Ali vs. Frazier.
Leonard vs Hagler.
Tyson vs. Holyfield.
Mayweather vs. Pacquaio.
All are familiar to boxing fans of the last 50 years but long before those well-known confrontations there was Johnson-Jeffries. In 1910, world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson wrote a letter challenging the sport’s biggest name—James Jeffries—to a heavyweight bout. Johnson was African-American, a fact that didn’t sit well with some of the sport’s fans and writers.
Lured by a potentially huge payday, Jeffries came out of a five-year retirement for what would become the original “Fight of the Century.”
Racial tension simmered in and around the scheduled contest in Reno, NV, with Jeffries noting he agreed to the bout “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro”.
Now, that letter—one of early pro boxing’s most historic pieces—is up for auction.
The one-page typewritten missive from Johnson to Jeffries is at SCP Auctions where it’s expected to sell for a five-figure price.
The letter documents Johnson challenging Jeffries after reading comments from the former champion, who indicated he hoped a recent opponent, Stanley Ketchel, “would kill him and that he would do so if Ketchel failed.”
The letter is signed by Johnson in a large flowing pencil script. PSA/DNA lead authenticator, Kevin Keating, has authenticated not only Johnson’s large, vivid signature, but also his handwritten inscription at the end that reads: “I have $5,000 with the New York Federal (bank) & will post $10,000 any time. Yours Truly, Jack Johnson.”
The letter was originally sourced from the Stanley Weston Collection that Sotheby’s auctioned in 2005. Weston was a prestigious American publisher, sportswriter and photographer who spent decades covering boxing primarily at The Ring before acquiring the magazine in 1989.
At the turn of the 20th century, boxing was one of the most popular sports in America, and Jeffries was the sport’s biggest star. He retired in 1905 officially undefeated. Meanwhile, Johnson quickly rose to become champion of the heavyweight class in 1908. Though Jeffries initially retired early to dodge Johnson, a potentially huge purse coaxed him out of retirement. Jeffries had retired to his alfalfa farm but began training and lost a large amount of weight as he attempted to knock off five years of rust.
The bout took place in front of more than 20,000 fans in a specially constructed arena on the Fourth of July 1910.
Ultimately, Jeffries was no match for the Galveston Giant who sent Jeffries to the canvas twice for the first time in the former champion’s career. As round 15 drew to a close, Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel to avoid his career ending with a knockout.
“I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him,” Jeffries admitted later. “No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
Johnson made $65,000 from the fight (about $2 million today).
Sadly, race riots erupted in various cities after the fight with at least 20 people killed and hundreds injured.
The letter is among 50 Johnson items from the same collection being offered in the online catalog.
Bidding is set to close Friday night at SCPAuctions.com.