Lane brothers make sure Johnson-Jeffries anniversary is recognized
Thomas and Terrance Lane, the sons of legendary referee Mills Lane, grew up knowing about the title bout between the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and America’s “Great White Hope” James J. Jeffries as well as the racial and social implications of the early 1900s boxing event that took place in Reno, Nev.
When a group of Nevada historians led by former state archivist Guy Rocha found the long-forgotten location of the Johnson-Jeffries bout in 1979, Mills Lane, who moved to Reno in 1958 to attend the University of Nevada, was among those present when the city dedicated a plaque to officially recognize the site of the original “Fight of the Century,” which Johnson won by a 15-round knockout on July 4, 1910.
The retired referee and district judge passed on a lifelong appreciation of boxing history to his sons, so as the 100th anniversary of Johnson-Jeffries approached, the Lane brothers were surprised to learn that many Reno residents were not only unaware of the greatest fight hosted by their city but also didn’t know who Johnson was.
The brothers, who operate the promotional company founded by their father and named after his famous catchphrase, Let’s Get It On Promotions, took it upon themselves to organize a series of events to commemorate one of the most-controversial prize fights ever and remind Reno residents of the historical significance of both Johnson and his showdown with Jeffries.
“We started thinking about doing something at the start of 2009,” Thomas Lane told RingTV.com. “We knew the 100th anniversary was coming up and we were a little disappointed that nothing really major was being planned to recognize what was such an important event in American history. When we co-promoted the Jesse Brinkley-Joey Gilbert fight, which was a big event for Reno, in February of 2009, we used the original bell for the Johnson-Jeffries fight to ring in the start of the card. We decided to announce to that audience and to the media there that night that we would do a fight card and some kind of official commemoration of the Johnson-Jeffries bout on its 100th anniversary date in 2010.”
“It’s been a lot of work putting everything together over the past 16 months, but acknowledging the fight is important to us as natives of Reno, as members of the boxing community, and as Americans.”
Although the main focus of the events the Lane brothers have organized is the “Fight of the Century,” they also hope to educate the public on just how special Johnson was.
“I remember having a conversation with my father about the Johnson-Jeffries fight when I was young,” said Lane. “I wanted to know why there were riots after the fight. I wanted to know why people were killed over the outcome of a boxing match. Dad was straight forward with his answer; he said it was racism. He told me it was a time when black people were neither liked nor respected by many white Americans.
“The more I learned about Johnson as I got older it became a little frustrating to see him not get the credit he’s owed. Everyone recognizes Jackie Robinson as a pioneer for breaking the color barrier in baseball and the sports world, but Johnson did it almost 40 years earlier. He did it his way. He was brash and unapologetic, but he did nothing wrong and he didn’t deserve the way he was treated.”
Andre Ward, who is African-American, holds Johnson in the same regard as Lane. The undefeated super middleweight titleholder will travel with his family from Oakland to be present for the three main events of the Lane brothers’ commemorative efforts in Reno — a gala on Friday, a fight card on Saturday, and an honorary bell ringing at the site of the fight on Sunday.
“There were a number of reasons I wanted to be in Reno to recognize the Johnson-Jeffries fight,” Ward told RingTV.com, “I have family in the area and I fought in Reno numerous times as an amateur, so I have ties to the city, but the main reason was my respect for Jack Johnson. I don’t know much about Jeffries, but I researched Johnson’s career when I was younger and I learned that the man was a pioneer in many ways. His style of boxing, his attitude, the way he carried himself, and I should note that I don’t agree with everything that he did outside of the ring, but I’m awed by the pressure that he lived and fought under.
“He had to be a special individual to do what he did in the face of unimaginable animosity. I can’t imagine climbing into the ring to fight in front of 50,000 to 100,000 people, most of whom wanted to me to lose or worse. He did it, he did it well and with a smile.”
Rich Marotta made it a point to assist the Lane brothers’ efforts because of his admiration for Johnson and his love of the sport.
The Reno-based boxing commentator and radio personality will co-emcee Friday’s gala with fellow veteran broadcaster Al Bernstein.
