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The Legend of James J. Jeffries

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James Jackson Jeffries is best remembered lying on the canvas looking up at Jack Johnson in the 15th round in Reno, Nevada. After spending six years out of the ring and gaining a lot of weight, the former heavyweight champion had left his farm to answer the call of white supremacists and face Johnson in 1910. Most Americans born since then ask why this was even considered a legitimate call.

One question that is generally not asked is why white America felt its best hope was in a fat alfalfa farmer who been out of the ring for six years. In actuality, few heavyweight champions have cut as impressive a figure as Jeffries. He stood 6 feet, 2-½ inches, and weighed 220 pounds and was called “The Boilermaker” because he didn’t only look like one; he also worked as one before taking up boxing. Even with that size, he could run 100 yards in 11 seconds and high-jump 5 feet, 10 inches. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Walter Christie wrote that Jeffries could have been a world champion shot putter and hammer thrower if he had put his mind to it.

He came along during boxing’s most racist and xenophobic period and reflected its views. Yet it was also a time when the heavyweight champion fought 25-round bouts and was affectionately beloved and known by nicknames. For example, John L. Sullivan was “John L.”, Jim Corbett was “Gentleman Jim”, Bob Fitzsimmons was “Fitz” and Jeffries was “Jeff”.

He was the most dominant champion of this era too, holding the title for longer and defending it more times (8) than any heavyweight titleholder before Joe Louis. Sullivan called him, “The pioneer, the master, the inventor, the greatest fighter and the greatest figure in ring history.” Jack Dempsey said, “His record shows that he went up against all manner of men from the scientific boxers to the heavy sluggers, and nobody ever came within a mile and a half of beating the real Jeffries.”

The story of how his career began only added to his legend. While working as boilermaker, a boxer showed up at his place of work and threatened to “whip any man in town.” Jeffries generally had a calm disposition, but as he said, “I would rather fight for three hours than make a speech for three minutes” so he was not going to try to reason with him. Jeffries had no boxing skills, but still managed to knock the bully out with his freakish strength.

Word of his feat spread across the land and Jeffries was encouraged to take up boxing. In 1895, he began fighting bouts that may have been amateur, professional or off-the-books during a period where that distinction was a bit relative. In April of 1897, he officially turned professional with a 2nd-round knockout of Theodore Van Buskirk.

His rawness in the ring would be honed later that year in a draw with Joe Choynski, one of the top contenders of the era. A shot from Choynski broke Jeffries’ nose and smashed several of his teeth. From that point on, he modified his stance to what became known as the “Jeffries Crouch”, which had his neck hunched over with his right protecting his face and his left serving as the equivalent of a medieval war hammer. It wasn’t pretty, but it was one of the most effective stances in the history of the sport.

For the next 18 months, Jeffries smashed through the division, earning a title shot with Fitzsimmons. One of the most devastating punchers in history, especially for his size, Fitzsimmons invented the left hook to the body and had won the title from Corbett more than two years earlier. Jeffries would be the New Zealander’s first title defense.

The two met in June of 1899 in the New Coney Island Sporting Club with $100,000 in wagers ($2.7 million today) surrounding their bout. Jeffries weighed 206 pounds to Fitzsimmons’ 167 and controlled the fight from start to finish. In the 11th round, he hit Fitzsimmons with a powerful left hook and followed up with a right. The soon-to-be ex-champion fell to the canvas and turned over on his side. A count was unnecessary and he was dragged to his corner by his handlers.

As he exited the club, Corbett said to the crowd, “Well boys, an American has the championship.”

In November, Jeffries fought his first title defense, a rematch with Tom Sharkey. The two had fought to a 20-round Jeffries decision in 1898 and this bout was no different, lasting 25 rounds at the Coney Island Athletic Club. In the final round, Sharkey slipped to the floor in a clinch, pulling off Jeffries’ glove. As referee George Siler tried to put it back on, Sharkey went after him and the two had an awkward exchange of missed shots. The bell rang with Siler standing between them.

At the end of the hour and 40-minute fight, Sharkey had a cut eye and cut ear. Jeffries’ neck, which had taken lefts from Sharkey the entire fight, was described by The New York Times to be as “raw as a piece of meat.” In the end, Jeffries was given the decision in what may have been the toughest defense of his career.

Jeffries expected a reprieve when he faced John Finnegan in April of 1900, but he probably did not expect the shortest heavyweight championship fight in history. He went on the attack early, knocking Finnegan down with a vicious left. Finnegan rose after a few seconds and Jeffries put him down again with a left. When he got up a second time, Jeffries buried a left in the pit of Finnegan’s stomach. As he stood up for a third time, Finnegan was crying and his handlers ran to him as he reeled against the ropes. The fight lasted a total of 55 seconds.

