Forget the rumble in the jungle, or even the thriller in Manila. The most momentous boxing match of the 20th century — or possibly any other — actually took place in 1910, in Reno, Nevada. Jack Johnson, who had made history two years earlier by becoming the first black world heavyweight champion, was set to fight James Jeffries, a former champ coaxed out of retirement as the ‘Great White Hope’ to reclaim the title, and as the boxing authorities and wider society then saw it, to affirm the superiority of the white race. The stakes couldn’t have been higher; The New York Times, no less, declared that “If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.”
When the pair finally met in the ring — on the fourth of July, deliciously — Johnson, perhaps following the Times’s lead, didn’t pull his punches. In front of a baying mob of more than 25,000 sozzled pimps, outlaws and gamblers, he knocked a visibly diminished Jeffries to the ground twice before the latter’s corner threw in the towel in the 15th round. The inconvenient result sparked racial riots across America in which more than 20 black men died, many lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. “It wasn’t just the championship that was at stake,” wrote Johnson in his autobiography, “it was my own honor, and in a degree the honor of my own race.” But Johnson was nobody’s fall guy, and certainly nobody’s patsy. As acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns said in his 2006 documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson: “Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country — economically, socially and politically. He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom, not just as a black man, but as an individual.” Or, as his fans put it, in a reworking of ‘Amazing Grace’: “The Yankees hold the play / The white man pulls the trigger / But it makes no difference what the white man says / The world champion’s still a nigger”.