The one thing that did surprise me about this otherwise impressive documentary that Ken Burns put together about Jack Johnson was that he did not use some archival recordings of Jack Johnson and for that matter Jess Willard's voice. Both are available, in fact on one of my vinyl LPs I have them. In the case of Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson captured both his voice and inflections of attitude quite well.
When Joe Louis became heavyweight champion it was as much a milestone for racial equality as Jackie Robinson integrating professional baseball. Louis was a man conscious of what this country was around him as was Robinson and sought to become a hero to all. When he knocked out Max Schmeling in that second fight he did just that.
Jack Johnson was a man born in a much harder and crueler time when black Americans may have been freed from slavery, but not from the attitudes that engendered it. He was the best at his sport, he knew it and he made sure everyone else knew it. It was only in 1967 that miscegenation laws were finally done away with by the Supreme Court, but in the years Johnson was in his boxing prime they were enforced with a vengeance. It galled a large section of white America that saw him keep public company with white women and even more that he beat just about every challenger black and white thrown at him.
Looking at the Johnson-Jeffries fight of 1910 to me it's almost unfathomable that people could have invested so much in Jeffries in their racist hopes. Jim Jeffries licked all before him when he retired in 1905 undefeated in the ring. Probably had he taken on Johnson and such other black contenders like Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, and Sam McVey he might well have beaten them. But the Jeffries who had been out of the ring for almost six years was never going to take on Jack Johnson in his prime. If anyone bothered to filter through all the racial crap and examined the situation logically no one would have bet on Jeffries.
James J. Corbett another former champion who Jeffries beat twice in comeback attempts and who worked to train Jeffries for the bout was accused of racism. Probably so, he like many tossed a lot of racial epithets to get Johnson to lose his cool in the ring, but Burns mentions that Tom Corbett, Jim's brother was the chief bookie for bets on the fight in Reno. There was barely any money bet on Johnson, so the Corbett family may have had racial sympathies with Jeffries, but they would have cleaned up on all the money bet on Jeffries with them.
When Johnson did lose to Jess Willard in 105 degree heat in Havana in 1915, he was passed his prime also and the years of high living cost him, probably put him passed his prime a lot sooner than he would have gotten there. Still seven years is a long time to be a boxing champion in any division. I remember as a kid when film of the Willard-Johnson fight were discovered, having thought to have been lost for years, Jess Willard was still alive and somewhat vindicated that he in fact won a clear victory despite all the rumors that Johnson had thrown the fight. It was 26 rounds in that tropical heat and Willard just outlasted Johnson, the same Johnson outlasted an over the hill Jim Jeffries.
Why the heavyweight division was so racially sacrosanct was still a mystery. Joe Gans and Lampblack Joe Walcott were lightweight and welterweight champions at the time Johnson was champion and while life was no bed of roses for either of them, they never encountered the animosity that Johnson faced. He did in fact not fight those boxers I mentioned before when he won his title. The white champions didn't fight for racial reasons, but Johnson wouldn't fight them because they wouldn't draw any kind of gate. Sad, but he was right on the economics.
It was also mentioned that he wanted to fight Jack Dempsey in the Twenties. Quite frankly if he couldn't take Willard, he would have been slaughtered by Dempsey in his prime. But Dempsey also refused to fight a great black heavyweight named Harry Wills who was left begging for a title shot and Wills would have been a match. The first black on black heavyweight title fight was when Joe Louis fought John Henry Lewis for the title in the late Thirties.
Jack Johnson was a man out of his time as much as Joe Louis was a man of his. When Muhammed Ali came to the fore a lot of boxing fans and historians were taking a second look at Johnson and giving him is long overdue due. A lot of people say he was the greatest heavyweight champion of all time and one can make a great case for it.
Which is what Ken Burns did in this extraordinary documentary.
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