James J. Jeffries

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James J. Jeffries
Class of 1990
Old Timer Category
Hall of Fame bio:click
World Boxing Hall of Fame Inductee

Name: James J. Jeffries
Alias: The Boilermaker
Birth Name: James Jackson Jeffries
Born: 1875-04-15
Birthplace: Carroll, Ohio, USA
Died: 1953-03-03 (Age:77)
Hometown: Burbank, California, USA
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 6′ 0″   /   183cm
Reach: 76½″   /   194cm
Boxing Record: click

Trainers: Billy Delaney, Tommy Ryan
Managers: William Brady, Sam Berger
James J. Jeffries Gallery


Career Overview

Still regarded by some fight historians as the single greatest heavyweight in history, James J. Jeffries was certainly a fearsome and intimidating fighter who established plenty of credentials for himself in just 21 professional prizefights. He was the very embodiment of the rugged, two-fisted hulk of brawn that people at the turn of the century wanted their champion to be. It is unfortunate that his loss to Jack Johnson, after a six-year layoff from boxing, remains the best known moment of his career, for Jeffries' accomplishments were many. He fought nine bouts against future hall of famers and made seven defenses of the championship. His fighting prowess was so great, in fact, that respected boxing historian Tracy Callis recently wrote that Jeffries' combination of assets makes him the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Even Jack Johnson, Jeffries' more famous conqueror, before his own death in 1946, stated that he felt Jeffries was the best of any era.

Early Years

Born to farmers in Carroll, Ohio, Jeffries was the sixth of eight children. The family moved to Los Angeles, California when he was six years old, and as a teenager, he found work in the local mines, doing manual labor that helped to develop his bulky physique. At sixteen, he already weighed over 200 pounds, stood more than six feet tall, and was regarded as the best all-around athlete among his fellow workers. In young adulthood, he left the mining camps and found work shoveling coal for the Santa Fe Railroad. (See also [1].) Later, he worked as a boilermaker, shaping, hoisting, riveting, and assembling large sheets of iron and metal. In his free time, he often raced, wrestled, and boxed at a local gym against friends from the boiler making plant. On September 19, 1895, while relaxing at home, Jim was approached by coworkers who pleaded with him to meet and box a black prizefighter who had wandered into town looking for tough locals to test his mettle against. The opponent was Hank Griffin, a traveling heavyweight boxer and veteran of an untold number of unrecorded boxing matches. Griffin, like many boxers of the era, earned a living by traveling to mining, railroad, steel, and farming camps offering to face any man before a paying crowd. Jeffries, who had never had any real schooling in boxing and had never previously fought for pay, accepted the match. Griffin used his obvious advantages in skill and experience to make Jim look ridiculous through much of the fight. Jeffries could do little else but fumble around after his opponent and take a blood-spattered beating. In the ninth round, however, Jim landed a lucky right to Griffin's throat, leaving the visitor stunned. The punch turned the tide of battle as Griffin's energy and confidence continued to wane until Jeffries finished him off with a body blow in the seventeenth round. The unknown Jeffries, not the experienced Griffin, collected the winner's purse.

Jeffries initially returned to his day job, but eventually, the prospect of more money for an hour or so of fighting lured him to San Francisco, the center for fighting and sporting culture in the West. His reputation had not followed him, however, and he initially found it hard to secure a fight. Eventually, he was matched with Dan Long, a promising local pug, on July 2, 1896. After he took Long out with a single punch in the second round, Jeffries won acceptance within the exclusive sporting culture of San Francisco. During February and March of 1897, he was chosen to act as a sparring partner for heavyweight champion Jim Corbett, who was in preparations for his fight with Bob Fitzsimmons. Corbett was a fast, defensive marvel in the ring and, though he lost the match with Fitzsimmons, the several sparring matches he shared with Corbett proved to be invaluable learning experiences for the younger fighter.

The work with Corbett also introduced Jeffries to Corbett's manager, William Brady. Impressed by Jeffries' power, will-to-win, and quick learning, Brady agreed to become the youngster's manager as well. Jeffries' next professional fight took place on April 9, 1897 against Theodore Van Buskirk, a fighter out of the revered Olympic Club in San Francisco. Jeffries showed marked improvement in his boxing technique, using a bobbing-and-weaving style to avoid punishment. A hard right finished off the bloodied and frustrated Buskirk in the second round. A month later, he met Chicago's Henry (Slaughterhouse) Baker, a man renowned throughout the Midwest because he had allegedly once knocked a steer out with a single punch. Baker proved no match, however, and was himself slaughtered in the ninth.

