Perhaps unbeknownst to some viewers, The Royale by award-winning writer Marco Ramirez is based on two real-life fighters and a real-life bout that happened in 1910—one that has since gone down in history as the “Fight of the Century.”
African American fighter Jack Johnson’s defeat of Canadian Tommy Burns was an affront to turn-of-the-century Jim Crow America. Johnson was already famous for pushing boundaries of all sorts. With his wealth and popularity, he outright refused to conform to Jim Crow era limitations of his race. He dressed expensively, drove flashy cars, dated and married white women, and had no qualms about openly taunting his white opponents in the press or in the ring.
Before coming toe to toe with Tommy Burns on Boxing Day (December 26, 1908) in Sydney, Australia, Johnson had stalked Burns around the world for two years, harassing him for a match through the press. Confident in his ability to trounce Johnson, Burns declared: “I will beat Johnson, or my name isn’t Tommy Burns.” Well, were you being ironic, Tommy, or was that an unfortunate choice of words? (His name actually wasn’t Tommy Burns; he had been born Noah Brusso.)
“The Canadian never will be forgiven by the public for allowing the title of the best physical man in the world to be wrested from his keeping by a member of the African race. I refused time and time again to meet Johnson while I was holding the title, even though I knew I could beat him. I would never allow a Negro a chance to fight for the world’s championship, and I advise all other champions to follow the same course.” —James J. Jeffries, retired heavyweight champion, on Burns’ brutal defeat in Sydney.
These boxing boys sure love their irony.
White America immediately began to seek a “Great White Hope” to reclaim the revered championship title from Jack Johnson. The only man fit for the challenge, in their eyes, was James Jeffries—who had retired from the ring six years prior, never having been defeated. Jeffries was by that time 35 years old, kind of past his fighting prime, and also a 300-pound alfalfa farmer, which he was content to remain.
“Jeff is too old and cannot get into condition to fight anybody. … He can never get into his former good trim.” —Jack Johnson, to those vying in Jeffries’ favor
However, after being harassed for months and offered a $101,000 purse by promoter Tex Rickard (an absolutely bananas sum at the time), old Jeff gave in. “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” His final statement before the fight: “It is my intention to go right after my opponent and knock him out as soon as possible.”
“I’m not interested in prizefighting but I am interested in my husband’s welfare, I do hope this will be his last fight.” —Jeffries’ wife. (A real vote of confidence, Mrs. J.)
“Before I entered the ring I was certain I would be the victor. I never changed my mind at any time.” —Jack Johnson
The two champions met in a ring made especially for the match on July 4th of 1910, a sweltering 110 degree day in Reno, Nevada. In his usual routine, Johnson could be heard taunting the older fighter all throughout the bout. “Come on, Mr. Jeff. Let me see what you got. Do something, man. This is for the championship.” I won’t get into the grit of it here—see the play for all that—but in the immediate aftermath, here’s what former heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan, who was in the crowd, had to say of the brawl:
“The fight of the century is over…. It was a poor fight as fights go, this less than 15-round affair between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. Scarcely has there ever been a championship contest that was so one-sided. … [Spectators] could not help but admire Johnson because he is the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen. He played fairly at all times and fought fairly. … They both fought closely all during the 15 rounds. It was just the sort of fight that Jeffries wanted. There was no running or ducking…. and [Johnson] was good-natured with it all. The best man won, and I was one of the first to congratulate him, and also one of the first to extend my heartfelt sympathy to the beaten man.”
Despite his record for in-ring smack talk, after his fights Jack Johnson was usually surprisingly gracious. Before his death in 1946, Johnson stated that he believed James Jeffries was the best boxer of any era, and in his prime would have beaten both Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis—famously vicious fighters of a later generation. Of his other most well-known bouts:
“Let me say of Mr. Burns, a Canadian and one of yourselves, that he has done what no one else ever did, he gave a black man a chance for the championship. He was beaten, but he was game.” —Johnson (1909) of Tommy Burns after their 1908 bout
“The best man won. I would not belittle another man’s accomplishment and I wish Willard all the luck he would wish himself.” —Johnson (1915) following a later defeat by giant Jess Willard
Ironically, Johnson came to be resented by the African American community for his refusal to enter the ring with other black fighters in his later years. The most noteworthy example was Sam Langford, now considered one of the best fighters of the 19th century, whom Johnson had already fought once and beaten in 1906, and would not fight again.
“No attention will be paid to Sam Langford’s challenges by me. I do not consider he could give me a fight that would draw.” —Jack Johnson of Langford’s numerous challenges
“Jack forgot his old friends…,” criticized a fellow black fighter Joe Jeanette, “and drew the color line against his own people.”
The Royale will be on Geva’s Fielding stage until April 28th, 2019.