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Jack Johnson and the 'Fight Of The Century'

Johnson-Jeffries fight
Photo courtesy of Neal Cobb.
The “Fight of the Century” took place on East 4th Street in Reno. ";s:

Perhaps the most famous event in the history of Reno, Nevada took place on July 4, 1910. As we close out Black History Month, that momentous day is the focus of this segment of Time & Place from historian Alicia Barber.

They promoted it in advance as the “Fight of the Century,” which was a pretty bold claim, since it was only 1910. Still, the battle for the heavyweight prizefighting title seemed likely to live up to the hype. The defending champion was Jack Johnson, who had become the first black heavyweight champion of the world in 1908. And in a time of rampant racial prejudice, a lot of people were very impatient to see him defeated. 

They eagerly sought out what they called a “Great White Hope,” a fighter who could, as they thought, reclaim the heavyweight title for white America. They found their man in retired champion Jim Jeffries. Boxing promoter “Tex” Rickard had originally intended to hold the fight in San Francisco, but a last-minute cancellation by California’s governor brought the bout to Reno, where workers quickly built a huge wooden arena out on East 4th Street.

John Cahlan was eight years old at the time, and in 1986, he shared his memories of what it was like to be in downtown Reno that day, as special trains full of excited spectators were arriving from the east and west.

“My father came down here from Carson City to help the police department in Reno control the crowds that were expected. And they came!” Cahlen said. “I can remember on Center Street, where the headquarters for the fight were, there were people from curb to curb. You couldn’t hardly get through the crowd.”

Attendance at the arena was estimated at more than 20,000, at a time when Reno’s population was half that. Across the country, crowds gathered to hear the results conveyed live by telegraph. Johnson was relaxed and confident as he entered the ring, and after a few tentative punches, he quickly began to dominate.

Seventeen-year old Andrew Ginocchio had snuck into the stadium with four of his friends, and in 1985, he recalled how the spectators reacted as Jeffries got pummeled.

“The fight was supposed to last in the neighborhood of 42 rounds, but they only got as far as the fifteenth round, and they saw that the white man was going to lose the fight,” Ginocchio said.

In the fifteenth round, Johnson knocked Jeffries to the ground repeatedly, and anxious officials halted the fight before he could land a humiliating knockout punch. In an instant, it was over, and Johnson was declared the winner. Ginocchio recalled the mood of disbelief in the arena as the crowd shuffled out.

“The thing that impressed me the most at the time, when you walked out of there, it was like going home from a funeral,” Ginocchio said. “There wasn’t very much said from anyone, regardless of nationality. They were all anxious to see that the white man would win.”

Still downtown, Cahlan watched as the shocked crowd departed:

“Johnson had won. He was the champion. It was quite a sensation. Everybody got on the train and left.”

The scene might have been somber in Reno, but as news of Johnson’s victory spread across the country, riots broke out. At least twenty people, black and white, were killed, and hundreds injured. Johnson held onto the heavyweight title for the next five years, and Reno had a place in the history books forever.

More information about the Johnson-Jeffries fight can be found at RenoHistorical.org. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. Check out their special online exhibit about the fight here.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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