With his recent successes and with Brady now in control of his career, Jeffries moved quickly into fighting more challenging competition. On July 16, 1897, he fought Gus Ruhlin, a game fellow from Akron, Ohio, who was himself new to boxing but had already been in the ring with a few name opponents. With his first blow landed in the first round, Jeffries rattled Ruhlin to his heels. Ruhlin survived by holding until, in the third round, he began fighting back hard, stunning Jeffries on several occasions. His spurt of energy short-lived, Ruhlin was felled in the fourth and again in the fifth. Regrouping in the next several rounds, Ruhlin again came on and closed Jim's left eye by landing multiple big right hands. The remaining rounds were evenly fought until, in the twentieth and final round, Jim landed a left to the head that sent Ruhlin crashing down by the ropes. The fight ended with Ruhlin lying on his back, saved by the toll of the final bell. The referee announced his verdict of a draw.

The next opponent Brady found for his new charge was future hall of famer Joe Choynski, a talented light heavyweight who had once been Jim Corbett's toughest rival back when both men were getting their start in the fight business. Though Jeffries outweighed him by as much as fifty pounds, Choynski was considered one of the cleverest fighters in California and was expected to win. On the day of the fight, November 30, 1897, Choynski's strategy was to keep moving and outbox his massive opponent. He was successful at this during the first two rounds, but a left hook from Jeffries sent him crashing down in the third. Choynski rose to fight on but was met with relentless pressure from the younger fighter. As the rounds passed by, it was all Joe could do to keep moving in circles while popping out his quick left jab to Jim's face. When Jeffries finally cornered Choynski in the sixteenth round and came in for the kill, he was caught with what he would later call the hardest blow he ever took, a desperate right hand thrown by Joe that shattered Jim's nose. Spitting up blood, the determined Jeffries continued to press forward but could not knock his savvy opponent out. After twenty rounds, the referee declared the fight a draw.

Jim Jeffries

On February 28, 1898, Jim took on Joe Goddard, the "Iron Man" who had been one of the leading heavyweight sluggers of the past several years. Now considered to be on the downside of his career, the Australian had nonetheless been in the ring with some of the era's best, including hall of famers Choynski, Peter Jackson, and Tom Sharkey. He was thought to have enough experience and tricks to give Jeffries a fair test. Instead, he was crushed inside of three rounds. Less than a month later, the young contender was in the ring with the most accomplished opponent he had yet faced, Peter Jackson. A decade earlier, when the legendary John L. Sullivan ruled the boxing world as the world's heavyweight champion, Jackson had been considered the man most worthy of Sullivan's laurels. Sullivan had always refused to face Jackson on account of his skin color, but many theorized that Jackson was so good that the race issue was only a cop out on the part of Sullivan. Jackson held Jim Corbett to a sixty-one round draw back in 1891 and previously held the championships of both England and Australia. He was said to be so talented that he often fought men with just one arm in order to make his fights more competitive. However, by the time Jackson fought Jeffries, he was past his prime. Inactive, debilitated by fast living, and probably already suffering from tuberculosis, from which he died in 1901, Jackson was no match for his younger opponent. Jeffries hurt his man with a hard blow to the body in the opening round. Embarrassed at being hit by a relative upstart, Jackson was goaded into trading toe-to-toe in the second round and, caught by two big left hooks, was dropped to his knees. Before the end of the round, he was down again but managed to rise and survive the second. In the third, Jeffries bore in and had the living legend out on his feet against the ropes after landing a devastating left-right combination. Not wanting to permanently injure his opponent, Jeffries turned to the referee, who stopped the fight and gave Jeffries the biggest win of his career thus far.

Sharkey and Fitzsimmons

After knocking out the overmatched Mexican Pete Everett in the Spring of 1898, Jeffries began his campaign in search of a shot at the heavyweight championship held by Bob Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons insisted he would put the title on the line against no man until someone had proven himself as the undeniable leading contender for the crown. After the victory over Jackson, the only man who could contest Jeffries' assertion to be the top contender was Sailor Tom Sharkey. The Irish-born Sharkey was almost a mirror image of Jeffries. He was a young, burly slugger known for his ability to take and deal punishment on an almost inhuman scale. Though several inches shorter than Jim, he was nonetheless covered in bulky muscle and considered a peerless blood-and-guts warrior. When the two power punchers fought at Mechanics Pavilion in San Francisco, spectators expected fireworks and they got them. The entire fight featured back-and-forth action, as first one man would land a telling blow and then the other. By the ninth, both men were bleeding profusely from open wounds and it wasn't until the eleventh that Jeffries appeared to gain any clear advantage. In that frame, he landed several hard blows which had his opponent sagging and dazed. Still, Sharkey survived and, though obviously nearing exhaustion, came out for the twelfth ready to fight on. Tom became the aggressor and Jeffries the counter puncher. It was clear that Jeffries was getting the better of the action, but Sharkey refused to relent. At the close of the twentieth round, both men were still standing and the referee announced Jeffries the winner.

