Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries

July 4, 1910 (Reno, Nevada)

 When Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down, he remarked, “The old ship was sinking.”

On July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, an historical fight between a former and current heavyweight champion took place. The great Jack Johnson was the reigning and defending champion. He shocked everyone when he toyed with Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908 to become the first African American man to ever hold the heavyweight title, and the world hadn’t ceased reverberating. Former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries, a real specimen in his day, was persuaded to come out of retirement and challenge Jack Johnson for the title. “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro,” said Jeffries. But he had not fought in six years. He was 35 years old. He was at least 100 pounds overweight. It took a lot of cajoling and a lot of money for Jeffries to have gotten himself back in shape to defend the white race by trying to “wipe the golden smile” off Jack Johnson’s face. His heart might not have been in it. “It is my intention,” explained Jeffries, “to go right after my opponent and knock him out as soon as possible.” While the white race threw its heartfelt support behind Jeffries’ quest for the impossible, Mrs. Jeffries had her doubts. “I'm not interested in prizefighting,” she said, “but I am interested in my husband's welfare.” With 10–7 odds favoring Jeffries, 20,000 fight fans crammed into a specially built outdoor arena in downtown Reno to watch history being made. When Johnson knocked Jeffries down the first time, he said, “I knew what that look meant. The old ship was sinking.” Jack Johnson was a special case. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” said Jeffries. “I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years.” The fight triggered race riots in more than 25 states and 50 cities. Many were killed and hundreds injured...