Joe Jeannette vs. Sam McVea

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Jeannette & McVea.jpg

1909-04-17 : Joe Jeannette beat Sam McVea by RTD in round 49 of 0

  • Location: Cirque de Paris, Paris, Paris, France
  • The World Colored Heavyweight Championship was on the line.
  • This was a fight to the finish
  • Jeannette was the betting favorite
  • The purse was 30,000 francs, which was about 6,000 dollars
  • About 2,500 fans were in attendance
  • This was the third of five fights between Jeannette and McVea. Jeannette won the first by a ten-round decision, McVea won the second by a twenty-round decision, Jeannette won the third by a knockout in the forty-ninth round, the fourth was a thirty-round draw, and the fifth was a twelve-round draw.

On a cold spring evening at Cirque de Paris in 1909, Joe Jeannette and Sam McVea, both inductees of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and among the greatest heavyweights to ever live, waged what many to this day claim must have been the greatest fight ever in the sport of boxing. Several of boxing’s most official sources, including The Boxing Register, The Encyclopedia of Boxing by Gilbert Odd and An Illustrated History of Boxing by Nat Fleischer, described a bout that included thirty-eight knockdowns over the course of forty-eight three-minute rounds. Twenty-seven were recorded in favor of McVea during the first two-thirds of the fight, and eleven were recorded in favor of Jeannette during the later rounds. Yet primary sources of information written immediately after the bout, French and American newspapers in particular, do not claim nearly the same multitude of knockdowns.

All accounts of the event recall Jeannette being sprawled on the canvas numerous times, up to five times in the 19th round alone, and each report marveled at his ability to endure punishment, recuperate and come back fighting. As for McVea, the number of knockdowns aside, it is also without dispute that he suffered a severe eye injury early in the match, and by the time he gave up before the beginning of the 49th round, both eyes were closed and his face was a mangled mess.

Jeannette-McVea.jpg

The most widely publicized story describing the fight was a syndicated article appearing in popular American newspapers, the New York Times included. It described the match as “the greatest fight witnessed in France since John L. Sullivan and Charley Mitchell fought their thirty-nine round draw at Chantilly in 1888.” Without any real details, it describes McVes as having the better of the fight for the first forty rounds, with Jeannette suffering tremendous punishment and barely lasting through the 21st and 22nd rounds. The article then recounts that McVea wore himself out by the 40th round, and Jeannette came back to win with effective infighting during the final nine rounds.

There is more detail in French newspapers but absolutely no accounting for all the knockdowns that supposedly took place. An April 24, 1909 article appearing in La Presse described the McVea-Jeannette bout as a clash of styles, with Jeannette matching his superb defensive and scientific mode of boxing against McVea’s brute strength and punching power. A translated excerpt from the coverage offered by La Presse:

At the beginning of the combat, Sam McVea looked in marvelous form due to a severe drive in training and strongly attacked Joe Jennnette, and he seemed to worry very little about the blows that his adversary threw at him. During a certain number of rounds, the two men made a good match and looked the equal of one another. Then Sam, by use of terrible blows projected at his adversary, knocked him to the ground several times. Then next, with extraordinary courage, Jeannette raised himself and little by little found the means to put the hurt on Sam. The combat was superb, and all at the same time violent and scientific. Sam landed terrible direct blows to the jaw of Jeannette who also dodged many and counterpunched well with his own powerful blows that landed admirably. Sam no longer looked human, as his eye was completely closed and his mouth bloodied.
We arrive thus at the fortieth round. Joe Jeannette, very fresh, rains a hail of blows on Sam, who is completely disabled, but thanks to his incomparable force and courage, always resists. The bell saved him several times from defeat. The uppercuts of Jeannette are no longer avoided anymore by Sam who is well finished.
With the forty-ninth round, a record! Sam shakes the hand of Jeannette and states he has given up. Science, speed and flexibility have just triumphed over brute force. Sam MacVea, crowned by Parisians as the king of boxing, falls from his pedestal. Joe Jeannette will replace him. Poor Sam!

The above record by a French journalist at ringside reporting for La Presse described a tremendous battle between McVea and Jeannette but offered no account of the thirty-eight knockdowns . . . only that Jeannette was floored several times. Other French reports on the fight highlighted the use of oxygen inflated balloons which were inhaled by both fighters in between rounds and marveled at how energized Jeannette looked going into the 40th round of combat.

The most detailed description of the match in American newspapers appeared in a New York Sun article dated April 18, 1909. In the piece, its summary was as follows:

By virtue of oxygen pumped into them by their seconds, Jeannette and MacVey reeled and staggered through forty-eight rounds of a brutal and plucky fight here tonight. At the opening of the forty-ninth round MacVey, his face utterly dehumanized save for an expression of helpless agony that distorted what remained of his features, signified that he was unable to continue, whereupon the referee declared Jeannette the winner.

Jeannette vs. McVea.jpg

The New York Sun article also goes on to describe Jeannette’s scientific style of boxing as more than offsetting McVea’s punching power until the nineteenth round when Jeannette found himself floored three times and in tremendous trouble. With the liberal use of oxygen administered to Jeannette over the next few rounds, he would survive but found himself saved by the bell multiple times. The article then goes on to describe Jeannette as displaying “remarkable powers of recuperation” and making a “chopping block” of his opponent during the last ten rounds. At the same time, the Sun’s reporter claimed Jeannette “lacked the power to deliver a knockout or even achieve a straight knockdown.” This directly contradicts other accounts that had Jeannette flooring McVea multiple times over the last ten rounds, including The Boxing Register, which claimed McVea was downed seven times in the 42nd round alone.

Two very detailed ringside correspondent reports provided by www.joejennette.com offer accounts of Jeannette being floored numerous times and saved by the bell on several occasions. At the same time, the reports mention no knockdowns of McVea at all.

So what is to be believed? Whether the bout actually recorded thirty-eight knockdowns or not is really irrelevant because something truly special transpired that evening in Paris over a hundred years ago between Joe Jeannette and Sam McVea. What we do know is Jeannette was floored numerous times, out on his feet and seriously hurt, and saved by the bell at least three times from the hard hitting McVea. We also know that despite the tremendous battering he endured at times during this fight to the finish, Jeannette was still capable of relying on his will and superior ability to outlast and outbox one of the greatest heavyweights of all times over the course of forty-eight hard fought, back and forth rounds. It was likely the greatest fight ever contested in the history of boxing.

External Links:
Examiner - September 19, 2010
New York Times - April 17, 1909
joejeannette.com