The road to the heavyweight championship was now open for Jeffries. As if to reinforce the point, he battered around the overmatched Bob Armstrong in his New York debut before negotiations began for a match with Fitzsimmons. Bob Fitzsimmons had proven himself to be the greatest middleweight of his era, a fearsome puncher with a veteran's skills, before moving up and taking on some of the best big men in the game. With his fourteenth round knockout of Corbett in 1897, he had become the only middleweight champ to ever win the heavyweight title. It was he who invented and proved the saying "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." Such was not true, he learned, with Jeffries. Though the betting odds were against the challenger, he stood several inches taller than his opponent and outweighed him by forty pounds. On June 9, 1899, at the Coney Island Athletic Club in Brooklyn, New York, the pair engaged in the toughest, most grueling heavyweight championship match since the days of John L. Sullivan. Fitzsimmons was on the floor as early as the second round from a left hand blow to his nose. From that moment, the fight turned into a give-and-take slugfest, with Jeffries clearly landing the harder shots. By the fifth round, both men were bleeding heavily and would continue to do so for the remainder of the bout. As the fight moved into the eighth round, Fitzsimmons appeared to be getting the better of his challenger, whose energy seemed to be waning. Jeffries, who was already renowned for his ability to endure punishment, did not give up, however, and continued to deliver the harder punches of the two. His punishing straight left gave Fitzsimmons considerable trouble and became an important factor in the fight. In the tenth, Fitzsimmons fell twice more, apparently as much from exhaustion as from Jeffries' punches, and the tide of battle had turned once more. In the eleventh, a crisp left hook to the champion's jaw finished the job, knocking out Fitzsimmons and claiming the title for Jeffries.

Jeffries' first matter of business after becoming champion was to give Sailor Tom Sharkey a rematch. After an exhibition visit to London, England, Jeffries returned to Coney Island to face Sharkey on November 3, 1899. Jim would later call this bout "the hardest of my life." It has since been called by multiple historians the most savage war for the heavyweight championship ever fought, surpassing even Jeffries' previous struggle against Fitzsimmons. It would be the first boxing match ever filmed indoors and the grainy film of the bout confirms the legend of its brutality. Though the age and poor quality of the film obscures the details, it is clear that both men fought shoulder-to-shoulder for an entire twenty-five rounds, delivering punishment on the inside, underneath the newly installed and achingly hot electric lights that hung just above their heads. Sharkey was down in the second round but rose to deal out as good as he was getting for the next several rounds. By the seventh and eighth rounds, it appeared to some at ringside that Jeffries was finished, sapped by the heat and Sharkey's relentless body attack. He fought on, though, and opened a cut above the challenger's eye in the tenth. Sharkey retaliated five rounds later by drawing blood from the champion's nose. Just as Sharkey seemed to be taking complete control of the fight once again in the seventeenth, the champion landed a devastating right hand haymaker to the body that cracked three of the challenger's ribs in an instant. Amazingly, Sharkey fought on, despite the fact that one of those ribs began to pierce his skin and was forced to keep his left hand at his side to protect the wound. He continued to land with precision and power with the right, but Jeffries now had an obvious advantage. A right hand from Jim in the nineteenth landed directly onto Sharkey's ear, creating an immediate "cauliflower" effect that would later require surgery. In the twentieth, a headbutt opened a cut on the champion's forehead, but he continued to dominate and appeared to have Sharkey all but out by the twenty-third. The challenger could only survive by clinching and resting on the ring ropes. In the twenty-fifth and final round, after one of Jeffries' gloves fell off and while it was being replaced by the referee, a desperate Sharkey charged his opponent, only to be caught with a bare-fisted blow from the champion. As Sharkey recovered from the punch and Jeffries from the pain in his hand, time expired and the fight came to an end. Referee George Siler declared Jeffries the winner and still champion.