“I wanted to be involved with it when I first heard about it six or eight months ago,” said Marotta, who will also call the action on the televised portion of Saturday’s fight card with co-commentator Barry Tompkins. “I called Terry Lane and made myself available for whatever the Lane brothers needed. I wanted help in terms of getting the word out, with contacts, and with my services but it wasn’t about money for me. I just wanted to help because I think Johnson-Jeffries was a very important event in the country’s history, the sport’s history and in Reno’s history.
“I grew up with THE RING magazine back when Nat Fleischer was the editor. I always read these great articles Fleischer wrote and whenever he ranked the greatest heavyweights of all time, he always rated Jack Johnson No. 1. So I was always curious about Johnson because of Fleischer, and the more I learned about the fighter, I came to believe that he may have been right.”
Many will argue that Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali deserve to be ahead of Johnson in the all-time great heavyweight rankings, but no one can deny that the first African-American heavyweight champ was the most controversial or that he had the biggest social impact.
Marotta believes the three hall-of-fame heavyweights have something in common: They were all involved with fights that transcended the realm of sports.
“Three fights stand above all others in terms of their sociological importance: Johnson-Jeffries, the Louis-(Max) Schmeling rematch, and Ali-(Joe) Fraizer I,” Marotta said. “Louis-Schmeling unified the country behind the American heavyweight champ, who happened to be black, because Schmeling had come to represent the Nazis at a time when the country was about to go to war. I was in college when the first Ali-Fraizer fight happened and for months all the attention of the media and people on the street were on this heavyweight title fight. The tension was unbelievable because of what the fighters came to represent, young vs. establishment, their stance on the Vietnam war.
“But really, the one fight that had the most explosive sociological ramifications was Johnson-Jeffries. There were riots after the fight, there were deaths, the film of the fight was banned, and no African-American was allowed to challenge for heavyweight title until Joe Louis.”
Lane agrees with Marotta.
“Socially, nothing comes close to the impact Johnson-Jeffries had on the country,” he said. “One fight commanded the attention of the world and divided an entire country along racial lines. One of the things that’s often overlooked about the fight is that it was supposed to take place in San Francisco. However, the governor of California was pressured into outlawing boxing to keep the fight from happening, so Tex Rickard took it to Reno, a small mining town, with only three weeks before the Fourth of July date.
“He hired miners to help him build a stadium for the fight and it took place in front of 20,000 to 22,000 people, which is saying something since Reno was a town of 10,000 people at the time. Those who came in from out of town to see the fight wound up sleeping in barns. Tent cities popped up all over the place because there wasn’t enough room in Reno’s hotels to accommodate all the people. Had the fight taken place in a bigger metropolitan area, I think it would have attracted more people, it would have been covered more and probably better documented for posterity.
“As it is, the second ‘Fight of the Century’ between Ali and Frazier is better remembered by everyone.”
However, the Lane brothers and all those who are involved in the many commemorative events for Johnson-Jeffries this weekend are making sure the first “Fight of the Century” is not forgotten.
THREE DAYS OF COMMEMORATION
The Lane brothers are involved with three major events starting with a gala held in the Grand Theatre of the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on Friday (July 2).
The semi-formal gathering will be co-emceed by Marotta and Bernstein and will feature a multi-media presentation by Wayne Rozen, author of “America on the Ropes: A Pictorial History of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight.”
Rozen’s presentation will include rare fight clips and training footage of both fighters, according to Lane. Artifacts from the fight will be on display and the special guests of the gala will include surviving family members of Johnson, Jeffries and the bout’s promoter Tex Rickard.
On Saturday, a fight card, co-promoted by Top Rank, will be held at the Grand Sierra Resort. The Fox Sports Net-televised card is headlined by a 12-round flyweight bout between former titleholders Ulises Solis and Eric Ortiz. The co-feared bout is a welterweight fight between prospect Mark Melligen and former lightweight contender Anges Adjaho, but the card will also feature Reno native Joey Gilbert in an eight-round super middleweight bout with tough Billy Bailey.
On Sunday, the Lane brothers will host an honorary bell ringing at the site of the fight at 2:44 p.m., the start time of the bout. The original bell used in 1910 will be rung 15 times, the number of rounds the fight lasted.
The gala on Friday is free to the public. All one has to do to attend is RSVP with Let’s Get IT On Promotions by emailing [email protected]
For more information on these events and other exhibits, film showings and panel discussions taking place in the Reno area, visit the official Johnson-Jeffries website here.