Jack Johnson Style (diary entry)


This was my second private class of the night, having followed on from the ninth instalment of my submission grappling course. My client desired an all-technical session. His training has picked up a lot since he first booked me. He has a range of interests that are geared towards overall fitness and well-being, but has a particular bias towards functional fitness.  We decided that he would be best suited for a full-on High Intensity Interval Training session tomorrow. Today we would focus on skill development.

I wanted to explore a potential area of style development for my client. I recently watched the excellent – if not entirely historically accurate – “Unforgivable Blackness” documentary, which covered the life of world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Johnson’s style of fighting was similar to “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, who had enjoyed his heyday some 10 years prior to Johnson’s reign at the top from 1908-1915. I have known a fair few fighters who adopted a similar approach and boxing coach Tommy Thompson of TVP recommended a variation on it for my stand-up fighting. Johnson was a counter-puncher, even if he would often open up the fight aggressively. He would spend a good amount of his time drawing opponents onto his counter-punches and often tying them up in order to wear them down. Johnson relied on taking advantage of his opponent’s mistakes and when they started getting tired. This was particularly effective in Johnson’s day when bouts could be scheduled for up to 45 rounds. In fact, he came out of an era where bouts were longer.  Johnson relied a lot on his stamina, but his style is far from obsolete today. The wearing down aspect isn’t as relevant as the tactic of drawing an opponent forward.  On this note, it should be briefly explained that wearing down tactics are not advised for the intensive ferocity that usually represents the dynamic of a self-defence fight, Geoff Thompson and John Anderson both validated the use of the “negative” fence, where a line-up for a pre-emptive strike was done by slightly shifting back. The principle is the same.

I felt my client would take to this style in a very natural way. His build and character seemed to be a good fit. Of course, I never attempt to mimic anyone’s style of fighting. I take the individual as my baseline and look to develop their skills by how they respond. This is merely a very rough guideline for my client to explore. Muhammad Ali provides us with a good comparison to Johnson. Known for breaking virtually every rule in boxing methodology, a less hasty eye uncovers many tactics previously developed by his predecessors. Not only did he bring in Archie Moore’s turtle shell, which was turned into “Rope a Dope” and was popularized after his use of it against George Foreman during the “Rumble in the Jungle” title fight, but there was definitely a strong strain of Jack Johnson in his tactics. Ali, who loved Howard Sackler’s play about Johnson, “The Great White Hope”, and drew parallels with his own life, credited the great fighter with some of his tactics. For example, he said his “Anchor Punch”, which he used to knock out Sonny Liston in their very controversial second bout, had been used by Jack Johnson. Boxing writer, Jack Slack, disagrees referring to Johnson as more of clinch fighter. Slack’s insightful article describes Ali’s style as unique and he says that it had never seen before in boxing. I agree with him in principle, but that is probably down to the fact that my position on individuality is so extreme an assertion like that seems trite. However, he must have been watching different films on Johnson than me, as although Jack Johnson made good and regular use of the clinch – and could certainly drive through forward aggressively (see the end of the Stanley Ketchel fight for proof of that!) – he spent a good deal of his time drawing opponents onto his strikes. Contrary to Slack’s article, Johnson was also another fighter who held his hands low during bouts and Ali was far from being the first in this respect. However, many of Slack’s other points are excellent and very enlightening, so I recommend you read his article.

We used Tommy Thompson’s advice on the guard for this particular approach. The rear hand was held quite high, but the lead hand was almost completely dropped. Ali did this to keep his jabbing hand relaxed. Both he and Johnson goaded boxers both verbally and with their movement in order to set them up.

I began just by focusing the jab on the focus mitts. By having my client working on drawing me out, he was able to take a more proactive role in the flash-pad training. The footwork drills we have been doing for the past few months, particularly those on the agility cones came in their own. He has lost weight and clearly much swifter on his feet, angling off as well as performing circular and linear movements. We then brought in some basic Boxing combinations. The whole exercise was then replicated on the heavy bag, using the pendulum method, which helps to develop timing.

We then brought in front and round kicks from Muay Thai, working off the same principle on the Thai pads.  Looking at defence an obvious criticism would be the same that we can see with most Western Boxing stances, it leaves the lead leg open to low kicks. However, the stance for this is more erect than most conventional boxing and therefore the shin block or simply stepping away from an incoming kick can be done fairly swiftly. The leaning the head back, as Ali did when he did his trademark slipping, can be effectively applied by skilled fighters in Western Boxing matches and Professional Karate Association “full contact rules”, but it is not really advisable in Muay Thai or MMA.

The way this style is used invites low leg kicking, so balance is crucial and we focused on shin-blocking and evasion. It also invites the single-leg takedown, which we also addressed. Today I introduced my client to countering a single leg with a single leg takedown.  Moving onto the ground range we covered the hook guard, which can be used in a similar context to the stand-up stance we have been covering.

Relevant articles

Jack Johnson – Master of the Ring

Pulling Back the Curtain on Muhammad Ali