Race War: The Fight of the Century Johnson v Jeffries, July 4th 1910

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Johnson v Jeffries

Middle class liberals hate boxing. For this social milieu, the notion of competitive sport is problematic anyway, but the idea that two men, and alternatively in the modern world, two women, should voluntarily take part in a sport where winning is achieved by battering your opponent into a state of unconsciousness, or at least by hitting them more times than they hit you, is so far beyond the acceptable as to be off the moral scale.

Both competitors and followers of boxing tend to come from a working class background, and I come from a working boxing family. The ‘noble art’ was a huge topic of discussion and interest between my dad and myself throughout the seventies and eighties, and up until his death in 1993. Even during the times when I lived away from my home town of Grimsby, during a brief hiatus in the Shetland Isles 1980-81, or after I became a mature student in Manchester for the last three years of his life, our sporadic letters back and forth, most of which I still have, would contain references and predictions concerning this or that upcoming big fight, or our reflections on one recently fought. Dad’s own boxing memories stretched at least as far back as staying up, as a young, fit, keen sixteen-year-old way back in 1937, through the early hours of the morning to listen on the ‘wireless’ with his own dad, the grandfather I would never meet, to Welshman Tommy Farr’s valiant attempt to lift the World Heavyweight Championship from the great ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis, the excited British commentary convincing the two of them, as it convinced so many of their fellow countrymen, that the plucky British underdog had done enough to win. In fact, despite Farr’s remarkable heroism against one of the greatest Heavyweights to ever lace on a glove, the scores and the film of the fight show that Louis won clearly enough. It wasn’t until the era of Lennox Lewis six decades later that Britain could boast a Heavyweight Champion of the World, and Canada had a better claim on his heritage than we ever did.

My dad even did a bit himself and would like to tell the story of how, somewhere, at some point during the Second World War, he was called before his infantry platoon commanding officer after some misdemeanour or other, probably for being drunk and disorderly or for arriving back late from a period of leave. The CO said, after surveying my dad’s small stature but chiseled physique for a suspiciously long time, ‘you’ve got two options: It’s ten days in the Glass House (army jail), or we need a Bantamweight for the boxing team.’ My dad chose the latter and competed regularly for the duration, even bagging a trophy or two.

It was fortunate that my shared interest in boxing with my dad spanned perhaps THE Golden Age of the sport. In the seventies, we enjoyed together, always on delayed television recording the night after the fight in those pre Pay-per-view days, the great clashes between Heavyweight colossuses like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Shavers, Lyle, Quarry, and, err….Bugner. In the eighties there was the vastly underrated Larry Holmes, who pummelled a faded, sick Ali into tenth round corner retirement as I travelled with my best friend Mike on the sleeper train from Grimsby to Aberdeen, en route to the St Clair ferry and Lerwick; and the masterful series of clashes conducted between the Welterweight and Super Middleweight divisions involving Marvellous Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto ‘stone-fists’ Duran, Tommy Hearns and the tragic Wifredo Benitez. We also watched together the irresistible rise and rapid fall of ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson.

Standing above them all of course, in terms of pugilistic skill, charisma, moral courage and cultural significance, stood Ali; and what a beautiful, vivid memory it is, that of my dad entering my bedroom on the morning of November 1st 1974, with a transistor radio relaying the voice of the Greatest recounting for the world’s press the splendour of his miraculous victory over the seemingly indestructible George Foreman in the heat of Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Republic of Congo), a few hours earlier. I was proud, and still am proud, to have won a couple of quid from dad by correctly predicting that Ali would defy the odds and emerge victorious in the Rumble in the Jungle.

In that fight of course, Ali had regained the title that had been unjustly stolen from him on political grounds seven years earlier. It had been his second attempt to regain the title. His first, against ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier in March 1971, following a mere two comeback ‘warm up’ victories over Quarry and Oscar Bonavena after being unjustly banned from the sport for three and a half years because of his courageous decision to have nothing to do with the Vietnam War, had ended in a narrow, but fair points defeat.

That fight, at Madison Square Garden, had been billed as the Fight of the Century; and indeed this clash of two unbeaten giants of the ring, who both had a worthy claim to the Heavyweight Championship of the World, deserves its place amongst the greatest nights in boxing history.

But, at least in the opinion of this opinionated writer and boxing buff, it should really have been billed as the Second Fight of the Century. The accolade for being the first properly belongs to a bout that took place six decades earlier, almost one hundred and ten years ago at the time of writing, in Reno, Nevada, on July 4th 1910. This fight too involved a former Heavyweight Champion returning to the ring in an attempt to regain the title he’d never lost in the ring, in this case, the Great White Hope Heavyweight James J Jeffries.

