All eyes turned to Reno on June 21, 1910 with the exciting news that the small city would soon be hosting the heavyweight championship battle between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. The catch? The fight was just two weeks away.
Boxing promoter George Lewis “Tex” Rickard had originally intended to hold the highly-anticipated event in San Francisco, but a last-minute cancellation by wary California Governor James N. Gillette forced a change of venue. Reno’s leaders campaigned vigorously for the fight, convincing Rickard they could be ready in time for the scheduled date of July 4th.
The bout was promoted in advance as the “Fight of the Century”—a rather brash claim, considering the century was just a decade old—but the import of the fight was undeniable. By 1908, black fighter Jack Johnson had ascended to the top of the sport. Promoters eager to find a “Great White Hope” to seize his crown convinced Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement and reclaim the heavyweight title for white America. Having retired undefeated in 1904 as the heavyweight champion of the world, Jeffries was considered still deserving of the title by many, amid rampant racial prejudice.
The two competitors arrived in town in advance to train—Jim Jeffries at Moana Springs, south of town, and Jack Johnson to the west at Rick’s Resort. On June 23, workers began to construct a massive wooden amphitheater on land owned by Patrick Flanigan on East 4th Street, the site of the 1905 Hart-Root fight. On the eastern edge of city limits, the location was conveniently situated near both the Southern Pacific railroad tracks and the streetcar line joining Reno and Sparks. Supervised by San Francisco architect W.L. McLaughlin, a crew of up to 300 men at a time toiled for ten hours a day, supplied with whiskey breaks by contractor Charles Friedhoff.
It was the most publicized sporting event in American history to that date. Attendance was estimated at more than 20,000, with live telegraph coverage keeping the world riveted and nine cameramen documenting the event from different angles. What they captured quickly escalated from a few tentative thrusts into a forceful defeat of the former heavyweight champion by the much stronger and more nimble Johnson. Fifteen rounds in, Rickard recognized that Jeffries was about to collapse and called the bout, crowning Johnson the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The arena was torn down that October, with the lumber sold to repay creditors.
State Historical Marker #220 is located at the site, which is now a salvage yard.