James J. Jeffries was born on this day in 1875. Known by fighting nicknames the Boilermaker (for one of his jobs before becoming a fighter), the California Grizzly Bear, or just Big Jeff, Jeffries held the heavyweight title from 1899 to 1904, when he became the first heavyweight champion to retire with the title. Six years out of the ring, he was lured back in 1910 to face Jack Johnson, the only fight he ever lost.
In Monte Cox’s insightful ranking of the top heavyweights of all time, Jeffries doesn’t crack the top ten, coming in at #12. In his lifetime, though (he died in 1955), Jeffries ranked near the top of all-time heavyweight lists—and for good reason. When he walked away from boxing at 29, he held two victories apiece over his two predecessors, Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. He was big, especially for his time (weighing around 220 pounds), hit with clubbing force, possessed apparently limitless endurance in an era when fights were often scheduled for 25 rounds, and could persevere through enormous punishment. Jim Carney Jr.'s well-researched biography, Ultimate Tough Guy, is aptly titled.
His contemporaries believed that Jeffries was the greatest of all time. “No one can hurt him, not even with an ax,” Corbett said. At least one modern boxing historian, Tracy Callis, argues that Jeffries would have beaten every champion who followed him. That seems like a stretch, but less so if the fights were set for the long distances of the old days. No modern fighter would relish the prospect of going up against Jeffries on those terms.