It also involved a man without whom there would have been no Ali, no Frazier, no modern boxing at all as we have come to know it.

That man was the Galverston Giant, Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight Champion of the world.

The Fight was not just a fight. It was an event that in its cultural significance far exceeded anything that the world of sport had previously known, and arguably anything that it has known since. Essentially, it was a race war, or at least an important round in a race war that had been being conducted on American soil since the early, predominantly white, predominantly European settlers had decided that the native population was an impediment to the progress of civilisation, whilst also deciding that the capture and enslavement of black Africans would provide a great boost to that ‘civilisation.’

In 1910, it was a mere forty-five years since the 13th amendment of the United States constitution had, after a four-year-long civil war, finally abolished slavery. That is, it was as close to people then living as 1975 is to people of my generation. A great many former slaves were still living, as were many former slave owners; and in any case, the racism which underpinned slavery had not disappeared with its abolition, and America remained, and some argue still remains more than a century later, a deeply racist society.

Back then, the assumption of the natural superiority of the white man over all other races was accepted by even, as judged by other standards, radical and progressive people, as we will see shortly in the case of the great American writer Jack London.

Jack Johnson was himself was the son of former slaves, born to Henry and Tina Johnson in Galveston, Texas on March 31st 1878. His father was to serve, and be wounded, in the 38th Coloured Infantry of the Union forces during the civil war. Johnson would later describe his father, despite a permanent impediment to his movement caused by a bullet being lodged in his leg during the inter-American hostilities, as ‘the most perfect human specimen I have ever seen.’ Interestingly, although he was raised in a deeply racist society, working class people in the neighbourhood where Johnson grew up seem, at least according to Johnson’s own memories, to have been remarkably integrated, united by their material poverty and shared exploitation, in an era when working class self-organisation and resistance to poor working and living conditions was still scant, even amongst white members of the working class. Johnson would later recount how, from an early age, he ‘ran with’ a group of ‘rough white boys’ who ‘never made me feel inferior’. Perhaps this experience had a strong bearing on Johnson’s refusal, once he became famous, or perhaps more accurately became ‘infamous’, ever to behave in the humble fashion that white society demanded.

Johnson bought his first pair of boxing gloves with money saved from working as a janitor at the age of 16, and had his first paid bout two years later. He quickly established a reputation through his prowess in the ring, although the ‘Texas State Coloured Middleweight Championship’ he lifted in 1899, a year after his pro debut, was probably about as meaningful as many of the ‘Alphabet Soup’ ‘Title’ fights we see today.

It should be remembered that at the time Johnson began to make a living from the sport, boxing has we have come to know it was still in its infancy. The first international fight of any significance had been in Hampshire, England between the American John C Heenan and the local hero Tom Sayers. Prize Fighting in those days was fought with bare knuckles until one fighter was rendered unconscious or unable to continue. It was also, in Britain at that time, as in many American states, illegal. The Heenan v Sayers fight was broken up by the police after forty-two rounds and more than two hours of savage combat. It was later agreed between the fighters and their seconds to call it a draw.

Another great fighter of the bare-knuckle age was England’s ‘Gypsy’ Jem Mace whose career spanned more than three decades. But it is generally accepted that it is an American, the legendary John L Sullivan, who deserves to be afforded the accolade as the first lineal Heavyweight Champion of the World, gaining general acceptance as champion after knocking out Paddy Ryan in the ninth round in Mississippi in 1882. Sullivan became famed for walking into bars and declaring ‘My name is John L Sullivan and I can lick any man in the house!’ This was almost certainly always true, and for a decade he could justly claim that he could lick any man nt only in the bar, but in the entire world.

Well, probably.

The one question mark around Sullivan’s claim to be the best heavyweight of his era was posed by the existence of a British West Indies born, naturalised Australian citizen and a black fighter by the name of Peter Jackson. Jackson fought all over the world and in the context of a British Empire that, in this regard at least seems to have been more enlightened than its bastard American offspring, had defeated top class white opposition to claim the Heavyweight Championship of both Australia and of the Empire itself. He coveted a shot at Sullivan, and his record proves that he deserved it. But it never happened.

