One hundred years ago Jack Johnson, the first world heavyweight boxing champion of African heritage, took the step which would lead two years later to one of the most controversial fight results in the history of the division, and which provided the context in which many people still judge his life and his career. He fled the USA on 25 June 1913 just before the prison-gates were due to close on him. His centenary is being celebrated this year, reports Clayton Goodwin.
Like him or loathe him, Jack Johnson defies posterity to ignore him. At the time of his trial in the USA, Johnson was acknowledged generally as being the “best-known black man in the world”. It is equally true to say that he was the best-known person in the world (without qualification by race or gender). Johnson was the extrovert of extroverts, besides whom even Muhammad Ali could appear to be a shrinking violet. He was born at Galveston in Texas on 31 March 1878. Circumstances were not kind to his class and colour, and “L’il Arthur”, as he was known ironically on account of his powerful physique and his second forename, decided to take the challenge head on. For that he used his strength, confidence, charisma, down-right impertinence and his boxing ability.
Just how good a boxer was he? He was very good. Nat Fleischer, the doyen of boxing writers and founder of the authoritative Ring magazine who had seen every one of the modern-age champions down to and including Joe Frazier, rated Jack Johnson as being the best of them all. It would take a brave man, or a fool, to disagree with such an expert opinion.
Some of Johnson’s victories may seem to be too lacklustre for our modern tastes. He didn’t take out his opponents with one punch, or even a barrage of punches, nor did he outclass them with speedy glove-work. Instead Johnson let his adversaries lead, and in doing so expose their own weaknesses, which he then exploited until his rival’s challenge just withered and he was there for “the taking”. Commentators claimed that he did so in order to humiliate opponents:
Johnson said that, as he was “on a percentage” from the sale of drinks and film rights, he let the bouts go on for as long as possible to maximise the profits. As with so many of his statements, it was impossible to know whether or not he was joking. Johnson was good enough to have beaten all the quality opposition available, some several times over, by the time he got to the championship. That was because the then reigning champion, Tommy Burns, a short-statured Canadian with an inferior physique but a potent punch, put as much distance as he could between himself and this challenger. He took to the oceans, fighting in Europe and Australia, but could not get away from his avenging angel. Johnson caught up with Burns and chopped him down in the 14th round at Rushcutter’s Bay, Sydney, on Boxing Day 1908. The bout was so one-sided that it was described as being like a game of “cat and mouse”.
Less than two years later it was the turn of former champion Jim Jeffries, who had retired from the ring undefeated, to face this power in his comeback fight at Reno, Nevada on 4 July 1910. “The Boilermaker” was tough with a punch like the kick of a mule and was seemingly impervious to punishment. He was also ponderous on his feet, and Johnson danced around him, taunting and teasing him to lumber after him. By the 15th round, the older man was exhausted and Johnson knocked him out. This victory, as with that over Burns, caused race riots to break out all over the USA. Many in the white community, who could not accept that their champions had been beaten by what they considered to be a racially “inferior” opponent, felt that their whole way of life was under threat.
After that win over Jeffries there was nobody else worth fighting that Johnson had not beaten already. He, though, had his own weakness which was to lead to his undoing. Johnson liked to throw his success and professional superiority in the face of white society. He did not miss an opportunity to show that he was just as good as them. He set out to make his every action obvious. He drove fast cars very fast – eventually he was to lose his life in a car crash. He wore expensive suits and jewellery, moved into exclusive white neighbourhoods and disported openly (and privately) with white women. Unlike Muhammad Ali, who has chosen to enhance the profile of himself and his race by conducting his life mainly within that race, Johnson gave the impression that he wanted to be a “better white man” than any white man. It is easy to understand why the other African-American heavyweights of the time, whom he, like his white predecessors, refused in his prime to give a championship chance, disliked Johnson and often rooted for his rivals.
