Around the dawn of the twentieth century, it wasn’t at all uncommon for top black fighters to have fought each other a dozen or more times. Having been shut out of the title picture in various divisions time and again. Gimmicks were sometimes necessary to sell the fights, and when it came down to simply making a living as a fighter, any opponent would do just fine.
Sam McVey and Joe Jeannette fought only five times — a relatively short order compared to McVey’s 15 times against Sam Langford and six against Harry Wills, or Jeannette’s seven against Jack Johnson and 14 with Langford.
These men essentially fought the best upper echelon fighters available, multiple times, and that is nearly unheard of in the current era of boxing.
In McVey’s first verifiable bout in Oxnard, Calif. (he had fought a number of times before, with few records kept), he was scheduled for 20 rounds, and stopped a fighter named George Sullivan in six rounds. But whether it was his first or tenth bout, McVey was always scheduled to be in the ring for a longer period than any living fighter has experienced, assuming the fight went the distance.
Similarly, in his first 20 professional bouts Joe Jeannette locked horns with Jack Johnson five times and Sam Langford twice.
In terms of experience, both men were considered novices with only a few dozen bouts under their respective belts by this, their second fight on February 20, 1909.
A wire report from Paris prior to the fight called the idea of “negro heavyweights” fighting in public matches “all the rage,” and McVey had been fighting in or very close to France for over a year. Jeannette’s manager Dan McKetrick said ringside seats in the Cirque du Paris were sold for twenty dollars apiece, and were to be all occupied.
Despite Jeannette’s win over McVey almost two years prior in 1907, McVey opened up as a five to one favorite in the betting. Jeannette wagered $100 on himself to win before odds tightened up to five to two.
A pre-fight paragraph from the Boston Journal argued that, while McVey made “quite a hit in France,” Jeannette at his best was “of higher class than McVey.”
A wire report from Paris published by the Denver Post, said of the upcoming bout: “The two colored fighters from America are by all odds the best pugilists in France at the present time and their battle will be the biggest thing in the way ever put on here. McVey has whipped everybody put against him for a long while. Jeannette is the first man matched with him in France who looks to have an even chance to win. The distance, twenty rounds, ought to furnish a decisive winner and the enthusiasts here are betting liberally on the contest with McVey a slight favorite because of his many victories in this country.”
French spectators were apparently smitten with the idea of a new line in “colored” heavyweight championship lineage being forged before their very eyes. The Seattle Daily Times report from Paris read: “Both of the men were in condition for a smashing contest and the exhibition between the two colored pugilists from America furnished the Frenchmen with one of the greatest spectacles ever witnessed here. From the outset McVey showed his superiority over Jeannette. He outgeneraled him and had more force his blows. Three times during the contest Jeannette was knocked down. He came back strong, however, and was fighting gamely when the last bell sounded. The decision was popular with the crowd.”
McVey had successfully avenged his most recent defeat by points decision, though not without a measure of controversy; a February 23 wire from Paris said that a decision “was first given to [Jeannette] by Referee Watson of London, who later reversed himself and awarded the bout to McVey on points.” The wire also stated that “there was a big uproar in the crowd,” contrary to what was previously reported. The controversy was also contradicted by the fact that McVey was referred to as the “French heavyweight champion” due to his popularity, which began to rise sharply with the decision win.
It was tentatively assumed that the victory for McVey would lead to a shot at Johnson, the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world. But Johnson wasn’t interested in the idea for a variety of reasons. But still, McVey and Jeannette dug in and continued their assault on the upper echelon.