Fights between white fighters and black fighters were illegal in many American States anyway as an aspect of the general ‘Jim Crow’ laws against race mixing and integration then in operation. But the fight could have happened somewhere, in Australia, in Britain, in Canada and wherever it happened it would have made both fighters a lot of money. The fact that it didn’t happen was down to Sullivan and Sullivan alone. Citing the colour bar then in general operation across American society, he declared ‘I have never fought a black man and I never will!’ He was, sadly for Jackson, who would die near penniless of tuberculosis aged just forty in 1901, Sullivan was true to his word.

John L is regarded as both the last of the old bare-knuckle London Prize Ring Rules (the loose code that governed boxing in those days) and the first of the new-fangled gloved Marquis of Queensbury rules, even though the only fight he ever had under these latter rules (aside from in meaningless four-round exhibition bouts) was when he lost his title to ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett (later to be immortalised by Errol Flynn in the movie Gentleman Jim) by 21st round knockout in 1892.

Corbett had fought Peter Jackson in a gruelling 61 round draw the year before beating Sullivan. But as champion he, like his predecessor, drew the line he drew at risking seeing the championship fall into the hands of a black man. The same went for the man who took his title in 1897 with a brutal shot to the solar plexus in the first fight ever to be captured on film, Cornwall born but naturalised Australian and then American citizen Bob Fitsimmons; as did the man who took the title by knocking out Cornish Bob two years later.

That man was James J Jeffries.

Jeffries was a great fighter who held the title for six years, and he deserves to be remembered for more than his loss to Johnson when well past his prime. But his refusal to defend his title against, to use one of the more polite terms then in vogue, a negro, is a blot against his character, even if it is understandable in the context of the time.

And it is even more of a stain on his record for the fact that his reign as champion coincided with the rise of several great black fighters, each of whom would at the very least have given Jeffries a good argument as to whom was the best Heavyweight in the world. As well as Johnson, a contender from 1901 or thereabouts, there were the likes of Jean Jeanette, Sam McVey, and most of all the great Sam Langford. Black boxing had progressed beyond the not so distant point when they took part in Battle Royals’, where up to half a dozen of them would fight each other simultaneously in the ring until only one remained standing, all for the enjoyment of a paying, baying almost entirely white audience, but the difficulty of finding top-class white opposition willing to fight them meant that these great fighters had little choice but to do battle with each other on numerous occasions. Johnson and Jeanette alone fought each other seven times during this period.

Despite his refusal to meet any of the worthy black contenders, Jeffries was an excellent heavyweight champion, a big man for the time at 6ft 1 and a half inches tall, and around sixteen stones in weight. He was also a remarkably good all round Athlete for someone of his size, apparently able to complete a hundred yard dash in a little over ten seconds at his peak. He was a natural left-hander who nevertheless chose to fight out of the orthodox rather than the southpaw stance, and was thus endowed with a powerful sweeping left hand that knocked out the vast majority of fighters he fought. Amongst those who tried and failed to rest the championship from his broad shoulders was ex champion James Corbett (twice). He also holds the record for the quickest ever victory in a Heavyweight Championship fight, a 55 second first-round victory over one Jack Finnegan.  In the spring of 1905, with no worthy (white) contenders on the horizon, he took the decision to retire as undefeated champion. He himself referred the contest to succeed him as champion, a fight in which Marvin Hart defeated Jack Root. Hart lost the title in his first defence, by twenty round decision to Canadian Tommy Burns.

It is unlikely that anybody but the most partisan of Canadians would ever rank Burns amongst the greatest Heavyweight Champions in history. His place in the record books is secured mainly by him being the smallest of all Heavyweight Champions. At 5ft 7 and around 12 stone in weight, he was really little more than a middleweight. Despite this, he proved himself a busy champion, as well as the first globe-trotting champion, defending his titles no less than eleven times in three years, in France, England, Ireland and Australia as well as in America.

But his reign was dogged throughout by the dark shadow of Jack Johnson who, in his series of bouts against his racial contemporaries, had proven himself to be the first amongst equals, lifting the ‘Coloured Heavyweight Championship in 1903 with a twenty round decision over Ed Martin. Johnson followed Burns from country to country, taunting and questioning Burns right to call himself the Heavyweight Champion of the World until he had fought and defeated himself, a feat that Johnson knew was beyond Burns, and beyond any boxer then living, of any race, creed or colour. In his public pronouncements Burns, to his credit, refused to draw the colour line, declaring that he wanted ‘to be the champion of the whole world, not just the champion of the white world.’ But if words were deeds then we would all be heroes, and in practice he showed a great reluctance to face Johnson.

In the end though, whether it was through pride or money (he was paid a then whopping $30,000, more than a million Dollars by today’s standards, for the fight), or perhaps out of a real conviction that he had the beating of Johnson, Burns finally agreed to break with convention and defend his title against a black contender in Sydney, Australia on (aptly) Boxing Day 1908.

