IN the period immediately before the first world war there was a group of four black American heavyweights that were of exceptional quality. I have already written about the best of them, Jack Johnson, and the contest that he had in Plymouth in 1908, just five months before he became the first black world heavyweight champion. I have also told the story of Sam Langford and his contests in the UK. The other two, Sam McVey and Joe Jeannette, also toured extensively within Europe and both fought in the UK as well as fighting British opponents in Paris, where both men were based for a while. These four heavyweights were far superior to any of the leading white heavies of the era, and they would all have comfortably beaten Tommy Burns and Jess Willard, the champions against whom Johnson won and lost his title. Only Johnson received a title shot, and he made the most of it.
McVey, Jeannette and Langford were all largely ignored by the major promoters of the day, especially by Tex Rickard, and in order to receive decent purses they had to resort to fighting each other. Sam Langford, for instance, boxed 14 contests with McVey and 15 against Jeannette. McVey and Jeannette met five times, including two classic encounters in Paris during 1909 when Joe knocked out his rival in the 49th round, before they both drew in a return 30-rounder. I am pretty sure that for the first encounter the rounds were each of three minutes, but I am not certain about the arrangements for the return. Either way, these were feats of incredible endurance, for each contest was extremely hard fought.
Joe Jeannette came to boxing at a late age. Born in New Jersey, he was 25 when he first stepped into a professional ring and this was quite unusual for the period, with most boxers fighting for money from their early teens. Both Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, for instance, were both punching for pay at around 19. Within a year Jeannette was meeting, and beating, the likes of Langford and also Johnson himself. By 1909 he was well established as one of the best heavyweights in the world, and this is when he first came to Europe. In his initial tour, between January and May 1909, he hammered five British heavyweights in a combined total of 12 rounds. Ben Taylor, Charlie Croxon and Jack Scales were all defeated in Paris in contests that took place immediately before and after his classic 49-rounder with McVey, and then, before his return to the States, he crossed the channel to take part in two contests at the newly opened, and very short-lived, Charing Cross Arena. This building, which still survives today, was situated on Villiers Street, near the Strand and it was packed on the night that Jeannette boxed there, when he was billed to fight two six rounders against Trooper Cook of the Royal Horse Guards, and Harry Shearing of Walthamstow.
Jeannette stepped into the ring at 10pm sharp and he was seconded by that great American middleweight, Willie Lewis, who had won at the same venue the night before. The contests took place a few months before BN came into existence and so I am reliant upon the Sporting Life to tell me that Joe steadily beat up Cook before the soldier’s seconds threw in the towel during the second round, and that Shearing put up a very game performance before he too was pulled out by his corner in the fourth. The next day Jeannette left the UK and sailed home. He returned in 1912 to fight in both Glasgow and Plymouth, beating Young Johnson and George Rodel and, in his final British contests, in 1914, he stopped Andrew Johnson at Liverpool before outpointing Colin Bell at Premierland, Whitechapel. He died in 1958 aged 78, a relatively wealthy man, unlike the two Sams, Langford and McVey, both of whom sadly died in poverty.