Patience and Punishment (diary entry)

jack johnson rear hand jack johnson Jack_Johnson_Uppercut johnson vs flynn johnson vs jeffries06.04.21

Tonight’s teaching consultancy continued our review of historic fights and Jack Johnson’s time at the top. Last lesson we covered his fights against Tommy Burns to win the heavyweight title of the world and his defence against old friend and middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchel. These are two of the six fights recorded on film of Johnson’s career. After defeating Ketchel, his fourth title defence inside a year and since he had become the first black man to win the world heavyweight championship, racial tension was high. Press, promoters and white professional fighters alike did their best to stoke up enthusiasm in the thought of a Great White Hope defeating “The Galveston Giant”. They put their hopes in James J Jeffries, a man who had retired undefeated as world champion in 1905.

Jeffries was an inch taller than Johnson who seemed to tower over all his opponents, he had never known defeat and although he displayed unambigious racism in his campaign to fight Johnson he had fought black fighters in non-title bouts. Johnson had known defeat, including a points decision loss at the hands of Marvin Hart whose next fight that year was to win the then vacant world heavyweight championship of the world. However, Johnson had probably fought in over 50 contests, over half of which were not recorded. He had forged an intelligent style that worked psychology and conditioning side-by-side.

Jeffries is described as a brawler with a powerful left hook. However, surviving footage prior to the Johnson fight reveals a more strategic fighter. Last lesson we discussed his peculiar crouched style and extended, often circling, left hand. His crouch was present in the Johnson fight, but it appeared far less distinct. He clearly wanted to make use of his one inch size advantage and even adopted a guard reminscent of Johnson’s. There are descriptions of Jeffries wanting to swarm in, but the footage appears to show Johnson working him. He baits with his attacks and then, as Jeffries tries to charge, he blocks him and clinches. From here we see Jack Johnson’s brutal strategy. Some have argued that Johnson did not go for an early knock out of Jeffries because he feared the riots that would have erupted on that day in Nevada on the 4th July (ironic to think a day that celebrated emancipation from oppression would also be the day of this particularly racially charged event). However, others have also argued that this was all in line Johnson’s regular punishing tactic where he spent his time wearing down and torturing his opponent in the clinch.  Jeffries was constantly trapped and hit with Johnson’s vicious punches. Although known for his fearsome uppercuts in the clinch, round 13 saw Johnson throw a regular lashing left hook from this position. Jeffries attempted his old approach with the crouched stance and extended arm where he lunged at Johnson but the Galveston Giant just tied him up and continued the in-fight onslaught. Round 15 saw the demise of Jeffries when his body failed his spirit. He had been worn down by Johnson’s drawing, clinching and his uppercuts were now find their mark. Jeffries went down for the first time in his career, hanging off the ropes. He got up and Johnson pounced on him again, in line with the rules of the day, sending him almost completley throught the ropes. Finally, his corner stepped in before Jeffries was seriously hurt. To Jeffries credit, he declared after the fight that he couldn’t have beaten Johnson even in his prime.

Fireman Jim Flynn was an equally aggressive next opponent from Johnson. Flynn failed twice to become world heavyweight champion but he fought most of the best of his day, even being credited as the first man to knockout Jack Dempsey. The footage of his fight with Johnson was a surprisingly good reveal of the champion’s strategy. The fight showed Johnson’s early striking and retreat, designed to draw an opponent into his punishing clinch. In the later rounds we saw more use of Johnson’s jab, including a pawing and even a posting jab that frustrated Flynn no end. The fight was finished when Flynn’s repeated and obvious head-butting could no longer be tolerated by the referee. It was clearly the act of a desperate man. As good as Flynn was – and his record following this one are testament to his abilities – Johnson’s style was tailored to handle this type of charging fighter.


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