If he did indeed believe he would win, then he was sadly self-deluded. Johnson taunted and toyed with the brave but comparatively diminutive Burns until the police entered the ring in the fourteenth round in order to avoid the racial indignity of seeing a white man knocked unconscious by a black man.

A new age had dawned. The official greatest fighting man on the planet was now a black man. Jack Johnson, a son of slaves, was the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

At ringside for the Johnson – Burns fight, reporting for the American newspaper The New York Herald for the substantial fee of twenty-five cents a word, was the aforementioned great American writer Jack London. As well as being a great writer and already a household name in his own country, London was an outdoorsy adventurer and lover of sport, much as another great writer Ernest Hemmingway would be four decades later. He was also a staunch and vocal socialist. I recently re-read his novel The Iron Heel, and still consider it to be amongst the finest examples of Socialist Science Fiction ever written. His book The People of the Abyss, which is essentially about how even those at the very bottom of capitalist society readily take the ideology of their oppressors and exploiters as their own, is also required reading for all socialists.

But London was a man of his time who accepted as natural the right of the white man to rule over the black man. His socialism had no place in it for the ‘inferior races’, and it was he who, from the moment Johnson’s victory over Burns was confirmed, took it on himself, whilst magnanimously paying his respects to Johnson’s abilities and fairness as a fighter, to lead the campaign for James J Jeffries to come out of retirement and reclaim the title on behalf of the white man. In his report on the Johnson v Burns fight, which in its level of eradication more closely resembled an extract from one of his novels than it did your average boxing report, he described Johnson as a ‘Giant Ethiopian, toying with a naughty child’, and also referred to the new champions ‘Golden Smile.’ By way of conclusion, and in words that would echo across the globe, he issued his plea for the return of the retired former champion: ‘But one thing remains. Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face. It’s up to you Jeff.’’

Jeffries had initially enjoyed his retirement. As well his farm, where he tended cattle, hunted and fished, he also owned a nice house in downtown Los Angeles, a saloon which had reportedly the longest bar on the Pacific Coast, and an arena called the Jeffries’ Athletic club where he staged boxing matches which he would also sometimes referee. He grew fat and seemingly content, a good seven stone over his old fighting weight. But by the time the clamour for him to return to the ring to fight Johnson began, his businesses were apparently not doing so well. If the easy life was to remain easy, he needed money.

In addition to financial considerations, there was also a steady flow of letters, encouraged by London’s ongoing press campaign, from white people incensed that what was already described as The Richest Prize in Sport should be in the hands of a black man. Talking of this period years later, whilst in happy permanent retirement, Jeffries reflected: ‘They kept on at me. Even in the churches they were sermonising that I was a skunk for not defending the white races honour.’

Maybe, as well as the money and the expectations of his white brethren, there was also that feeling that never quite seems to leave great fighters, the same feeling that made Muhammad Ali return from two years retirement to take a one-sided beating from Larry Holmes, the same feeling that made the great Sugar Ray Robinson continue to compete in tank towns across America long after his glory days were over, that made Roberto Duran fight until he was fifty, that made Sugar Ray Leonard return one last time to get flattened by Hector Camacho, that feeling that maybe, just maybe, I still have it, if only for one night, if only for one last great fight. (At the time of writing a short clip of the 53 year old Mike Tyson blazing away at the training mitts in apparent readiness for a return to the ring has gone viral on social media).

Whatever his reasons, almost as soon as Tommy Burns hit the canvas for the last time against Johnson, Jeffries secretly resumed training, beginning the arduous task of losing the vast excess of flab that too much good food and too much hard drink had added to his already large frame, whilst publicly letting it be known that he would only take the fight with Johnson if he was sure that he was in good enough shape to be sure of victory:

‘I realise that (if I win) I’ll be hailed as the greatest champion in pugilism’s history. I know that it would mean more fame than ever fell to any fighter’s lot, and it would make me a rich man. But I also realise that to lose to Johnson would make me a dog. I simply won’t fight unless I know I am good enough to knock out Johnson. You don’t catch Jim Jeffries losing to a coloured man.’

Before turning to the fight itself, it is first necessary to say something about the character of the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World. If Johnson had been a humble individual, if he’d behaved in the manner that was expected of black men, even in the case of those rare creatures ‘successful’ black men, if he’d said ‘yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am’, if he’d shown that despite his physical prowess inside the ring he knew and accepted his place outside of it, if he accepted racial segregation as merely an expression of the natural order of things, then the hatred directed against him by the white establishment and the clamour to see his ‘golden smile’ erased from his face by a white heavyweight, any white heavyweight, would perhaps not have been so strong, though of course the very fact of him holding the championship would still have been seen as a racial affront by a good many white Americans.

