Style and its Limitations (diary entry)

jack johnson 313.04.21

My teacher consultancy concluded its trilogy of lessons on Jack Johnson with his last two title defences. Prior to analysing the fights, it was relevant to discuss the campaign against Johnson. Having defeated the previously undefeated James J Jeffries in a bout that resulted in a nation wide series of riots, there was  growing tension within the white establishment to handle Johnson. Not only was he destroying all the “Great White Hopes” sent his way, but his extravagent behaviour surrounding these fights enraged certain members of society. In 1912 Johnson was arrested and convicted on trumped up racially motivated charges brought in by the newly instituted Mann Act (1910). These charges were brought about by his marriage to Lucille Cameron who it was asserted was a prostitute and he had transported her across state lines. This would be a conviction that would overturned over a century later by President Trump in 2016. The point being that Johnson skipped bail and fled to Europe to continue defending his title. There are sources that state the title was officially declared vacant but if this was taken seriously then the man who would beat Johnson, Jess Willard, would not have been declared world champion. After all, the fight was held whilst Johnson was still on the run.

Johnson’s time in Europe was spent mainly working in the Music Hall scene, playing a musical instrument, clowning and sparring.  By 1914, the year of one of the fights we watched, it is claimed that Johnson was already showing the signs of tiring and putting on weight. Like most of the reigning champions before him (an obvious exception being Tommy Burns who Johnson had beaten to gain the world heavyweight title), Johnson did not regularly defend his title.

He is accused of drawing the same colour bar that he fought so hard to cross when he was campaigning for a shot at the title, often explainng that he didn’t make as much money. Johnson was most often criticised for dodging Joe Jeanette, Sam Langford, Sam McVey and Harry Wills, who all held the “World Coloured Heavyweight Championship” different times after Johnson vacated it to become World Heavyweight Champion.  To Johnson’s credit, he called Jeanette “The toughest man I ever fought”. Of the seven fights they had prior to Johnson’s reign as world champion he beat Jeanette twice, lost once on a disqualification, had two draws and five “no contests”. He had fought and beat the great Sam Langford once in a very one-sided bout. Johnson was much heavier than Langford at time and even said he carried the fight for 15 rounds at the behest of the promotor. Nevertheless, Langford was an amazing fighter with an astounding record of 300 fights. Many boxing historians consider him to be one of the greatest heavyweight fighters to never fight for the world championship. Apparently a fight was set up but Langford could not get enough money together. Johnson had always argued that he took on white challengers because they got paid more. He had beaten Sam McVey three times, knocking him out the third time. McVey had beaten both Langford and McVey for the World Coloured Heavyweight Championship. Harry Wills is also a highly acclaimed boxer who was possibly the closest a black man came to securing a title shot between the reigns of Johnson and Joe Louis. Apparently an agreement had been made for him to fight Jack Dempsey, but this never materialised and Wills tried to sue Dempsey.

The only black man Johnson fought whilst he held the titel was “Battling” Jim Johnson in November 1913 in what is described by many as a bout that resembled an exhibition and the title did not change hands. Whether or not this was a ligitimate title defence is in question. Jim Johnson had been soundly beaten by all the main black heavyweight competitors of the time and none have viewed him as big a threat as Jeanette, Langford, McVey or Wills.

Nevertheless, of all the surviving footage we viewed of Jack Johnson’s fights, his bout with “Dentist” Frank Moran is the most evenly matched. The fight was held in Paris and attracted a very illustrious crowd. Moran fought with such aggression from start to finish of their 20 round bout that many give him some of the rounds, especially round 5, and he even believed he had won. Johnson went into the fight having reportedly broken a small bone in his arm and although he was the favourite Moran’s side were very confident. The fight saw Johnson largely controlling the centre of the ring. Despite Moran coming forward he clearly takes the brunt of the punishment, particularly from Johnson’s rear uppercut. This  technique, along with overhands, remained Johnson’s most regular techniques thrown in his ever-controlling clinch. Also a favourite of Johnson’s was to throw this punch on a clinch-break, which noticeably enrages Moran at one point who turns his back walks away for a moment. We did see some jabbing and Johnson even moved onto the front foot at times, although this was part of his familiar strategy of goading an opponent. He didn’t really need to do that much with Moran who was regularly on the offensive. Moran would never win the world title, but he would fight the man who knock Johnson out and lose on a newspaper decision despite former world heavyweight title holders John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons all giving the match to Moran.

Johnson’s demise to a “Great White Hope” came in the shape of Jess Willard in 1915. The great lumbering 6’6 1/2″ ex-farmer was considered a freak of his time, towering over everyone in the boxing world and outweighing most by up 30lbs. He remained the tallest man to win the world title for over 80 years and today is the sixth tallest in the history of the title. Willard’s career is often seen as a footnote for either Jack Johnson or Jack Dempsey. Johnson is notably out of shape compared to all the other footage. His style of fighting was very hard to impose on Willard who was also a defensive fighter but one who had huge physical advantages that favoured him. His big range advantage and natural disposition to counterpunch forced Johnson to mount the attacks. Under a blazing hot Cuban sun Johnson battled on from an unfamiliar position. Nevertheless, in round 14 this aggression appeared to be working and he caught Willard with some great shots using his lead hand and then with some furious two-handed hooks to the head. He uses a lot of feinting and seems to be gaining some control. At one point he even chases Willard across the ring with a flurry. He also appears to work back into his usual baiting strategy for a short while. However, in addition to eventually being forced to come forward against the much larger Willard, Johnson also suffered from not being able to effectively clinch Willard. Looking back over the fight, the viewer notices that every time Johnson clinched Willard would manhandle him and push him away. Johnson’s damaging in-fighting, as previously discussed, is absent. In the end, it wore Johnson down and the condition of the two men came into play. The end came in round 26 as Willard smells blood and starts advancing a lot more aggressively in a similar way Johnson would do after he had worn down his opponents. Moving Johnson toward a corner, he briefly lifts his left and then let’s fly with a straight right over Johnson’s very low guard.  The footage also features filming from ringside for the first time in history.

Great resources on Jack Johnson’s contemporaries from the website of the documentary “Unforgivable Blackness”

A good recording of the Willard vs Johnson fight


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