In the introduction to his biography of Jack Johnson, Geoffrey C. Ward indicates that his primary source was newspaper articles. And indeed, this biography reads much like a very long newspaper account of the life of Jack Johnson. This isn't good or bad, but an apt description of what it is like reading this biography. In fact, Ward has done a commendable job in weaving what he had to work with into a very readable, informative, and enjoyable work.
Jack Johnson was the boxing world heavyweight champion from 1908-1915. And he was the first black heavyweight champion, which dominates the story of his life inside the ring and out. Johnson became heavyweight champion at a time when boxing was just barely out of the bare knuckle era, and while more organized as a sport, was still a rough and tumble and often illegal activity.
Boxing, even as it is today, was often surround by unsavory characters. During that era throwing fights for money or to set up matches wasn't uncommon. Johnson learned his craft literally starting from the bottom up in local tough man or boxing contests and his skills eventually lead him to the top of his sport.
What make Johnson's story so interesting are two things—race and his profligate lifestyle. Race played a key role in his life even though he himself ignored race and didn't let it interfere with how he behaved or what he did. He often sported white women on his arm and eventually married a white woman. He did not defer to anyone, black or white.
This made him an even more incendiary figure for the race conscious press and America at the time. Many white heavyweights wouldn't fight Johnson—most notably Jim Jefferies who held the title at a time when Johnson was the obvious deserving opponent for a shot at the champion. Eventually Jefferies retired and "conferred" his title on Tommy Burns, a bulked up white middleweight. Johnson chased after Burns and through the pressure of the press he eventually landed his title shot and dominated his lesser opponent, winning the heavyweight championship of the world.
This eventually lead to one of the most pivotal heavyweight boxing matches in history—and certainly the most pivotal fight of Johnson's career—a match with former heavyweight champion Jim Jefferies. Jefferies was obviously reluctant to come out of retirement to fight the new champion but pressure from friends and many in the press and boxing world, who didn't want to see a black man hold the championship, more or less forced his hand.
The fight eventually took place on July 4, 1910 in Reno, New Mexico. Thousands were in attendance but millions throughout the country waited for the result. Johnson dominated Jefferies through much of the fight, eventually knocking him out in the 15th round. Johnson's win legitimized his title as heavyweight champion. Unfortunately, it also touched off violence against blacks throughout the country.
Jefferies utter defeat also lead to a search for a "great white hope" to defeat Johnson. Eventually, Johnson was beaten by a huge but less skilled Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba on April 5, 1915. Johnson probably lost as much because of age, he was around 37 at the time, and the rather unfortunate events in is life from the time of the Jefferies victory to his match against Willard in Cuba.
During that time he appears to have spent most of his money, married a white woman who eventually committed suicide, and married another white woman against the violent protests of her family. This led, in a rather convoluted way, to his fleeing the country with his new wife in tow after being brought up on charges of violating the Mann Act.
During all this time, and the only reason to mention the ethnicity of his wives, was the vilification Johnson received in the press across America and the hatred he engendered among some, including those in law enforcement, who wanted to bring him down. Thus, Johnson had to go through convoluted negotiations and travel arrangements to even defend his title again Willard in Cuba.
Eventually, Johnson decided to come back to America but had to face a jail sentence, which he served. After getting out of jail, broke because he spent most of his money, he mostly earned a living through boxing exhibitions and similar activities.
Johnson's lifestyle some would call raucous. He made a lot of money for his era and he spent it freely on clothes, cars, and the women he kept as companions, some of which were prostitutes or former prostitutes. One can look up to Johnson for not letting racism stand in the way of living his life the way he wanted to live it and kowtowing to no one. One could also look askance as his philandering, spendthrift way of life.
Who are we to really judge? Undoubtedly Johnson brought some of his problems on himself. Also undoubtedly he was treated unfairly because of the era in which he lived. Had Johnson lived today he might get some negative press, but more likely he would have a legion of fans willing to overlook some of the things he did in his private life.
Cars were a relatively new invention in early 1900s and Johnson loved cars and bought several of them. He often liked to drive fast. This too eventually caught up with him as, while speeding, he swerved to miss a truck and rammed his car into a tree. He died in 1946 after an adventurous 68 years.
Note this book is the companion to Ken Burn's documentary of the life of Jack Johnson using the same title. I have not viewed the documentary yet but plan to.
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