But all that is immaterial in any case. Because Jack Johnson was not a humble man. He bowed down to no one, whatever their colour. He not only defeated white fighters, he taunted and humiliated them, letting everyone know that he could win more or less whenever and however he pleased. Outside of the ring he flaunted his wealth, erratically driving the fastest, flashiest of those new-fangled motor cars that his money could buy, even dabbling in automobile racing. Once, when given an on the spot $5 fine for speeding he handed the police officer a $10 bill and told him to keep the change, explaining that he intended to drive at the same speed on the return journey too. He dressed in a manner that was a cross between a parody of an English dandy and a pimp, wearing a Top-Hat and Tails, carrying a silver tipped cane, and adorning himself with garish jewellery. Worse than any of that, he broke the greatest racial taboo of them all. He flouted his black, masculine sexuality by ‘cavorting’ with white women, at a time when mixed relationships were illegal in thirty American states, and at best frowned upon within the rest. In the first ten years of the twentieth century, approximately seven hundred black American males were lynched in the United States, many of them accused of raping white women. In fact, a good proportion of these alleged ‘rapes’ were purely consensual liaisons between black men and white women. The myth of the extra ‘endowment’ and sexual prowess of black men was widely accepted as true, and it seems that plenty of white women were only too eager to seek confirmation of this ‘truth’.

Johnson married three times, each time to a white woman, but many more were to pass through his bed chambers. Once, when asked the secrets of his sexual staying power after several beautiful white women had been seen to visit his hotel room in succession, he replied ‘jellied eels and distant thoughts.’ The first of his wives, a socialite named Eta Duryea committed suicide amid claims of physical abuse from her husband. Johnson’s ‘immoral’ race-mixing even brought criticism from within his own community. Black scholar Booker T Washington opined that it was a ‘shame’ that Johnson used his fame and wealth in a manner that ‘brought harm’ to his own race. Interestingly, in an interview with Howard Cosell in the early ‘70’s Muhammad Ali, after praising Johnson’s skill as a boxer and his courage in succeeding in a white man’s world, also made clear that, as a Black Muslim, he could not condone Johnson’s behaviour as regards to forming relationships with white women.

It was in April 1909 that Jim Jeffries publicly announced that he would resume boxing in order to return the Heavyweight Championship to its rightful place amongst the white race. He said that he believed he needed ‘eight to ten months’ to get into good enough fighting shape to ensure victory. In fact it would be another fifteen months before the Fight of the Century would take place. Before that, another Great White Hope, the hard hitting, hard living reigning Middleweight Stanley Ketchel got a shot at Johnson. After being toyed with in the manner that Johnson had toyed with Tommy Burns for eleven rounds, he had the temerity to knock the champion to the ground in the twelfth. Embarrassed and enraged, Johnson immediately jumped to his feet and rendered the upstart challenger unconscious with his very next blow, spreading four of Ketchel’s teeth around the canvas in the process. A photograph of Johnson standing over his prone opponent also reveals a lone black face in the crowd, smiling with satisfaction amidst a sea of grim, white faces. Such images could only have served to increase the pressure on Jeffries to restore the honour of his race.

Jack Johnson and James J Jeffries finally climbed through the ropes to face one another for the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World in front of 22,000 people in an especially constructed arena in Reno, Nevada on July 4th 1910. Jeffries was being paid $120,000, over $3 million at today’s prices, and Johnson around half that amount. In addition, both were guaranteed a cut of the proceedings from the sales of the film of the fight, which was scheduled to be shown in movie theatres across the country in the weeks following the contest. Outwardly at least it was clear that Jeffries had worked hard at getting himself back into condition, looking honed and chiselled and weighing in at more or less his old fighting weight at 16st 3, 19 pounds more than Johnson.

But as was demonstrated by Ali’s ill fated comeback against Holmes, losing weight and looking good is not in and of itself a guarantee that a fighter has regained the abilities of his peak years. Jeffries was a narrow 7/10 favourite to beat Johnson, the odds perhaps tilted in his favour by the knockdown Johnson had suffered against Ketchel: after all, if a middleweight could put the upstart negro on his backside, what could the much bigger and infinitely more powerful Jeffries do? Indeed, a great deal of money was, mostly illegally, waged on the result. Fears of racially and gambling related violence was so great that guns were banned from the stadium.

