Several years later I was back in Reno. I again visited the fight location but this time I had another place I was determined to find. Johnson had trained for the Jeffries bout at a place called Rick’s Resort, a few miles from downtown Reno.
“So, this is where it happened,” I can remember thinking almost fifty years ago as I stood on a corner street a few blocks from downtown Reno as cars buzzed past me. They probably wondered what the skinny teenage kid was gazing at.
I had wanted to see this location since reading Legendary Champions a few months before by Rex Lardner, a Christmas present from Mom and Dad.
I was 13. My parents knew what I liked.
The book (which I still have) is an account of the heavyweight championship exploits of John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, James J. Jefferies, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Gene Tunney. I was enthralled. I read it cover to cover a dozen times. What also fascinated me were the old photographs, washed out and gritty, but visually descriptive.
Almost all the participants had died by 1971, but the photos brought them back to life in all their black and white glory. All the fights and fighters were fascinating, but one boxer and fight in particular stood out to me.
The fighter was Jack Johnson. The fight, known forever as “The Battle of the Century,” took place on July 4, 1910, and pitted champion Johnson against former champion Jeffries.
Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion. Some admired him, most despised him. Especially the white race. Jeffries, who had retired six years before, was loved from afar. He had walked away from boxing without looking back.
Just about everybody, from politicians to writers, wanted him to fight Johnson. He finally agreed, losing over 100 pounds in the process. Jeffries was so highly thought of that, even after such a Herculean feat, and having not fought professionally in almost six years, he was still the favorite to defeat Johnson.
Johnson was 32 and in his physical prime. He toyed with opponents like a cat does with a mouse. He had fast hands and superb defense. But in the thinking of the time, no good black man could beat a white man. The fight began at 2:10 PM. It was over 100 degrees under the blazing Nevada sun.
Jeffries, who weighed 227 pounds, looked great. But looks don’t win fights. Jeffries hung in like grim death, eating punches as Johnson smiled at him. He landed a few, but nothing bothered Johnson. By round 15, the fight was over. Jeffries was exhausted, his face a pulpy mess. Jeffries tasted the canvas three times until referee and promoter Tex Richard called the fight off. It was the only fight Jeffries ever lost, but it’s the one most remember him for.
I can remember thinking about this as I read the historical marker indicating what had happened there 61 years ago. The ring, built specifically for the fight, is long gone. The location was then a lumber yard. It felt haunted to me. I peeked through the fence surrounding the area like a massive roundabout guard. Tons of equipment and appropriately, lumber. Very quiet. Not like it was on July 4, 1910. But the voices are there, and the memories.
Pick up a copy A Few More Rounds by Jerry Fitch and me for a more detailed description of this day.
Several years later I was back in Reno. I again visited the fight location but this time I had another place I was determined to find. Johnson had trained for the Jeffries bout at a place called Rick’s Resort, a few miles from downtown Reno. I read that the location was now owned by a Reno resident. I easily found the place.
A beautiful house sits on the site. I spotted a plaque on a rock wall, “Site of Rick’s Roadhouse Resort. Jack Johnson established his training quarters here for the July 4, 1910 “Fight of the Century.”
The area is on the older side, but very clean and well kept up. That day, it was cool and sunny. The fence was closed. I debated my options. Read the plaque again. Suddenly the fence gate swung open. A tall man with gray hair eyed me. I smiled and told him why I was loitering in front of his house. He smiled and nodded and invited me in to take a look.
The man, whose name is Tim Elam, has lived in the house, built in the 1950’s, for many years. Back then, the house was a large, multi-bedroom boarding house with horse stables. He showed me the exact spot where the sparring ring for Johnson had been erected. I imagined it, surrounded by all types of people chomping on cigars, and Johnson, the heavyweight champion of the world, holding court.
I felt a sereness I’ve felt before upon visiting a place of history. It’s a feeling of discovery and knowledge of what once happened in the place. I glanced back one more time as I left, certain I could hear whispers.