By Jimmy Krug.
The life story of Jack Johnson has been discussed in dozens upon dozens of books, magazines, articles and debates over the last 100 years. It’s hard to do justice in a single column to a man whose popularity transcended the sport as was the case with Jack Johnson. It wouldn’t be a stretch by any means to compare Johnson, who became the first black man to win the Heavyweight Championship of the world in 1908, with Muhammad Ali. In fact, there were those who lived long enough to have seen both men fight in their primes who believed Johnson to be the better fighter.
Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 13, 1878. His actual birth name was Arthur John Johnson. He was referred to by many who knew him throughout his career as “Lil Arthur.” Like Sugar Ray Robinson many years later, Johnson was defended from local bullies as a young boy by his older sister. Johnson came from a family of five which included one younger brother.
He ran away from home at the age of 12, hopping trains from one state to the next. Eventually, the teenager’s journey took him to Revere, Massachusetts – a long, long way from home. It was there that he met the infamous Welterweight King – Joe Walcott. Although he’d only laced up a pair of boxing gloves once at that point in his life, he pleaded with Walcott to give him a job as a sparring partner.
Walcott was a monster of a fighter – a miniature wrecking machine who only stood about 5 feet tall, yet possessed the ferocity and power to knock out men with enormous height and reach advantages. Walcott was known to knock out Heavyweights while barely weighed 145 lbs. himself.
It was with the man known as the “Barbados Demon” that Johnson’s boxing education began.
And it wasn’t an easy education, either. It was a cold, hard road to the top every step of the way. Doubly so for a black fighter like Johnson. Keep in mind, protective gear such as headgear and mouth pieces had yet to be invented. There wasn’t such a thing yet as amateur boxing either where a young fighter could hone their skills in preparation to enter the world of professional prizefighting.
It was literally the school of hard knocks for Jack Johnson and other fighters of that particular era. He wasn’t the only black fighter trying to fight his way to the top. His contemporaries; Joe Jeanette, Sam McVea, Sam Langford were good enough fighters to have won World titles had they fought in a different era. As fate would have it, they all fought in the same era and only one of them would have the opportunity to break the color line.
Johnson fought and won the “Black” Heavyweight championship – facing Sam McVea (3 times), Joe Jeanette (9 times) and Sam Langford – once.
He lost only once – to Joe Jeanette on a second round foul. After a life and death struggle and victory against the great Sam Langford, Johnson would never fight him again. When the smoke cleared, it was Johnson who would go on to face the reigning Heavyweight champion – Tommy Burns. Burns had already made 11 successful title defenses and agreed to face Johnson in his 12th title defense.
The fight took place on December 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia. Johnson’s 6-inch height advantage and 24 pound weight advantage weren’t the only obstacles Burns faced. Johnson’s skills had evolved to the point where he had truly become one of the greatest fighting machines to ever step through the ropes. Burns was outclassed and outgunned from the opening bell.
Jack Johnson – The Fighter
Johnson possessed a great jab which he used to effectively create openings to the body and head. His uppercut was one of the best ever in the heavyweight division. Johnson could throw the punch with leverage and power without pivoting or adjusting his feet. This made the punch all the more difficult to anticipate or block.
His reflexes and ability to shift his weight suddenly always put him in a position to counter an opponent with maximum leverage on his punches. Johnson was not the type of fighter to throw one punch at a time. He threw punches in bunches and carried excellent power in both hands.
Defensively, Johnson was a marvel to watch. On the inside, he could tie up an opponent effectively. His head and shoulder movements made it extremely difficult to hit him cleanly with more than a single punch at a time. Many times, Johnson would catch punches on an open glove while still being in position to return fire with hard, crisp counters. He was also very adept at the old practice of hitting his opponent’s arms from the elbow up to the shoulder. This strategy would drain an opponent’s energy, making it difficult keep their hands raised and to deliver harder punches in the later rounds.
Johnson was a thinking fighter – through and through. He didn’t believe in taking unnecessary chances in the ring. Not overly aggressive, he preferred to slowly dismantle his opponent until they were at the point where they were tired and beaten before pushing for a stoppage.
Against Burns, Johnson probably could have ended the fight whenever he wanted to. He floored Tommy Burns in the first and second rounds. In the 14th round, a right uppercut dropped Burns again and the referee (on the advice of local police chief at ringside) – stopped the fight. Jack Johnson was the new champion.
Jack Johnson was not what you’d call a “modest” man. He wore an almost continuous grin in public, always acted with supreme confidence, and backed everything up with his superiority in the ring. He had a large taste for the finer things in life. But it was his liking of white women that really angered many in the society of that day.
Johnson married three times. All his wives were white. The second committed suicide after a year of marriage. After Johnson’s victories, riots were known break out in the inner cities which also included the lynching’s of several men.
Eventually, the cry went out across America for a “White Hope” fighter to defeat Johnson. This public campaign really gained steam when it was fueled by American novelist and essayist, Jack London. London appealed to retired champion, Jim Jeffries, to end his 6 year retirement and return to the ring to “remove the golden smile” from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeffries was bull of man, possessing great stamina, late round power and an iron chin. The fight captured the imagination of the public.
The Jim Jeffries who finally stepped through the ropes against Johnson on July 4, 1910, however, was just a shell of his former self. He was dropped for the first time in his career and was stopped after 15 one-sided rounds. This fight would prove to be the pinnacle of Jack Johnson’s professional career. Afterward, things began to spiral.
In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violated a law known as the Mann Act for transporting a white woman named Belle Schreiber from Pittsburgh to Chicago for what was called “immoral purposes.” Jack was sentenced to one year in prison. Instead, he jumped bail and traveled to Europe. As much as he was despised in America, he was loved in Europe. Johnson defended his title there three times within a four year period.
Finally, at the age of 37, Johnson agreed to defend his title against the latest White Hope challenger – Jess Willard. The fight was to take place in Havana, Cuba. The stories that followed the event may never been known with 100% certain.
The promoter of the match, Jack Curly, was said to have told Johnson that the authorities might pardon him if he returned to the United States without a title. What we know for certain is, Johnson was not in top condition for the fight. The years of inadequate training in Europe had taken their toll.
In the fight itself, Johnson had dominated the first 20 rounds before getting tired. The fight had been scheduled for 45 rounds. In the 26th round, Willard landed a big uppercut and Johnson went down where he was counted out. Pictures of the knockout show Jack lying on his back with a glove up in front of his eyes – as though shielding them from the bright sun. Others say, it was just the reflexes of an exhausted, hurt fighter.
Did Johnson take a dive? It would seem that a proud man like Johnson would never agree to such a thing. And if so, he wouldn’t have dominated 20 rounds before slowly wearing down and making an exit. The fact that people were unsure, however, seemed to sit well with him. When he returned to the US mainland, he was arrested. He served 9 months of a one year sentence.
Afterward, he returned to the ring fought until 1938. He never again contended for the title and retired for good at the age of 50.
Speeding incidents aside, the controversy that dogged Jack Johnson throughout his career disappeared after his retirement. Sam Langford would say in later years that Johnson had knowingly shut the very door he opened – refusing to give other black fighters, such as himself, a shot at the title once he had won it.
For Johnson, it had been a long, hard road to the top… and when taking everything into consideration – I can’t say that I blame him.
The Boxing Magazine – December 2009