With the upcoming Ken Burns special next week on Jack Johnson, the following is an excerpt from my book, Boxing in the Shadow, scheduled for release at the end of the year. Boxing in the Shadow reflects upon some of the great black boxers, and with Black History month upon us, I will release excerpts of other chapters over the next six weeks — Tom
Jack Johnson, the Original Ali
Jack Johnson was the original Muhammad Ali, possessing quick hands and defensive skills ahead of his time. Early boxing reporters and some boxing historians considered him one of the greatest and Jack Johnson became a hero to his race when he captured the heavyweight championship.
His conduct outside the ring challenged every taboo of prevalent attitudes of White America. If he was not knocking out white men in the ring, he was bedding white women outside the ring. Arrogant and fun loving, Johnson lived life at a reckless pace and his public life was an irritant to white America, essentially giving White America the middle finger. With Johnson accession to the heavyweight championship, white promoters began a search for the Great White Hope. Unfortunately, no white challenger could match Johnson skills.
Johnson, for one, changed the rules of boxing by depending upon guile as much as brute strength. In the early part of the century, strength was the key factor. Gentleman Jim Corbett could not handle the power of James Jefferies, despite being the superior boxer. As one boxing historian stated, “If Jeffries could not outbox an opponent, he could certainly outlast the best of them." With fights lasting as long as 45 rounds, strength and endurance played key roles in winning championship fight. Corbett’s first fight with Jefferies demonstrated this point as he easily dominated most of the fight. By the end of the 23rd, Jefferies strength eventually wore the flashy conqueror of the great John Sullivan.
Born with a knockout power, Johnson broke Stanley Ketchel’s teeth, cracked Jim Flynn’s jaw and broke Sam Langford’ nose. (Langford was one of the best fighters in the early part of the century.) Callis quoted early boxing historians by stating, “There was no denying Johnson’s ability. He was a superb boxer with a punishing blow in either hand and amazingly fast for a big man.” As Johnson dominated the Heavyweight Division, a search for a Great White Hope began. The first man to be that White Hope would be James Jefferies.
When Johnson defeated Burns, he defeated an excellent fighter. Burns was small in stature but fast in feet and hands. He would hold his hand low and he had the ability to dart in on larger opponents. With a large reach for his size, Burns had a devastating left hook.