitzsimmons became champion, in March 1897, Jeffries was confident that he could lift the greatest prize. He had to wait two years for his opportunity, Fitzsimmons preferring the limelight of vaudeville to the risk of a title defence. When the champion could no longer resist the pressure to climb back into the ring, he chose Jeffries, firmly believing that the Fighting Boilermaker would be a slow, lumbering target for his heavy punches.
The fight took place at Coney Island, on 9 June 1899. Fitzsimmons hit the 24-year-old challenger hard and often, but to little effect. Most worrying of all for the champion, Jeffries appeared impervious to the crushing solar plexus punch that had had Corbett, Sharkey and others doubled up in agony. Jeffries kept coming forward. Fitzsimmons’s numerous scoring punches had put him comfortably ahead on points, but he didn’t look like finishing Jeffries off. The challenger continued to bear down on his man, looking for the opening he needed. It came in the 11th round, Jeffries nailing the champion with a left hook followed by a right uppercut.
After outpointing Tom Sharkey, Jeffries’ second defence of the title saw him matched against former champion, Gentleman Jim Corbett. Corbett had been frustrated by Fitzsimmons’s refusal to fight him; now, his interest was renewed, especially since the new champion was his old sparring partner, whom he had always handled with consummate ease.
The two met at Coney Island on 11 May 1900, in a 25-round contest. The 3 5-year-old Corbett gave the younger, heavier man a boxing lesson that day. Jeffries had been coached to abandon his upright, open stance in favour of a crouching position. It hardly made any difference. Corbett punched and connected; Jeffries chased shadows. The champion had not prepared well for the fight, and it looked like costing him dearly. But in the 23rd round Jeffries had his one chance, and took it. He caught Corbett on the ropes, feinted with his right, then crashed home a big left hook.
The next thing Corbett knew someone was bringing him round with smelling salts. His momentary lapse had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Jeffries had retained his title, but Corbett was feted for the boxing masterclass he gave that day.
Next up for Jeffries was a rematch against Bob Fitzsimmons. Ruby Robert had scored some notable victories against some of the top contenders of the day, and they rightly earned him another crack at the title in 1902. Once again, Fitzsimmons threw everything at the title holder and did plenty of damage. But Jeffries shrugged off the extensive cuts and bruises – not to mention the broken nose and cheekbone – and retained his title with an eighth-round knockout.
After five more comfortable defences, 30-year-old Jeffries announced that he was giving up the ring and returning to his farm in California. Although it was true that there were no other white contenders left for him to take on, there were certainly some top-quality black heavyweights around. But Jeffries, like Sullivan before him, refused to step into the ring with black opponents. The man who suffered most from this crass attitude was Jack Johnson, who was deemed to be the black heavyweight champion of the world.
Jeffries retires undefeated
Jeffries did indeed retire with his hundred per cent record intact, nominating two white boxers, Jack Root and Marvin Hart, to battle it out for the vacant title. Jeffries officiated at the contest, and it seemed that boxing fans had seen the last of him with the gloves on. But five years later, with the first black heavyweight ensconced on the throne, Jeffries was lured back into the ring. A huge purse was one reason; the other was the deafening clamour from white America to put Jack Johnson in his place.