Everywhere he went, Johnson had at least one female companion described as being “Mrs Johnson” – though the identity was always changing. Whereas he did not marry any of the “wives” of his own colour, such as Clara Kerr, all three of his official wives were white. Contrary to much that has been written, inter-racial marriage was not the offence which upset white – and black –society. It was quite usual for black boxers of that generation – including Johnson’s perennial rival Joe Jeanette – to be married to white women (without serious adverse
comment being made). Johnson’s offence lay in the public display of physical attraction and in the type of women with whom he consorted. He would go from the bedrooms of the rich to cheap sporting-houses (brothels), or vice versa. His first wife was a well-off socialite, his second was a teenage prostitute, and the third was nothing more flamboyant than a middle-class housewife who had been previously married.
The “trouble” that had been brewing for some time came to a head when Johnson married Lucille Cameron, an 18-year-old prostitute working in Chicago, barely three months after his first wife, Etty Duryea, who came from an affluent background, had committed suicide by shooting herself. It seemed to have been callous and done unnecessarily quickly, especially as Johnson’s alleged physical beating of Etty was seen as being a factor in her demise. As on his death, Johnson was buried next to his first wife at his own request, it is likely that he did love her and there may have been another reason for him wanting such a speedy remarriage. There was indeed.
Lucille’s mother was not at all happy with her daughter being seen out and about with such a prominent black man. She suspected that Lucille was with him for purposes of prostitution. “Moralising” politicians and lawyers were looking for a high-profile person on whom they could test out the Mann Act, which forbade the taking of a woman across a state-line for immoral acts, and which had been passed just a few days before Johnson had beaten Jeffries.
Johnson fitted their bill, and Lucille’s mother provided the opportunity. Or, she would have done so if her daughter had not refused to cooperate. With the mother maintaining pressure, Johnson and Lucille decided to get married because a wife could not be forced to give evidence against her husband. It worked – but their triumph was short-lived.
The publicity surrounding the case came to the attention of Belle Schreiber, one of the several white sporting women to have carried the unofficial title “Mrs Johnson”. Jack had met her when she was working in an up-market “establishment” in Chicago, but times had changed and Schreiber had been on the slide socially since they had parted.
No so-called “reputable sporting-house” would employ her once it was known that she went with black men, and particularly with one as notorious as Johnson. She was working at a low-class “dive” in Washington when she read the news of Johnson’s marriage to Lucille. Schreiber was outraged – if he was prepared to marry one prostitute why had he not married her.
Belle took up the cudgels where Lucille’s mother had left off. At first it seemed that the champion had little to worry about from such a discredited accuser, especially as the alleged offence had occurred before the Mann Act was passed. He was technically innocent. Yet Schreiber and her “advisers” pressed her attack with greater vehemence than had any of his opponents in the ring – “hell have no fury like a woman scorned”.
It became obvious, too, from the testimony that Johnson had been very much involved with Belle, even to the extent of setting her up for “business” in her own flat.
Johnson, who could “read a fight” as well as any man, realised that the tide of public opinion was running against him. Before the court in Chicago could deliver its sentence, he and Lucille slipped over the Canadian border into Montreal on 25 June 1913.
He would have to serve his prison-sentence when – if ever – he returned to the USA.
From there everything went downhill. The Johnsons moved to Europe, settling in Paris, where Jack had always been more popular than he was “at home”. However, there were no world-class heavyweights to keep him occupied and in good condition.
Luther McCarty, the 21-year-old white “sensation”, who had been expected to give Johnson a tough and profitable contest, died during his bout with Arthur Pelkey, which took place while Johnson was still fighting his case in court. The “fight” had hardly started when McCarty fell down fatally – the victim, it transpired, of an injury he had sustained in a riding accident a few weeks earlier. Johnson participate in some publicity stunts of dubious quality to maintain himself in the public eye.
Then the First World War broke out and the Johnsons, who were considered to be a distraction to the real fighting, were forced to flee France for Latin America, where they ended up in Mexico.
Exile was no fun for the champion. He missed the “fast” life and being the centre of attention. There was nothing for him except down-market drink and debauchery. He accepted an offer to defend his title against Jess Willard as a means of getting back into the social flow – and he was so keen to do so that he agreed to terms that ensured that he could not win.