As is the case at big Las Vegas fight nights today, a great many celebrities and champions of the past were amongst the audience. The biggest cheer of all during the pre-fight introductions was for John L Sullivan and the Irish American Jake Kilrain, who had battled each other bare-knuckled for the championship for an amazing 75 rounds two decades earlier, before Kilrain had finally succumbed to the Boston Strong Boy.

The expectation of boxing pundits for the course of the fight was that Jeffries would rush forward with his left hand extended in his customary fashion, seeking to trap his opponent in corners and the ropes before unleashing the full extent of his power to head and body. Johnson, it was thought, would use his masterly defensive skills to fend off Jeffries’ attacks by blocking, parrying and counter with jabs and crosses whenever the old champion left himself exposed. In fact, just as Muhammad Ali would confound the experts by eschewing his usual dancing master style to fight George Foreman to a standstill from the ropes in Zaire sixty four years later, Johnson too shocked the pundits, and more importantly shocked Jeffries, by staying close to him, trading blows at close quarters, taking whatever Jeffries had left to offer on his arms and shoulders, whilst rocking him repeatedly with lightning fast crosses and uppercuts. Occasionally, he would pause his assault to tie up Jeffries inside whilst chatting amiably with ringside onlookers, or to whisper mock-concerned enquiries as to ‘Mr. Jeff’s’ well being into the increasingly battered white man’s champions ear. At one point he marched Jeffries over to the ropes close to where ex-champion James J Corbett was sitting at ringside. In stark contrast to his ‘Gentleman’ nickname, Corbett had racially goaded Johnson throughout the long build-up to the fight, insisting that the champions black skin concealed a ‘yellow streak.’ This race-baiting had continued during the fight itself. Now, holding tightly onto Jeffries, Johnson looked over his opponent’s shoulder and yelled over the ropes ‘where do you want me to put him Mr. Corbett?’

The result was never in doubt. In the fifteenth round, a third of the way through the scheduled forty-five, Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel after their fighter had been floored heavily for the third time in the round, perhaps in response to such shouted pleasantries as ‘Don’t let the n..ger knock him out!’

Jeffries was at least magnanimous in defeat, refusing to blame age or his long lay-off for his failure to restore the title to the white race, conceding that ‘even on my best night I couldn’t have beaten him. No, I could never have got near him.’ Sullivan too, who unsurprisingly given his refusal to defend his title against Peter Jackson or any other black fighter, had been amongst the loudest voices clamouring for Jeffries’ return, now admitted: ‘The Fight of the Century is over and a black man is the undisputed Champion of the World….he is one of the craftiest, most cunning fighters ever to have stepped into the ring…the best man won and I was amongst the first to congratulate him…’

If the boxing world now grudgingly accepted Johnson’s dominance, wider American society did not. News of Johnson’s victory was greeted with wild celebrations in Harlem and in other centres of what was yet to become known as the ‘African-American’ community. A poem by the black American poet Norris Wright Cuney perhaps best summed up the mood amongst his racial compatriots:

Oh, my Lord

What a morning,

Oh my Lord

What a feeling

When Jack Johnson

Turned Jim Jeffries’

Snow White face

To the ceiling.

Supposedly lucrative showings of the fight in cinemas were banned in many American cities and States for fear that it would provoke racially motivated violence, although this didn’t stop it being the most watched footage in American history, until it was surpassed by D.W. Griffiths classic cinematic homage to White America in the movie Birth of a Nation five years later. Nor did it stop the violence: there were apparently riots of varying degrees of seriousness in response to the result of the fight in twenty-five American states, and fifty cities, with the death rate for these disturbances put at anywhere between twelve and twenty six. Even once the initial period of celebration and outrage subsided, the campaign against Johnson’s ‘reckless’ and ‘disrespectful’ personal behaviour continued in the American press.

The search for a Great White Hope capable of wiping the ‘Golden Smile’ from the lips of the strutting champion also continued. It took two years before a suitable challenger was found, although the fact that ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn, a fighter who’d been stopped by Tommy Burns in a title fight six years earlier, was the best opponent that could be found is perhaps an indication of how limited the potential white opposition to Johnson was at this time. My dad, in the pre DVD, pre VHS era, had a reel to reel silent film of this fight. It was most notable for the already legendary former Wild West Sheriff Wyatt Earp stepping into the ring before the fight to the acclaim of the crowd, two guns strapped to his belt. Flynn was disqualified in the ninth round after repeatedly trying to head-butt Johnson at close quarters.

