In an era of black heavyweight contenders having few chances at the World Heavyweight Championship, it might be one of the greatest injustices that Joe Jeanette was to never receive one. Alongside Jack Johnson he was surely one of the greatest black fighters of his day, yet he never received the acclaim so often heaped upon Johnson as the first ever black World Heavyweight champion. Just another hard luck chapter in Jeanette’s hard luck life one would suppose.
Jeanette was born in North Bergen, New Jersey the son of a blacksmith. He often claimed he began boxing professionally because the work was easier than his coal truck drivers job and the pay was bigger. A fateful dare he accepted, to fight one Arthur Dickinson, would change his life forever.
Like many fighters of the day, Jeanette had no amateur background to speak of. He learned his trade in the streets, a man with a reputation for being handy with his fists. While his sheer willpower and determination would serve him well in his early bouts it was a early series of bouts against Sam Langford that would serve to develop an actual definable style.
It was in these bouts that the elusive defensive style which became Jeanette’s hallmark really started to fully flesh out. At the time black boxers had a very limited opponent pool to pick from as many white fighters would refuse to fight black fighters. And up until Jack Johnson successfully campaigned for his shot, the idea of fighting for a World championship was utterly unheard of. It didn’t matter how talented black fighters were, they were just not given a chance.
Luckily for Jeanette he met Langford early and truly developed into a great fighter. His bouts against Jack Johnson left Johnson to proclaim Jeanette was the toughest man he ever stepped in the ring with. He scared him so much so that Johnson would never offer Jeanette a shot at the World Championship. While racial politics would certainly serve to play a part in that decision, Johnson was also unlikely to give up or share the fame and notoriety that came with being the first black World champion.
As a result of this, Jeanette’s most famous fight was to be a third showdown in Paris against Sam McVey. Initially lured to Paris by the promise of more liberal racial politics and bigger paydays the bout McVey and Jeanette contested prior to their legendary third one ended in a near riot. The fans figured McVey and Jeanette had taken it easy on one another. Jeanette and McVey, being the honest men they were, were not going to allow that myth to be perpetuated in their next bout.
What they responded with was a three and a half hour epic, over 49 rounds, in which the two men brutalized each other to an extent not seen since the days of the Coliseum. Jeanette himself was knocked down over 27 times. This happening to a man who only ever was knocked out twice in his career. Jeanette responded by knocking McVey down 19 times. By the 49th round McVey was too exhausted to get off his stool and Jeanette received the technical knockout decision. One can hardly imagine a spectator to this fight thinking either man had taken it easy.
The fight with McVey would go one to become known as one of the Greatest Fights of All Time, although never committed to film to anyones knowledge. Jeanette would go on to start his own gym and well as taxi company after leaving the ring. It’s only recently, through the efforts of committed boxing historians, that his legacy has received the respect is so truly deserves.