In Appreciation  


The Great Jack Johnson & Joe Louis



Ali gives credit to copying his boxing style after the best pound for pound fighter to ever step into a ring, Sugar Ray Robinson.

The heavyweight champion that I think Clay’s life styled best resembled was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the world, Jack Johnson.

Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, the third child and first son of former slaves.  His parents worked at blue-collar jobs to raise six children and taught them how to read and write.  He had just six years of formal schooling.  Johnson dropped out of school to get a job.  His early schooling came in handy when he decided to turn to professional boxing.  His early schooling allowed him to count his own money and Don King was just a bad dream.

Johnson will go down in history as one of the greatest defensive fighters of all time.  His boxing style was very unique and distinctive. He developed a more patient approach that was customary in that day.

He fought defensively, waiting for is opponent to make a mistake, and then capitalizing on it.  Johnson always began a bout slowly checking his opponent out, building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter.  He often fought to punish his opponents rather than knock them out (Ali vs Patterson), endlessly avoiding their blows and striking with swift counter punches.  He always gave the impression his opponents were merely play things.  But if he was pushed, he could take you out with one punch.

Johnson’s style was very effective, but he was criticized in the press as being cowardly and devious.  By contrast, World Heavyweight Champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, who was white, had used many of the same techniques a decade earlier, and was praised by the press as “the cleverest man in boxing.”  In the 1900s it was obvious there was a double standard then and still exists in today’s media.  In 2010 old habits still die hard.

By 1902, Johnson had won 50 plus fights against both white and black opponents.  He won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating “Denver” Ed Martin in 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship.  His efforts to win the full title were denied.  James J. Jeffries world heavyweight champion refused to face him.  Black and white boxers could meet in other competitions, but the world heavyweight championship was off limits to them.  However, Johnson did fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.

Johnson finally won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, after following Burns around the world for two years and taunting him in the press for a match (Clay vs Liston).

The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police in front of over 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee’s decision as a T.K.O., but he had clearly beaten the champion. Johnson constantly mocked both Burns and his ringside crew, while receiving every kind of racial and other slurs from them and members of the crowd.  Every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up, beating an already helpless man (Clay vs. Terrell).

Jack Johnson’s victory over Burns brought on racial animosity among whites.  It ran so deep that writer Jack London called for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from Johnson.

Writer Jack London

London was an amateur boxer and avid boxing fan, London was a sort of celebrity reporter covering pro boxing in 1910.  He was also white media’s equal of today’s Rush Limbaugh.

He had written that former white champion Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that toothy smile from Jack Johnson’s face.  He wrote “Jeff, it’s up to you.  The White Man must be rescued.”

London was a racist but unlike Limbaugh he could sometimes be objective.  For example; in earlier boxing stories in 1908, he praised Johnson highly, comparing the black boxer’s coolness and intellectual style, with the apelike appearance and fighting style of his white opponent, Tommy Burns:  Johnson’s bigness, coolness, quickness, cleverness, and had vast physical superiority. Just because a white man wishes a white man to win, this should not prevent him from giving absolute credit to the best man, even when that best man was black.  All hail to Johnson.  He was superb and was impregnable as inaccessible as Mont Blanc.”

This was unheard of, the title holder Johnson had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as “The Great White Hopes” to claim the title.  The fights were all exhibition matches.

In 1909, Johnson beat Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. The match with Ketchel was keenly fought by both men until the 12th and last round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson’s head, knocking him down. Slowly regaining his feet, Johnson threw a straight to Ketchel’s jaw, knocking him out, along with some of his teeth.  Some ringside observers swear Ketchel’s teeth were embedded in Johnson’s glove.

The only blemish on Johnson’s record was his fight with Philadelphia’s Jack O’Brien.  He went into the fight weighing 205 pounds to O’Brien’s 161 pounds.  He could only achieve a six-round draw with the great middleweight.  The only thing that could have been worst would have been a defeat.

Johnson’s skill as a fighter and the money that it brought made it impossible for him to be ignored by the establishment.  In the short term, the boxing world reacted against Johnson’s legacy.  It was Johnson that knocked down the doors for Joe Louis and Ali.  Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Jack Johnson. He felt he and Johnson had a lot in common.  Ali felt America ostracized him in the same manner that it did Johnson.  He cited his opposition to the Vietnam War and affiliation with the Nation of Islam.

Ali and Johnson were both tall dark and handsome.  They both had bodies of Greek Gods and neither lifted a barbell in their entire careers.  Johnson was a sharp dresser and fashion guru among the athletes of his era.  Ali was comfortable in just about anything he put on and could have cared less about the latest threads in the world of fashion.

The two champions had an eye for beautiful women and the women usually had both eyes on them.  Johnson choice of white women kept him in hot water with the law and the white power structure.  The two different eras made one more vulnerable than the other.

For example; On October 18, 1912, Johnson was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron a white woman violated the Mann Act.  The act covered, transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.  Lucille was considered a prostitute.  She later became his second wife and refused to cooperate and the case fell apart.

Less than a month later, Johnson was arrested again on the same charges. This time it was another white woman and another prostitute named Belle Schreiber.  He had been involved with Belle in 1909 and 1910. She testified against him, and he was convicted by a jury in June 1913.  The conviction came despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place prior to passage of the Mann Act.  Johnson was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.  This definitely was a case of Justice and Just-Us.

Johnson skipped bail, and left the country, joining Lucille in Montreal on June 25.  He fled to France for the next seven years.  They lived in exile in Europe, South America and Mexico.  Johnson returned to the U. S. July 1920.  He surrendered to Federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to serve his sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary.  He was released on July 9, 1921.

In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said, “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.  I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”  Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose weight to get back to his championship fighting weight.

The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 20,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. Johnson proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.

The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $65,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty,” claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.  . Writer Jack London was at ringside when Johnson vanquished Jeffries, the “Great White Hope.”  It is rumored he took his type writer and disappeared to never cover a boxing match again.

The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening on the on the Fourth of July all across the United States, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, DC.  Johnson’s victory over Jeffries had dashed white dreams of finding a “great white hope” to defeat him. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries

Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant, and celebrated Johnson’s great victory as a victory for racial advancement.  Black poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the black reaction to the fight in his poem “My Lord, What a Morning”.  Around the country, blacks held spontaneous parades and gathered in prayer meetings.

Some “riots” occurred simply because blacks were celebrating in the streets.  In certain cities, like Chicago, the police did not disturb the celebrations.  But in other cities, the police and angry white citizens tried to subdue the participants.  Police interrupted several attempted lynchings.  There riots in more than 25 states and 50 cities. About 23 blacks and two whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured.

There have been recurring proposals to grant Johnson a posthumous Presidential pardon.  A bill requesting President George W. Bush to pardon Johnson in 2008, passed the House, but failed to pass in the Senate.  In April 2009, Senator John McCain, along with Representative Peter King, filmmaker Ken Burns and Johnson’s great niece, Linda Haywood, requested a presidential pardon for Johnson from President Barack Obama.  On July 29, 2009, Congress passed a resolution calling on President Obama to issue a pardon.

I don’t really understand why President Obama is taking so long to issue the pardon?  When it comes to a politician playing it safe—it doesn’t get any safer than this!  His time in the White House is coming to an end and in his State of the Union on Tuesday January 18, 2005 he said “I don’t have to campaign anymore, I know, I won the last two elections.”  If that is the case I wonder what is the problem in the pardon with Jack Johnson?

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