Last Tuesday I continued my teacher consultancy course on historic fight analysis. Last week we began with the dawn of the gloved era and a pioneer of outside boxing, Jim Corbett. Prior to throwing the spotlight on this week’s star, Jack Johnson, we watched an excerpt from a bout that bridges the two eras: James J Jefferies versus Bob Fitzsimmons world heavyweight championship. This was their first meeting in 1899. The less than three minute or so footage appears to be a better quality than the Corbett/Fitzsimmons bout, having been recorded two years later yet still in the Victorian era. It was probably taken from round two, as both boxers appear very fresh, there is virtually no inside fighting and the knockdown of Fitzsimmons matches the description. Jeffries is described as a giant of his day and known for his strength. By comparison, the champion was and remains the lightest world heavyweight champion in history. He had trained alongside Corbett, but his boxing style probably owes most to the world welterweight and middleweight champion, Tommy Ryan. Jeffries’ style is very evident in this piece of footage: crouched stance with an extended lead. He was known for his lead punches and his body shots in the clinch, the latter of which he used to knock down Fitzsimmons in this footage with a powerful jab. The footage shows Jeffries circling with his lead hand to keep Fitzsimmons at bay whilst picking his shots. He would knock Fitzsimmons down for a total of six times before he knocked him out in round 11. He would go on to break the ribs of Jim Corbett, who he defeated twice, as well as Gus Ruhlin and Tom Sharkey all in title defences.
Our attention switched to Jack Johnson as we looked at footage from his fight with Tommy Burns. This was the first time a black man had been allowed to fight for the world championship. James J Jeffries had refused Johnson a shot and had retired in 1905. That same year Jack Johnson lost to the next future world heavyweight champion, Marvin Hart in a 20 round points decision. Hart beat Jack Root who has gone down in history as the first light heavyweight champion although this claim in disputed. Hart would lose his title in his own defence in a 20 round points decision to Tommy Burns. It is worth noting that although white champions were known for drawing the colour line many of them fought against black boxers in untitled matches. Jeffries knocked out Peter Jackson in three rounds, Jim Corbett had fought the same Peter Jackson to a draw in 61 round war and Bob Fitzsimmons was destroyed by Jack Johnson in two rounds after the former had been world champion. The racist issue was clearly about allowing the title go to someone who wasn’t white. Although it is reasonable to suggest that Tommy Burns avoided giving Jack Johnson a shot at the title, it is worth noting that Burns was the first world champion who took his fights on tour. He was a legitimate world champion fighting in England, Ireland, France and Australia, defending his title eleven times in under a three year period. Burns had black sparring partners and prior to winning the championship he had fought a bout against a native American. One of his title defences was against Joseph “Jewey” Smith. Given the times of extreme racial prejudice and pressure from white authorities, I think it is fair to say that Burns was relatively progressive. Jack Johnson would certainly say the same after their bout.
Johnson had won the world coloured heavyweight championship after fighting around 50 bouts (although only 19 were recorded) and then defended it 17 times, campaigning to be the first black man to fight for the world heavyweight title. He followed Burns on his travels, booking front row seats to all his bouts and taunting him. Burns relented in 1908 and lost his title in their historic bout. Johnson pretty much toys with Burns in the fight and their size differences are very evident. Burns remains the shortest world heavyweight champion in history. He was an aggressive fighter, which worked to Johnson’s defensive style. We can see plenty of Johnson’s playing to the crowd and taunting in the fight, cues that Muhammad Ali would emulate decades later. Interestingly, the footage does not show much of Johnson using jabs or keeping Burns out of range. Instead he prefers to clinch and manhandle the smaller man, constantly taunting him. Apparently Johnson and Burns had both agreed to break cleanly but Johnson uppercutted Burns in round one sending him to the ground for an eight count. This was a major part of Johnson’s style, striking in the clinch. His fight with Burns demonstrates this happening a lot. This is where he would punish his opponents and rouse the white audience. Burns lost the fight in the 14th round when police interferred and saved the now former champion from further beatings.
We finished the session with a review of Stanley Ketchel’s challenge for Johnson’s title. Reports suggest that this was not a serious contention for the world title, as Ketchel was world middleweight champion and a friend of Johnson’s. It looks like an exhibition bout and we see Johnson’s outside style exemplified throughout. In round 12 Ketchel apparently broke with the plan and we see him knock Johnson down with a powerful right. Johnson immediately gets back up and knocks his opponent out with a punch that sent both man down. A legend persists that Johnson’s glove wiping immediately afterwards was to remove two teeth embedded there.
Next week we will delve into Johnson’s fights with James J Jeffries and Fireman Jim Flynn.