A month later, Jeffries finally met Corbett in an inevitable showdown in front of a crowd of 7,000 at Coney Island’s Seaside Athletic Club. The two were perfect foils for each other. Jeffries was the brute, while Corbett was the showman and scientific puncher. In the 14th round, Corbett busted Jeffries’ nose with a straight left. Two left hooks to the face in the 23rd round bloodied Jeffries’ nose again, but he responded by putting Corbett on the ropes and sending him to the canvas with a hard left. Referee Charlie White counted him out as Corbett rolled over twice.

Jeffries then headed back to California and fought two non-title bouts before facing Gus Ruhlin in 1901 in Mechanic’s Pavilion in San Francisco. The two had battled to a draw in 1897, with Jeffries putting Ruhlin down in the final seconds of the 20th round, only to be saved by the bell. For the rematch, the two fought four intense rounds. Then in the fifth, Jeffries pushed Ruhlin to the ropes and knocked him down with a barrage of shots. He made it to his feet, but quit in the final seconds of the round.

“I certainly had no difficulty in whipping him, and had the fight gone on the result must have been the same,” said Jeffries. “Ruhlin was in poor wind, and I cannot say that he even had the courage and force that I expected to encounter in him.”

The most exciting bout of Jeffries’ championship run came when he next faced Fitzsimmons in a rematch in San Francisco in July of 1902. Fitzsimmons had toyed with retirement in 1900, but had returned to the ring with a newfound vigor. When he faced Jeffries the second time, he hit him at will from the fight’s start to its sudden finish. However, in the eight round, Jeffries managed to corner Fitzsimmons, as he often did in bouts. He missed a wild right, but finished him with a left hook to the body and a vicious right cross. Fitzsimmons fell to the canvas and Jeffries stood over him with cuts over both eyes and blood running from his nose and mouth. The fact that Fitzsimmons went on to win the light heavyweight title a year later makes Jeffries’ win even more remarkable.

In July of 1903, Jeffries gave the finest performance of his career in a rematch with Corbett at the Pavilion. He dominated the fight from start to finish, putting Corbett down in the fourth and sixth rounds. In the 10th, Jeffries sent him to the canvas with a left hook to the body. Corbett got up, but was finished by a right to the same spot. The next year, he destroyed Jack Munroe in the second round in the final fight of his career.

At that point, the division was officially cleaned out of white contenders. As Jeffries wrote in his autobiography, “I was 29 years old, in fine physical condition and anxious to fight when I realized how Alexander felt when he sighed for more worlds to conquer. There were no more heavyweights left for me to meet, and I found no pleasure in the idea of going around and knocking out a lot of young fellows with more courage than skill or strength.”

Jeffries was the first heavyweight champion to retire with the title and the boxing community was not sure how to handle it. He was actually given the option to pass it along to the fighter of his choosing and there was speculation that he would give the belt to Fitzsimmons, who had become his friend. On the day of his retirement, though, Jeffries announce that he would leave the belt to the division for the the contenders to fight for it.

“I am glad to get out of the limelight,” he said. “The championship has brought me no happiness; nothing but cheap notoriety and a little money.”

In retirement, Jeffries enjoyed an opulent lifestyle that added 50 extra pounds to his fighting weight. He tended to his alfalfa farm and hunted. He visited Europe and drank its beer and visited its brothels.

But he never really left boxing. When asked, he would publicly toy with the idea of reentering the ring. In 1907, Tommy Burns knocked out Bill Squires to lay the definitive claim to the heavyweight title. Jeffries was the referee.

“Burns can have the title, unless he should be defeated by some foreigner,” he said. “That’s the only chance to get me back in the ring.”

Jeffries made that statement seven years before half of Europe went to war over the assassination of an Austrian archduke so one can cut him a little slack over that comment. It’s the fact that his statement actually applied to African-Americans too. As he was getting in shape in 1909 for his bout with Johnson, the African-American heavyweight champion was preparing for a bout with Stanley Ketchel.

“Should Stanley [Ketchel] win [against Johnson] I would discontinue training as the title would be where it rightfully belongs,” said Jeffries.

Ketchel lost and on July 4, 1910, Jeffries came out of retirement to be embarrassed by Johnson. Because of the pace of technological advances, the only good film of Jeffries in the ring is that loss. As Jim Carney, Jr., wrote in “Ultimate Tough Guy,” his biography of Jeffries, “An equivalent would be if the only good film of Muhammad Ali was his comeback failure against Larry Holmes.”

No fighter’s legacy was as adversely impacted for a return to the ring as Jeffries’. Then again, no boxer’s comeback represented the worst of mankind the way his did either. It is probably fitting that he is remembered for lying on that canvas despite his greatness beforehand.

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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