Undefeated World Champion

William Brady, who had managed Jeffries as well as former champion Jim Corbett, next sought to make a match between the pair. Though Corbett had not won a fight in six years, he was already a part of boxing lore, the savvy defensive genius who, in 1882, dethroned the living legend, John L. Sullivan. To get in shape and help promote a Corbett fight, Jeffries was matched with the relatively unknown palooka Jack Finnegan at the Cadillac Athletic Club in the old Masonic Hall at First & Layfayette in Detroit, Michigan. Finnegan's sole claim to fame was a previous quick knockout at the hands of Jeff's rival, Gus Ruhlin. When Jeffries pummeled and knocked out his victim in less than a round, it proved the perfect hype for his fight with Corbett, which took place just five weeks later at the Seaside Athletic Club in Brooklyn on May 11, 1900. Corbett, who had once hired Jeffries as a sparring partner, proved that he was still a talented fighter at age thirty-three. He used every slickster trick in the book to make the younger fighter appear foolish. He boxed masterfully for twenty-two straight rounds and appeared just minutes away from regaining the championship. When Jeffries did finally catch up, though, in the twenty-second, he landed several combinations which took an obvious toll on the challenger. A left hook to the jaw a round later rendered Corbett unconscious and Jeffries had saved his title.

The champion's next three title defenses were rematches. Contender Gus Ruhlin had been fortunate enough to hold Jeffries to a draw four years earlier, but in 1901, he was decisively punished until his own seconds stopped the fight in the fifth. Next came a second go with the former champion Bob Fitzsimmons. It was another trying affair. Fitzsimmons got the best of the early going, landing hard shots and slicing up the defending champion's face. Amazed at Jeffries' ability to walk through such obvious punishment, Fitzsimmons became even more discouraged when he broke his right hand on Jim's forehead. Bob continued to lead, however, until a left hook to his belly sent him gasping to his knees. He remained down for the count and was subsequently hired as a sparring partner in the Jeffries camp. Meanwhile, Jim Corbett was hard up for cash and asked Jeffries to give him another title shot as a favor. On August 14, 1903, Corbett tried to box his way to a lead once more, but age and vision problems had taken their toll. Jeffries caught him more easily and knocked him out in the tenth round.

The champion was running out of possible challengers. After Sharkey, Ruhlin, Corbett, and Fitzsimmons, there remained no more bankable names among white opponents. Joe Jeannette and Jack Johnson, two of the leading African American heavyweights of the day, had issued repeated verbal challenges for Jeffries to face them, but the champion had no intention of upsetting the majority of the public by allowing a black man a shot at the championship. Jeffries had no disinclination to fighting blacks in general: He had bested Hank Griffin and Peter Jackson, two very dangerous black fighters, before winning the title. But he knew that an interracial title match would prompt controversy and turmoil he did not crave. Thus, he made his seventh title defense against Jack Munroe, a brave but overmatched coal miner from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Munroe had some experience and had been in the ring with both Griffin and Sharkey: he had even made headlines by knocking Jeffries down in a four round exhibition bout back in 1902. But, with only nine professional wins under his belt, he was hardly championship caliber competition. On August 26, 1904, at Mechanics Pavilion in San Francisco, he was thrashed unmercifully until the referee stopped the fight, saying, "I don?t want to see anyone killed." With no more credible white challengers on the horizon, Jeffries announced his retirement from boxing in 1905. He was undefeated in all twenty of his professional boxing matches. Later that year, he refereed a bout between Louisville's Marvin Hart and Chicago's Jack Root for the vacant championship, which Hart won by a twelfth-round knockout.

The Johnson Fight and Later Years

After Jack Johnson won the heavyweight championship in 1908, he became the most hated man in America. Many were calling for Jeffries to return to the ring and recapture the championship for the Caucasian race. They dubbed him the "Great White Hope." For months, Jeffries, who had become a 300-pound alfalfa farmer, resisted all offers until promoter Tex Rickard offered him the unprecedented sum of $101,000. Jeffries felt compelled to accept and the fight was set for San Francisco on July 4, 1910. Johnson said, "He can never get into his former good trim.” He was right. Although Jeffries lost the weight in training and looked the part, his hand-eye coordination and reflexes had lost their sharpness. He knew he was in trouble. “It was plainly evident that he was suffering a terrible mental struggle,” said Joe Choynski. On June 15, when boxing opponents in Washington D.C. persuaded California to cancel the fight, it was moved to the little known city of Reno, Nevada. However, Jeffries said he wouldn't fight in Reno, an obvious tactic to pull out. But the wily promoter Rickard claimed impending bankruptcy should Jeffries make good on his threat. Jeffries eventually agreed not to pull out and set up camp outside Reno.

