Battle of the Century

—Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries, July 4, 1910

Round 1
The fourth day of July & the sun can't hide
in the blue. James Jeffries can't hide either.
That's is why he drew the color line when
he was champion. That's why he retired
& bought a farm. Excuse after excuse to avoid
me, even when that writer London begged
him to take the championship back for the white
race. It's up to you, Jeff! while Jeffries was busy
hitching a plow in Burbank. Jeffries wanted
none of it then & being in the ring with me
didn't convince him to reconsider. He brought
the clinching game as soon as the bell rang:
half wrestling, half jostling for any opening
to rabbit punch. No leads, but he feinted
some & leaned on me like we were dancing
partners. Someone yelled, Cut out the motion
pictures! & the bell rang. I smiled, patting
his shoulder on the way back to my corner.
One last gentlemanly gesture before the hurt.

Round 2

Jim Corbett paced outside the ring
like one of those circus tigers before
the man with the whip shows up.
He kept yelling nigger as if name
calling could move me when Jeffries
couldn't. Corbett must not have heard
the band playing "All Coons Look
Alike" when I split the ropes.
I've heard that same song my whole life.
When the usual offenses didn't work,
Corbett said unrepeatable things
about my mother hoping to make me
fight wild. I snapped Jeffries' head
back with a right & Corbett said:
He wants to fight a little, Jim. I gave
Jeffries another right to the gut, then
a left to the face. You bet I do, I told
them all. Waiting lathers a man up.

Jeffries stretched out that long left paw of his, crouching a little to put the scare of a crotch punch in me. A red-hot sun poured down on our heads. All the while, he chewed a piece of gum like a milk cow chews cud. When he finally came at me, I shifted left, hit him so hard with a left uppercut he had to hang on me like a museum picture hangs on a nail to keep from falling out right then. All right, Jim, I told him, I'll love you if you want me to.

Round 3

I knew before
the fight I would
hurt Jeffries, but
hurt wasn't enough.
I wanted to take
the man's pride
like a horse's bridle
& send him into
the river. Him
& anyone fool
enough to think
a four-flushing
alfalfa farmer
could beat Jack
Johnson. Starting
the 3rd round, I taunted
him loud enough
for everyone to hear:
Come on now, Jim.
Let me see what
you got. Jeffries
got so mad he rushed
me & I planted
a right on his jaw
for his troubles.
I got a couple of rabbit
rights in before
the referee pulled
us apart. I smiled
at Jeffries. Big,
so he & all of his
supporters could see
my gold dentistry
& said again: Show
me what you got,
Mr. Jeff. This is
for the championship.

Round 4

The bell rang & Jeffries hit me with a left-handed lead to the stomach that sounded like an automobile crash. My insides felt like they felt when Clara left me broke & humiliated in St. Louis. With each punch, the crowd yelled as if Jeffries's fists were Independence Day fireworks. When he caught my mouth with a left, the cut Kid gave me during training opened again. The crowd saw blood & hollered even louder. First blood for Jeff! Jeffries was getting in work, but Reno is not St. Louis. His fists weren't up to the full task. Don't rush me, Jimmy, I told him. You hear what I'm telling? He did color my gold smile with a little red.

Round 5

I let Jeffries have his bloody mouth right
back. Only he wasn't smiling after. If he would
have, it wouldn't have been pretty.

Round 6

A left hook cut Jeffries's right cheek.
A straight left blocked up his right eye.
A beaten fighter's blood on my glove
sprinkled in dust. The sun. A beaten
fighter wrapped up, pushed back into
his corner. An angry crowd burning
to a crisp. I asked Corbett where he
wanted me to drop his beaten fighter,
but Corbett didn't want to mouth anymore.
Then I heard that reporter Naughton
spelling out the fight for the telegraph:
"Jeffries took a left hook to the jaw."
I hit Jeffries with another left & a straight
right: Is that all he took, Mr. Naughton?

Round 8

All these whites booing & boosting
for Jeffries. They slept under café
tables & on blanket-covered billiard
tables for this? They knew their farmer
was whipped & their rent money
was lost & that knowledge brought
out the worst in that unruly crowd.
Between the name calling, the swirls
of dust & descriptions of my demise
after the fight ended, I could hear
the one voice that mattered: Etta
screaming over & over: Keep it up, Jack!

Round 9

Every time I jabbed Jeffries,
he ducked lower until I thought
he might just lay down right there.
The crowd was still booing,
so I waved & said, I'll straighten
him up here in a minute. Sweat
all over me & Nevada dust sticking
to me. The dust in Jeffries cuts
made him look a little less beaten.
Someone in the crowd hollered,
"He'll straighten you up, nigger!"
Even after 9 rounds of me
beating on their boy, they still didn't
see he was only standing because
I let him. I stepped in & gave Jeffries
the kind of uppercut that makes
a prizefighter stand up straight
& question his profession.

Jeffries's mouth was so swollen he looked
like the newspaper versions of me. Through
those cartoon lips, he tried to talk: Ain't I
got a hard old head? I hit him with two rights
& agreed: You certainly have, Mr. Jeffries.

Round 10

The bell rang & Jeffries
came out determined
to go down fighting. Like

he had a choice. He came
out in that crouch, a frown
like he ate a piece of bad fish.

After he missed a couple
of blind swings I asked,
Jimmy, are you mad?

Round 12

Mr. Jeffries refused to give in. There wasn't much
difference between his face & the meat on a butcher's
table. & he kept coming, like a bull that knows what
happens after the fight. I just moved out of the way,
shook some of the dust off his face with punches
as he passed. Corbett was as hysterical as a woman:
It only takes one or two, Jeff! So I gave Jeffries
a quick right to the face, let it sink in for a minute,
then hit him with two more & said, See that?

Round 14

Questions bring as much hurt
as fists do: How you like 'em,

Jim? Left hook instead
of a question mark. Did that

hurt? Right then left, straight
to the face like a Galveston wind.

Was that your nose that just
broke? Right jab, then

a crunching like egg shells.

Round 15

Jeffries didn't have anything left
to give, so he tried to spit on me.
Dust & blood where there should
have been spit. He tried to clinch
me again & I let him have a left
for trying. His nose was broken
& in that friendless Nevada sun,
he couldn't find any wind. I pushed
him away & gave him both hands.
I hit him so hard the free lookers
on the hill above the stadium
could hear it clearly. The alfalfa
farmer fell back into the ropes
then headed for his corner the same
way a horse heads back to the barn.
I caught him with an uppercut
& three fast lefts to the ribs.
Jeffries dropped to his knees
like old fruit from a tree & grabbed
the last rope. The referee counted
9 before Jeffries pulled himself up.

As soon as the referee moved, I tried
to punch through Jeffries. He went down
again, back & through the ropes. As if
the ropes could protect him from me.


Don't let the nigger knock him out!
Don't let the nigger knock him out!

Jack Jeffries & one of the other corner boys helped
his brother off the canvas. The younger Jeffries must
not have appreciated his brother because he pushed

Jim right back into the ring. Jim swayed there like a tree
about to fall in a storm. I heard Corbett yell, Don't,
Jack. Don't hit him! so I hit Jeffries four more times

for the things Corbett said about my mother. I stood
over Jim with my right ready, so he could see what
to expect if he could still see. The white towel was in

the ring before the referee finished counting him out.
As his seconds helped him up, I heard Jeffries saying,
I couldn't come back, boys. I couldn't come back.