Perhaps disappointingly, Johnson himself seemed to operate an unofficial colour bar once he became champion, refusing to give a title shot to any of his worthy old black foes like Langford, Jeanette or McVey, or to a young up and coming black fighter by the name of Harry Wills. Only once, in Paris December 1913 did Johnson give another black boxer, the unrelated Jim Johnson, a title shot, although their ten round bout is regarded by many boxing historians as being little more than a glorified exhibition.

If no white boxer could catch up with Johnson, then the white man’s law could. In October 1012 he was arrested on charges of violating the Mann Act whilst travelling with a white eighteen-year-old alleged prostitute called Lucille Cameron, a woman who would later become his second wife. The Mann Act was a new law that forbade the ‘transposition of women across state lines for immoral purposes’, a catch all which could be used to persecute any black man travelling with a white, female companion. The case collapsed when Cameron refused to testify against Johnson, but he was arrested again shortly afterward under the terms of the same law whilst travelling with another white alleged prostitute, one Bella Schreiber, a woman who’d been ‘romantically’ involved with Johnson on and off for over three years. Schreiber did agree to testify, almost certainly in return for financial remuneration. Johnson was convicted by a predictably all-white jury and sentenced to one year and one day in prison.

Freed on bail pending appeal, Johnson chose to skip the country rather than face the indignity of jail time, joining Lucile Cameron in Montreal in June 1913, the two of them setting sail for France shortly afterward.

As an exile Johnson continued to box, both in title fights and in exhibitions, even trying his hand at bull fighting in Spain, before, at the of 37 finally losing his Heavyweight Championship by twenty sixth round knock out to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba in April 1915. At 6 ft, 6 inches tall and nearly 17 stone in weight, Willard was a giant of a man for the time. Most importantly of all, for those who detested the holding of the championship by an uppity negro, Willard was white.

Controversy still rages over the legitimacy of the result. A famous photograph of Johnson lying on the canvas shielding his eyes from the blazing sun is taken as evidence that he was not really unconscious, that he’d taken a dive in return for a promise of a pardon for his conviction by the American courts. But a boxer can be dazed enough to be counted out after being floored without being rendered fully unconscious, and raising one’s hands as protection against the Sun is a natural, instinctive act even for someone who is no longer fully conscious. In addition, if you are going to throw a fight, why battle through twenty-six (of a scheduled forty-five) hard rounds before doing so? This was Willard’s take on the controversy too: ‘If he was going to take a dive, I wished he’d have done it sooner. It was as hot as hell out there.’ The truth is probably simply that a younger bigger man was able to wear down an aging champion who’d grown too used to easy living, in conditions so excessively hot that even a peak Johnson would have struggled to cope in such a prolonged contest.

If there ever was a promise of a pardon for Johnson, it went unfulfilled, and for the next five years, the now ex-champion continued to travel and continued to box, until, apparently home sick, he surrendered to American Federal Law enforcement officers at the Mexican border in July 1920. Photographs of the event show both the law enforcement officers and the returning fugitive smiling genially for the cameras of the waiting press.

Johnson served ten months in Leavenworth state penitentiary between September 1920 and July 1921, though he seems to have served it in relative comfort, being allowed to train and even to put on boxing exhibitions with guards and fellow inmates. After his release, he resumed boxing, challenging Jack Dempsey, who’d ripped the title from Willard in three brutal rounds in 1919, to a title fight. By this time, with Johnson approaching his mid-forties and Dempsey in his devastating mid-twenties peak, Johnson would likely have taken a beating much more savage than the one he’d dished out to Jeffries more than a decade earlier. But in any case, it was never going to happen. From the moment Johnson was counted out against Willard, he unofficial colour bar which had been in operation from the time of John L Sullivan up until the reign of Tommy Burns, was reinstated. Black heavyweight Harry Wills had become the ‘Coloured Heavyweight Champion’ and was the man many regarded as the best possible challenger to the formidable Dempsey. But he never got a sniff of a title fight. After Dempsey had lost twice to the highly skilled Genie Tunney and Tunney had retired undefeated as champion, a succession of white heavyweights held the title for relatively brief periods: Max Schmeling; Jack Sharkey; Primo Carnera; Max Bear; James J Braddock, none of whom are regarded today as being in the same class as either Jack Johnson or James J Jeffries. It was not until Joe Louis’ unstoppable rise to become the second black heavyweight champion that the boxing world would again have a champion who is regarded as amongst the all-time greats.