Jeffries worked himself down to 227 pounds by the day of the fight, which took place in a stadium specifically built to house the crowd of more than 16,000. Johnson, perhaps the cleverest boxer of his generation, was in his prime and easily smothered Jim's bullish rushes. He dodged, held, and pushed the ex-champion, sapping Jim's strength as the fight wore on under the desert afternoon sun. At no point was Jeffries able to assert control of the fight or land a single telling blow. In the fifteenth of forty-five scheduled rounds, Johnson floored Jeffries for the first time in his professional career. Though Jeffries rose to his feet and was allowed to continue, he collapsed again just seconds later and the referee stopped the fight. "I never could have whipped Johnson at my best," Jeffries said in the immediate aftermath of the fight. "I could not have reached him in 1,000 years." However, in his 1929 autobiography, Jeffries argued that he had been doped before the fight by a turncoat in his camp, but his story was discounted.

After suffering the only loss of his career, Jeffries re-entered retirement and returned to his alfalfa farm. He went into voluntary bankruptcy in February of 1923. It took him many years to become solvent. To earn money, he and Tom Sharkey toured as vaudeville fighters. The tour was a minor success, but he soon returned to stock farming on what was left of his property after it was subdivided to pay his debts. At times, he appeared in boxing-themed stage shows and movies, boxed exhibitions, refereed fights, or showed up as a spectator at major boxing events. An intensely private man who preferred the solitude of fishing and hunting to social parties and prying cameras, James Jeffries died of a heart attack on March 3, 1953 at age 77. In 1990, he was part of the inaugural class of inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Sources

Cyber Boxing Zone profile
Jeffries' Admission
Jim Jeffries, A National Hero
Great White Hope: Not Great, No Hope
Roberts, James B. and Alexander G. Skutt. The Boxing Register
Nicholson, Kelly Richard. A Man Among Men
Ward, Geoffrey C. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Factoids

  • December of 1903 Jeffries was examined by Dr. D.A. Sargent of Harvard University and recorded to be precisely six feet tall.
  • Jeffries' parents were Alexis C. and Rebecca (Boyer) Jeffries. His father was a Methodist minister. His sisters were Lydia, Alameda, and Lillian and his brothers were William, Charles, Jonathan, and Calvin. Charles was also a pro boxer who went by the name Jack Jeffries.
  • On Monday, September 11, 1899, Jeffries fought a 4x2minute round exhibition against Jack Dunkhurst at the Haymarket Theatre, Beare Street, Liverpool, UK.
  • A lover of hunting, Jeffries once killed a large deer and carried it on his shoulders nine miles to camp without stopping to rest. Friends who accompanied him had difficulty keeping up with him on the jaunt home.
  • In 1904, national attention was drawn to Burbank, California when Jeffries bought 107 acres for a ranch on Victory Boulevard. He paid $2,000 down and assumed a $10,000 mortgage. Only ten acres were placed under cultivation, and the rest was sagebrush and sand. Jeffries later developed another 93 acres and planted alfalfa. The market price for alfalfa dropped shortly after this time and it did not pay Jeffries to harvest his crop. He decided to put cattle on the land to eat the alfalfa. This proved to be a prosperous enterprise. Jeffries became one of the country's foremost suppliers of thoroughbred bulls. Most of them were sold in Mexico and South America, thus establishing Burbank's first foreign trade relations.
  • Directly across the street from his ranch, on the opposite corner, Jeffries had a barn that served as a boxing gym and fight arena, where weekly amateur matches were held. Film stars would often turn out to see the amateur fights, always drawing capacity crowds. Jeffries would often referee these bouts.
  • John Garfield's big boxing scene in the Dead End Kids film "They Made Me a Criminal" (1939) was filmed in Jeffries' barn.
  • In 1941, Jeffries' wife of 37 years was hit by a car and killed as she crossed the street on her way home from the barn.
  • In 1954, the California Historical Society put the Jeffries Barn on its list of historical buildings, and it was moved from its Burbank location to its current home at Knotts Berry Farm. It used to contain a boxing museum complete with a historian to discuss boxing. In the late 1960s, however, the historian died and the boxing museum was removed. Today, the Jeffries Barn hosts a collection of china dolls and the like. Hidden on a wall in the back is a small brass plaque that reads: "Jeffries Barn--Historical Landmark."

External Links

  • Film of Jeffries training: [2]
  • Video of second fight with Sharkey: [3]
  • CBZ Page: [4]
  • Find-a-Grave: [5]
  • Cyber Boxing Zone-Book Review-In The Ring With James J. Jeffires [6]


Preceded by:
Bob Fitzsimmons
World Heavyweight Champion
1899 Jun 9 – 1905 May 13
Retired
Succeeded by:
Marvin Hart