Jeffries, James Jackson

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JEFFRIES, James Jackson

(b. 15 April 1875 in Carroll, Ohio; d. 3 March 1953 in Burbank, California), heavyweight boxer considered one of the best champions of all time, but better known as the "Great White Hope" who lost to Jack Johnson in 1910.

Born in rural Ohio, Jeffries was the child of minister and farmer Alexis Jeffries and Rebecca Boyer Jeffries. The family, which grew to include five sons and three daughters, moved to Los Angeles in 1882. At age sixteen Jeffries had already reached six feet, two inches in height and was displaying the exceptional strength and agility that would mark him as a fighter. He found work as a boilermaker in Los Angeles during his teenage years, and tried his hand at mining in nearby Temecula as well. His youthful feats included killing a large deer on a hunting expedition, then carrying it nine miles on his shoulders to his camp without stopping to rest.

Jeffries began boxing at Los Angeles's East Side Athletic Club, knocking out his first five opponents. Heading for San Francisco, he won a series of bouts and, in 1897, became the sparring partner for heavyweight champion James J. "Jim" Corbett. Learning from Corbett's skill and agility, Jeffries took on experienced fighters Joe Choynksi and Gus Ruhlin, battling both to a draw. On 22 March 1898 he knocked out Peter Jackson, who had gone undefeated for fourteen years. Two months later he scored a twenty-round decision win over "Sailor" Tom Sharkey.

All these early matches took place in San Francisco. Jeffries did not fight outside of California until he defeated Bob Armstrong on 5 August 1898 in New York City. Observers marveled at his ability to throw bone-breaking punches and to absorb punishment without weakening. In prime condition Jeffries weighed between 205 and 227 pounds, but for a fighter of his size and weight he was remarkably quick on his feet. Author Jack London spoke for many when he called Jeffries physique "a perfection of symmetry that is the fruit of the highest organic development." An avid outdoorsman all his adult life, he was known for his sober, health-conscious habits.

Under the management and guidance of William A. Brady, Jeffries challenged Bob Fitzsimmons for the world heavyweight championship. Fitzsimmons was considered the favorite on the eve of the match, held 9 June 1899 at the Seaside Athletic Club on Coney Island. But an upset appeared in the making by the second round, as Jeffries managed to avoid Fitzsimmons's blows and dropped the champion with a left hook. Throughout the match, Jeffries came at Fitzsimmons in a crouch that allowed him to land repeated blows to his torso and head. The sturdy champion managed to hang on into the fifteenth round, when Jeffries finally knocked him out with a right uppercut.

Jeffries wore the heavyweight champion's crown with a remarkable lack of arrogance. He returned to the Seaside Athletic Club to defend his title against Tom Sharkey on 3 November 1899. After twenty-five bloody rounds, Jeffries was declared the winner as a battered Sharkey was taken to the hospital. Next, he easily bested Jack Finnegan in the first round of a 6 April 1900 match-up, then took on his old sparring partner Jim Corbett on 11 May of that year. Back again at the Seaside Athletic Club, Jeffries overcame the ex-champion's still-formidable footwork and punching tactics to knock him down in the twenty-third round.

Notable bouts the following year included a 15 November rematch with Gus Ruhlin in San Francisco that resulted in a fifth round knockout win. In the same city on 25 July 1902, Jeffries once again faced Fitzsimmons, still a formidable foe at age thirty-nine. The champion took a fierce mauling from the man he had beaten two years earlier, but hung on to knock out Fitzsimmons in the tenth round with a right to the stomach.

Following his second victory over Fitzsimmons, Jeffries starred as Davy Crockett in a touring stage show. These performances were followed by an exhibition match where the heavyweight champion boxed a few rounds with a sparring partner. In 1903, he and Fitzsimmons were paired in a series of exhibition matches as well. Jeffries was finding it hard to attract opponents worthy of his mettle. A third match with Corbett held 14 August 1903 in San Francisco was an unequal contest; Jeffries dispatched the now-faded Gentleman Jim in the tenth round.

After knocking out Jack Monroe in the second round of a 26 August 1904 match in San Francisco, Jeffries decided he'd had enough. Later that year, the undefeated world heavyweight champion bought 107 acres in Burbank, California, gave up boxing and became an alfalfa farmer. He and his new bride Freida (family name unknown) settled down to a comfortable life, raising their daughter Mary in seclusion. Jeffries did take time out to referee the elimination bout between his would-be successors, Marvin Hart and Jack Root. Over the next few years, he put on excessive weight and vowed never to fight again.

Against his better judgment, Jeffries was swept up in the hysteria over Jack Johnson's streak of ring victories. Many white Americans couldn't stand the idea that an African-American boxer kept defeating Caucasian opponents. Searching for a "Great White Hope," they settled on Jeffries, who finally agreed to fight for a $100,000 purse offered by promoter Tex Rickard. Enlisting Jim Corbett as his trainer, the ex-champ slimmed down to 227 pounds and brushed up his rusty ring skills. Expectations leading up to the 4 July 1910 bout, which was dubbed "The Fight of the Century," were enormous. Once the two contenders entered the ring in Reno, Nevada, it became clear that Jeffries was in no condition to take on Johnson. Taunting his opponent, Johnson evaded Jeffries's blows easily while slowly beating him into submission. Jeffries, exhausted, was counted out in the fifteenth round.

Despite his ignominious defeat, Jeffries was warmly regarded in his remaining years. He returned to his farm, where in later years he trained boxers and promoted bouts at his barn. He died peacefully on 3 March 1953. He is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Los Angeles County. Considered one of the greatest heavyweight champions, he was also remembered as a kind, decent man. Jeffries's ill-advised comeback fight against Johnson was a false move in a largely exemplary boxing career.

Jeffries lacks a definitive modern biography. He is treated at length in several books on Jack Johnson, including Randy Roberts, Papa Jack (1986), and Finis Farr, Black Champion (1969). Veteran sportswriter William Inglis's Champions off Guard (1932) includes an insightful chapter of Jeffries. An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Mar. 1953).

Barry Alfonso

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