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RSR Book Review: The Ultimate Tough Guy: The Life & Times of James J. Jeffries

By Brian Wilbur

The late 1880’s and the early 1900’s are considered the pioneer years of the modern fight game. That is around the time when the Marquess of Queensbury rules (which are still used today) gained popularity over the London Prize rules, giving birth to what we know now as boxing. However the sport was drastically different then even though the same set of rules apply.

Back then, fighters fought with bags on their fists. Boxers were not protected by standing eight counts, even after knockdowns. Fights were often scheduled to go “as long as needed”. Refusing to fight a challenger based on the color of his skin was commonplace and regarded by most as the right thing to do.

We live in a different world now and boxing has evolved along with it. Today, a defensive cutie can win a fight by shaking his butt and flicking an occasional jab. That would not fly during the time of the great former Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries. Back around the turn of the 19th century, the one attribute that was prized above all else in boxing was toughness; and Jeffries was the toughest guy around.

For whatever reason, time has not been kind to the legacy of the “The Boilermaker”. Jim was the first Heavyweight Champion to clean out a division and retire undefeated. He came back years after his retirement in horrible shape to fight a prime all time great Heavyweight Champion in Jack Johnson, and of course lost. Imagine if a 45 year old Lennox Lewis came out of retirement today seven years after his last fight. Would anyone think less of him if he lost to Wladimir Klitschko? Of course not.

Yet, despite holding dominant wins over all of the worthy contenders of his era (three of whom are hall of famers), and after being forced to fight the same men twice because he had so thoroughly cleaned out the division, all people ever seem to talk about is the loss to Jack Johnson. Perhaps the reason why modern boxing fans don’t appreciate Jim Jeffries is because they don’t know enough about him or what he accomplished.

Jim Carney Jr.’s book, “Ultimate Tough Guy – The Life and Time of James J. Jeffries” does just to Jeffries’ legacy. The biography starts off from birth and documents every period of his life until his death in 1953, with focus on his rise as a prospect and his glorious years on top of the boxing world.

From reading the book, one also gets a sense of just how long ago James ruled the heavyweight division with an iron fist. Jeffries won the Heavyweight Championship well over 100 years ago. There is little to no video recordings of him boxing in his prime or during his championship reign. His fighting style, greatest triumphs, and legendary feats of strength can only be studied through written accounts. When dealing with a person who lived this long ago, finding the facts can sometimes be elusive. That is true even for Jeffries, who was among most famous people of his day; one of the first sports icons.

Carney cites newspaper articles, boxing magazines, and books, however they often contradict each other and there is no longer a primary source to verify facts. Even Jeffries’ two autobiographies contradict each other on a number of occasions. Carney does a good job of presenting all possible renditions of what could have happened and then his unbiased opinion of what he thinks is the most probable.

Jeffries was sometimes described as a bear due to his large size, granite chin, and overwhelming strength. Toughness and limitless endurance were perhaps his two best attributes, and were the two best attributes to possess in an era of 25+ round marathon fights and murderous raw punchers. Carney narrates the reader through accounts of his epic battles with Tom Sharkey, Jim Corbett, Robert Fitzsimmons, among others, describing how Jeffries had to use every one of his assets in order to gut out tough wins in classic bouts.

Jeffries is clearly the most underrated Heavyweight Champion in history, often being left out completely when looking at modern top 10 Heavyweight Champion lists. I would rank Jeffries among the top 5 Heavyweight Champions of all time, based on accomplishment and quality of opposition. As Carney describes, with the possible exception of the 1960s/70s, Jeffries era was the best era of heavyweights ever and Jeffries dominated.

Take a step into the world of James J. Jeffries courtesy of Jim Carney and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at discovering an all time great champion who you may have overlooked previously. Jeffries was like George Foreman 70 years before Foreman won the title, or like a version of Sonny Liston who fully realized his potential. If you don’t know much about Jim Jeffries and his impact on the history of the heavyweight division, then I highly recommend getting to know him!

You can purchase Jim Carney JR.’s “The Ultimate Tough Guy: The Life and Times of James J. Jeffries” at Amazon or Order Here.

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