A lot of hot air has been written and spoken about this controversial fight in which Johnson, one of the greatest champions, was knocked out by Willard, one of the worst.
Pressure groups and those with “an axe to grind” have asserted that Johnson agreed to lose in exchange for being allowed to return to the USA without having to serve his sentence. There are several very good reasons why that interpretation was unlikely. First – when he did return, Johnson served his time in prison. Second – he was a proud black man, and a proud champion, who would not let a white man be seen to have beaten him for whatever reason (especially one so inferior to him as Willard).
Third – and this is the most important, there was no need for there to be a “fix” because the fight had been “stitched up” beforehand when the conditions were agreed.
Willard was tall, powerful and clumsy with a punch that could kill a man (and, indeed, had – killing Bull Young). Johnson was ageing, out of condition, and, a point that is overlooked too often, had had no access to proper trainers or training facilities or equipment. They were “matched” to fight under the hot Cuban sun in Havana on 5 April 1915. The bout was scheduled for 45 rounds – that is far longer than any contest in the history of the division.
It was to all effects a fight to the finish. Johnson, as we have seen, did not have a knockout punch. All Willard had to do was to conserve his energy while his older, ill-conditioned opponent wore himself out.
Another argument against there being a “fix” of the type described is that Johnson fought brilliantly to try to win. He was way ahead on points over the first 20 rounds until the heat and his lack of fitness too its toll. If he had agreed to “take a dive”, he had plenty of time in which to do so without going to this extent. Instead, he chose to continue the contest into the 26th round – the longest of all the many fights there have been for the title. In the preceding round, Johnson had slowed sufficiently for Jess to catch him with a powerful punch. Then in the 26th, Willard walloped him again. Johnson was knocked down and counted out.
Much comment has been made of the photograph purporting to show Johnson shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun as the referee was counting. And why not – Johnson was a realist: he knew that he had shot his bolt and that with his speed and strength evaporated, he would be a sitting target. With an eye for business and publicity, he may well have reasoned that if he lost to a single punch, and controversially, he could have got better terms in any return match that was made than if he had taken a sustained drubbing.
For the rest of his life, Jack Johnson was an embarrassment. He returned to the USA and to prison. The ex-champion seemed prepared to do anything and say anything that kept him in the news. He continue boxing for a while in charades of contests, losing to Bearcat Wright and Bill Hartwell, who were hardly household names.
At last Lucille, who had stood by him and shared his exile, got fed up with his messing-around with other women and divorced him. His self-promotion became jaded, and most African-Americans, who had once idolised him, lost patience. Johnson was already a man out of his time when he was killed in a road accident near Raleigh, North Carolina, on 9 June 1946 while hurrying back from Texas to New York to see the second fight between Joe Louis and Billy Conn. In today’s world, it is difficult to empathise with Johnson. A sport which has experienced Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson sees nothing special about having a convict as world champion.
Muhammad Ali, it is agreed by almost everyone, showed a more effective and credible way of promoting racial awareness, respect and justice. Jack Johnson – wasn’t he just a self-centred loudmouth who was “out for himself”?
That is certainly part of the story, but it is not the whole story. He is still regarded as having been more “victim” than “villain” with people agreeing that he was both. His role in boxing and in history is being regularly reappraised. Above all, there are people in all sectors of society who believe that the bout with Willard was not the only time that Johnson was “stitched up”.
Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for the US presidency in 2008, has given public voice to the call for Jack Johnson to be given a presidential pardon for the offence of violating the Mann Act, for which he could not be held guilty, and on 29 July 2009, Congress passed a resolution calling on President Obama to that effect.
Even those who most condemn Johnson’s morals, his behaviour, and much of his attitude, find that they cannot help but admire the man. In standing up for himself, he represented the hopes and aspirations of so many more people than just himself. He gave a voice to those who had no voice. If he could succeed with so much going against him … then, perhaps, so could they.
Irene Pineau, his third wife, has the last word. She said to a reporter at Johnson’s graveside on the day of his funeral: “I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.”