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A Centennial Weekend
by Harry Spencer
Jul 02, 2010 | 1375 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Staff Photo/Nevada Historical Society - Century-old posters and photos of the Johnson-Jeffries boxing match are on display at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
Staff Photo/Nevada Historical Society - Century-old posters and photos of the Johnson-Jeffries boxing match are on display at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
It is highly unlikely that there is anyone around today who was present at the most historic event to come to the city of Reno. I am speaking, of course, about the famous Johnson-Jeffries fight for the heavyweight boxing championship that happened 100 years ago Sunday.

With tonight’s major boxing card at Grand Sierra Resort and Casino and a series of other events over the weekend, the fight will be well remembered.

To visit the site of the match, one only has to go to the southwest corner of East Fourth and Toano streets and read the Nevada historical marker that was placed there through the herculean efforts of retired state archivist Guy Rocha several decades ago. A ceremony is scheduled for Sunday and Rocha is slated to speak.

Actually, Rocha has best defined what that fight meant to the Biggest Little City when he recently was quoted as saying, “That single event catapulted Reno onto the international stage for the first time.”

To Reno’s credit, it continued to build on that notoriety and the once sleepy little cowtown, which came into being as a railroad stop to service the needs of nearby Virginia City during the bonanza days, permanently entered the big time. With the advent of the town becoming the divorce capital of the world and the subsequent emergence of such gaming giants as the Smith family and Bill Harrah, Reno was one of the top datelines in the world.

What made the Johnson-Jeffries fight so intriguing to readers all over the globe was the fact that it not only pitted two undefeated and skillful pugilists against one another, but it also was a flashpoint for society at that time.

Racism was rampant in the country and Johnson was one of those black men who could not care less about tradition or what the “white folks” thought about him. In fact, he continually rubbed their noses in it by dating and marrying white women exclusively.

Also, he had so upset the boxing fraternity in general because when it was announced “the great white hope” would be Jeffries, regardless of the outcome, it added more fuel to the fire. Jeffries was even lured out of retirement by offering him the larger share of the fight purse. But once again, the clever Johnson had beaten them to the punch by securing a handsomer percentage of the movie rights to the contest.

In fact, it was rumored that the only reason the fight went 15 rounds was because Johnson actually carried the thoroughly beaten Jeffries at that distance just to enhance the chance of good film sales.

Over the years, many books have been written about the fight, all of them mentioning Reno prominently, and a major movie starring James Earl Jones as Johnson was a very popular flick. Again, Reno’s name went out to a worldwide audience.

Currently, there is a publication coming off the presses that will probably be the most accurate and detailed account of the event ever published. That is because two authors, Guy Clifton and Ray Hagar of the Reno Gazette-Journal, have access to all the Nevada State Journal papers that were printed locally a century ago.

Probably no fistic encounter in the century has ever had the pre-fight buildup that the Johnson-Jeffries fight had. The entire event was the brainchild of promoter Tex Rickard, who was more of a flamboyant individual that the later-day Don King would ever hope to be.

Originally scheduled for San Francisco, the fight had already gained international hullabaloo prior to its move to Reno.

When the City by the Bay rather ungracefully bowed out, Rickard first considered taking the fight to Goldfield, Nev., the town that would eventually be made famous by champion Jack Dempsey. Upon due consideration, however, Rickard rightly decided that the city of Reno had better housing, was easier to reach from California and would put more money in his pocket. It proved to be true as some 20,000 fight fans showed up for the fabled fight.

To grasp the enormity of the crowd, one has to view some documentary films that retired Nevada Historical Society expert, Phil Earl, has in his possession. He has made the films the subject of several talks around town about the fight in the past few months. Just the building of the arena was a herculean task and seeing the streets of Reno teeming with crowds 100 years ago make the presentation worth catching.

Another excellent source of still photos, newspaper accounts and some interesting original artwork about Johnson himself is found in the display now open to the public at the Nevada Historical Society in its building adjacent to the Fleischmann Planetarium on the University of Nevada, Reno campus.

Another venue for history buffs is located at 220 Bell St. in Reno, which is the home of the African American Cultural Center. An exhibit entitled “At the Sound of the Bell” is also open to the public at no charge from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays during July.

This is a perfect time to recall the event that put the name Reno on the lips of people all over the world.

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.

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A Centennial Weekend by Harry Spencer

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