Louis, or at the least the predominantly white people making big money from Louis’ skill and punching power, learned from Johnson’s example, the fighter earning the respect of the white world both within and without the boxing by sticking to his own kind, stressing his American patriotism and always showing due respect, at least outside of the ring, to his racial ‘superiors’. This helped to smooth his path to the championship. The phrase ‘a credit to his race’ was one that was often used in relation to Joe Louis. But it didn’t do him much good in the long run. After nearly twelve years as champion and a record twenty-five title defences, he wound up broke, owing money to the taxman. He was forced to make an ill-advised comeback that saw him outpointed by Ezzard Charles and knockout out by Rocky Marciano. After that, he engaged in the indignity of rigged Professional wrestling bouts, before developing drug and life-long mental health problems.

Instead of showing racial solidarity as Louis rose through the ranks towards the title in the thirties, Jack Johnson was rather sniffy about his successors fighting ability, calling him mechanical and comparing him unfavourably with himself. He earned much criticism within his own community when he boasted of having won a considerable sum of money betting against Louis before the Brown Bomber’s upset defeat against Max Schmeling in 1936, the year before Louis won the title from Braddock.

Unlike Muhammad Ali, whom age and ill health taught humility, and who was consequently transformed from a black separatist figure of white hatred into a symbol of universal peace and reconciliation, as was demonstrated by the ecstatic acclaim which greeted his lighting of the Olympic flame with a torch held in an alarmingly tremulous hand at the start of the 1996 Atlanta Games, Johnson never really seemed to mature as a human being, nor to reconcile himself to life after boxing. He continued to crave and to attempt to live the high life long after he’d lost the boxing skills and thus the financial means to allow him to do so. His last official fight was a knockout win in 1931 at the age of 53, but he continued to fight exhibitions after that, as well as to take part in unlicensed ‘cellar fights’ for private audiences in seedy basements. For a time in the 1930’s he even worked in a fairground where punters could pay a dollar for the privilege of saying they’d boxed a round or two with the great Jack Johnson.

He last climbed through the ropes in November 1945 at the age of 67 for a three one-minute round exhibition bout with old rival Jean Jeanette in aid of American military War Bonds.

Seven moths later, he was dead, a victim of his love of fast cars and refusal to accept the norms of white society, as he crashed his car whilst speeding angrily away from the scene of a segregated restaurant that had refused him service.

How good was Jack Johnson? It’s not easy to tell from the surviving, flickering black and white film of his contests, including of the battle with Jeffries. He was regarded in his time as a master of the art of self-defence, and whilst this was no doubt true, his preferred mode of defence was to block, parry and deflect blows with his hands, in a style strangely reminiscent of two-time champion George Foreman, though without Foreman’s devastating punching power. He shows little of the feet and head movement that would later characterise Ali and in our own time Britain’s Tyson Fury. But, if he was around today with all the advantages of modern training methods and more than a century of great fighters to learn from, who knows? In any case, as Lennox Lewis was to say, ‘Nobody can do better than be the best in their own time.’ Jack Johnson was the Heavyweight Champion of the World for seven years, and could probably have lifted the title three to five years before he did, had he not faced the ingrained obstacles placed in the way of black Americans in all fields of endeavour. The respected Boxing Historian, fight film collector, writer and long-time editor of Ring magazine Nat Fleisher saw every heavyweight champion fight live from Johnson to Joe Frazier. As a young man, he even met the very first official Heavyweight Champion, John L Sullivan; and Fleischer never wavered in his opinion that Jack Johnson was the greatest of them all.

But more importantly than that, Johnson was one of those rare figures who transcend whatever first brought them to public attention. Jack Johnson was not just a boxer he was a symbol, a symbol of resistance, of resistance to the great injustice upon which American society was founded. When he squared off against James J Jeffries on July 4th 1910, Jack Johnson, the son of slaves, was fighting not just for himself, but for his people, for victims of racial oppression everywhere, whether consciously or not. He was undoubtedly a flawed individual, but above that he was a free individual. And when the towel fluttered sadly into the ring as a symbol of the white man’s surrender in the Fight of the Century, it was his Golden Smile that glinted in the Nevada sunlight.

Postscript:

On May 24th 2018, after a long-running campaign, President Donald J Trump awarded Johnson a posthumous pardon for his conviction for violating the Mann Act.

Anthony C Green (May 2020)

Links:

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/104/1044822/unforgivable-blackness/9780224092340.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0gRGoDchMU

https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/50_Years_at_Ringside.html?id=6pE-AAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIrZIog0Oa4&t=447s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvTTn-DtZYw

 

 

 

 

 

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