On paper, no heavyweight champion is ever as good as the one who occupied the throne before him. It’s a notion that’s clearly not always true, but sometimes these newfangled, neoteric champions truly cannot measure up to their predecessors in any sense.
The period of time from the late 1800s to the early 1900s in the heavyweight division is curious indeed, as boxing in the U.S. as a whole was getting used to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. But in 1899, James Jeffries, a man likely better-suited for previous iterations of the sport that included wrestling and dirty boxing, captured the championship by knocking out the legendary Bob Fitzsimmons.
At 6’0″, Jeffries wasn’t a giant, but at his optimal weight of about 210 pounds, he was physically strong in the clinch, thus very difficult to stave off for long. Through eight defenses of the title in five years, Jeffries only failed to halt Tom Sharkey, a walking, talking brick wall of a man with a nasty disposition.
When Jeffries retired in May of 1905, the vacuum of power couldn’t exist for long. Within weeks, “The Fightin’ Kentuckian” Marvin Hart was matched against former light heavyweight champion Jack Root. The two had met already in 1902 with Root taking a points decision. Among the stipulations in their contract for this bout were a $5,000 purse for a fight to the finish, a provision that both men would have to agree on a referee, and a guarantee that the victor would be free to claim the world championship.
The referee condition wound up more significant than anyone initially expected as Jeffries was selected for the job. While an honor of sorts, more important was the implied expectation that Jeffries would ostensibly endorse the winner of the bout as new champion.
Fights to the finish — a bout in which both men fought until one couldn’t fight anymore or was knocked out — had become rare among upper echelon fighters by 1900, and especially so with meaningful heavyweights. Even Jeffries, the strapping, hulking specimen, fought to the finish but once in his career. The last finish fight to decide the heavyweight championship happened in Carson City in 1897, when Fitzsimmons defeated James Corbett. Nevada, the only state to allow finish fights, would again host, but this time in the budding city of Reno.
Hart and Root signing on for an end that brutal made for swell promotional material, but it also represented a link to previous heavyweight rulers, albeit a tenuous one. The truth was, the fight, and both fighters, needed an injection of credibility. Hart hung tough with good fighters like Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, George Gardner and Joe Choynski, even soundly stopping a former title claimant in Dan Creedon, but his signature victory over future champion Jack Johnson was on points and not incredibly convincing. Root’s ledger wasn’t much heftier, sporting a five-fight rivalry with Gardner that saw Root knocked out twice, and a controversial win over Fireman Jim Flynn in Pueblo, Colo. that saw referee Otto Floto pelted with rotten eggs.
What boxing sought was someone to fill the void and it may not even have mattered who.
Apart from hosting workout sessions at Wheelmen’s Athletic Club in Reno that spectators could pay to attend, Marvin settled in around Reno prior to the fight by entering a fishing contest between jogs along the Truckee River, and even running in a relay race days before the bout. Root, however, didn’t arrive from Chicago until two days before the fight, but he headed to Wheelmen’s for a public workout shortly after stepping off his train.
Even the moderate crowds trickling into Reno, which housed roughly 7,000 souls at the time, moved the needle. The fighters’ workouts and the possibility of a new champion finding his crown enticed nearly 5,000 outsiders, “white lightweight champion” Oscar “Battling” Nelson among them. (Nelson would participate in promoter Tex Rickard’s first “Fight of the Century” in 1906, the following year, against lightweight champion Joe Gans in Goldfield, a few hours from Reno.)
“I am looking for a hard fight,” Root told reporters. “I know that Hart is a good man, and no feeling of overconfidence will betray me into any carelessness.”
Hart also settled on pre-fight grace, declining to predict much but a clear victory on account of his size and strength advantages.
For his part, Jeffries kept it diplomatic, neither pledging to declare the winner champion nor acting dismissive of the idea. “I look for a great battle,” he said. “Both men seem to be in perfect condition, both are willing, and neither will flinch as long as he is able to stand. It will be a great fight.”
It may have been entertaining on some level, but the fight certainly wasn’t scientific and Jeffries had his work cut out for him in clinches. Hart waded in, paws mauling at Root’s kidneys and arms, while Root established a jab when and fended the heavier man off when he could. Still, it held the crowd’s attention and they shouted various instructions to their favorites.
By the 5th round Hart began tiring and his legs appeared weary. Between rounds his corner tried massaging him back to life, but in the 6th and 7th he absorbed a beating and looked headed toward violent disaster.
Perhaps this is the moment Hart truly became champion. The end of the fight came later, but Hart flipped a switch in round 8, charging right for Root, wincing through the exhaustion and exerting his physical dominance. Root lashed out gamely, but Hart picked him up and flung him to the mat in the 9th, earning a stern warning from Jeffries to knock it off. The gong sounded just as Hart landed a sickening kidney shot that shook Root.
Root had one final rally in him, and he went straight at Hart in the 10th, spending all he had. And again at the bell Hart connected with a handful of shots that brought a frightening look to Root’s face. The smaller man spent the remainder of the fight trying not to get knocked out. And he failed.
His body fully tenderized, Root fought cautiously but couldn’t stay away. In round 12 Hart stepped inside and landed a right to the body followed by a left to the point of the chin, flattening the former light heavyweight champion. Root pitifully reached for the bottom rope and was counted out by Jeffries, the former champion officiating the fight in a dirty pair of trousers, cheap suspenders and a “rube” straw hat.
A new line of heavyweight champions was born, there in the hot, dusty Reno brush. It was anticlimactic, and attention quickly turned toward Jeffries.
“I have no power to confer the world’s championship on any man,” Jeffries said. “The championship … rests with the people. They and the press will be the best judges.”
As champion, Hart loudly drew the color line and refused to fight any top black contenders. He then promptly lost the title to Tommy Burns in his first defense, paving the way for Jack Johnson to become the first black heavyweight champion.
Root fought once more, winning a dubious decision over Fred Russell, and then retired.
Before parting ways for good in Reno, Hart and Root met in the dining room of the brand new Golden Hotel.