100 Years Ago To The Day Was The ‘White Mans’ Title Ripped Away

Jack JohnsonBy Ted Spoon, -- It was a surreal experience upon first viewing footage of the dark behemoth. With a Mr. Olympia exterior and optimistic grin he looked to have no problem in making the world his own. This was worse than Mike Tyson; the insinuation of defeat as the 80’s menace stared his man into crippling fear had nothing on this gloating figure of authority. Tyson was merely a right hand man, to this kingpin of the ring; a leg breaker to the head of the mafia.

That unshakable swagger seemed to take grip of all around him; once inevitably taking control of his opponent physically did he take care of the thousands verbally who came to aid in the repression of an unwanted presence in Boxing…unwanted in America. What nobody ever learnt was that the more you try and cage the beast, the harder it will bite back.

Jack Johnson took a pride in biting back; it is after all the essence of his immeasurable legend, to say “no” whenever he had the opportunity in a world that scorned ‘arrogant Negros’.

There is few if none who led a more dangerous path to the promise land as Johnson endured life threatening lapses of no food, no home and no direction. A near fatal night was once spent shivering against the Senator Stephan A. Douglas’ memorial after being thrown out of Frank Childs house due to a domestic with his other half.

Jack Johnson took an awful lot of racial prejudice and social scarring into the ring with him; Frank Childs got his the next year to say the least.

A keen, well-read intellect was driven to teach an immature nation a lesson, and the master class took place on the 26th December, 1908 (boxing day). The subject Tommy Burns; an admirably active yet elusive champion was financially obliged to try and defend against a man who later claimed he had forgotten more about boxing than Burns ever knew.

Things were looking bleak indeed for Tommy as he reportedly came down with a cold during preparation. Johnson had been faultless and scooped up praise from the neutral writer with his elegant conduct and pleasing grasp of blocking and countering.

This economic style of Johnsons was highly effective when coupled with his natural zest and strength, but it was the manner it which he applied it that had the lasting effect. Johnson’s developed gripe, a natural retort to the double standards and racial agendas he absorbed daily shaped a style not meant to destroy, or even punish, but humiliate.

Ernie Terrell is remembered for being abused by Muhammad Ali’s refusal to dispatch of him. Jack Johnson took this to a new level; doing the necessary damage to rid of his man only to hold him up for more physical and mental torture, welcoming the next rounds as if the goal was to both reach the final bell. Condescending quips came by the dozen, designed to emasculate his already frustrated opponent and punches followed.

A fight with Jack Johnson equated to one long, painful night.

As the pair entered the ring, Johnson creasing his smooth features with that gleeful grin, the blatant contrast in build was one of comical proportions. Johnson was quite tall creaking over 6, 1, yet compact with dense muscularity that featured 17” biceps. Burns at 5,7 was the shortest man to ever wear the title and the lightest.

It already looked unfair, silly even. Tommy Burns was a unique fighter that could fire sniper-like right hands out of his awkward, squatted posture. He used that talent to take the measure of many of the capable, but at this time Johnson was capable of being untouchable.

The bell called for Burns to achieve the impossible. Both took their time before locking horns; Burns to try and size up the task, Johnson to begin demeaning Tommys position as champion. A few feints and Burns hit the deck with an almost Roy Jones esque leaping ‘hookercut’.

He got up as gamely as anyone ever has, but Johnson was just stretching his legs. As the rounds stretched on it became apparent that Johnson was in complete command. “The fight?, there was no fight.” Jack London would famously write about proceedings. Burns come-forward style was rendered utterly useless against the strength of Johnson and a boring head was there for his vaunted uppercut.

The more Burns tried, the harder Johnson punched and any moments of weakness were met by a supportive clinch. This was not fun. Not for Burns and not for the increasingly uneasy crowd. Johnsons dominance and projected arrogance gave cause for the dislike to turn into hate.

James J Corbett once remarked that his dislike for Johnson was not born out of the fact he was black, but rather because he was one of those ‘fresh Negros’ that thinks he is better. `

Historically, the manner in which Johnson performed is equally scrutinized as to whether he helped or hindered his race’s progress, but there was nothing wrong with snapping back, and so he did.

This was the only justice in his eyes and it carried on for 14 rounds until the police and officials called for the motion pictures to stop as Johnson began another sustained pummeling on Burns. The fight was simple for the 30 year old Johnson, a nice change to the regular hardships he had and would continue to endure.

Alas, too often do sporting figures like Jack Johnson get roped in on their political contribution other than their chosen profession. Johnson was not a politician, he was a fighter who broke down social boundaries and showed how ugly the world can be if you don’t drop prejudice.

Today, all we are left with is history, and we can safely say that Johnson chose to let his personality shine through, something that Muhammad Ali’s legend needed as much as his boxing talent.

Johnson’s talent in the ring remains unequalled. In the arts of blocking, countering and clinching, Johnson was a more complete package than any other heavyweight. He had the sturdy, inconspicuous demeanor of Louis with the tactical transitioning of Ali.

Far from a bookmark, 100 years later and Jack Johnson is still the ‘Galveston Giant.'

Article posted on 26.12.2008

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