Theater of Cruelty

"Crucified for his race"

Reno, Nevada, July 14, 1910: Jim "The Iron Man" Jaffries had retired undefeated. Now he is making a comeback against the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson.


In his very interesting article "I am the greatest" in Ny Tid this winter, Kjetil Mygland describes the efforts of the legendary American heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, both in the black liberation struggle from the 1960s and in the anti-war movement in the USA. He stood up against the authorities' harassment, exclusion from boxing and so on. Until he again went in the ring, won the title back and celebrated the greatest triumphs. And the whole of the United States was given the great honor in 1996 to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta. Mygland also mentions that Ali is considered the "greatest fighter the sport of boxing has ever seen".

Laid the foundation. In reading this enthusiastic tribute to a great pugilist, I miss two names: Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. Both traitors, world champions and compatriots of Ali. But above all: important precursors. Their efforts had in many ways helped create a climate where a man like Ali could be fully appreciated.

Jack Johnson (1878-1946) won in 1908 the title of Canadian White World Champion Tommy Burns, by technical knockout in the 14th round in Sydney, Australia. Johnson had for a long time struggled to get a World Cup match. Former champion James J. Jeffries refused to go in the ring with a black man. Johnson had to travel the world to meet successor Tommy Burns.

While the colored newspapers in the United States greeted Johnson with great enthusiasm, the news was met with both fury and great anxiety by the whites. Only white men, in the opinion of the time, should rule over the heavyweight crown. In the lighter classes, one could more easily accept colored masters.

"The Great White Hope". Jack London referenced the match for the New York Herald. He stated that Johnson had been playing with Burns as if he were "a naughty child." Not only that: just like Ali later, Johnson mocked his opponent with scruffy and pointed remarks during the settlement.

One of the newspapers wrote that no events over the past 40 years had brought as much joy among the colored as this black triumph. The ex-champion, "The Iron Man" Jim Jaffries (who had previously withdrawn undefeated), had now become the "great white hope". He stated that he would easily take care of newcomers to the heavyweight throne.

They met July 14, 1910 in the gaming town of Reno, Nevada. Here Jeffries had to bite in the grass in the 15th round, while white spectators wept. Major racial unrest broke out. It was estimated that 26 people, almost all colored, were killed. No event after the release of the slaves 45 years earlier had led to such calamities.

Johnson was an incredibly colorful person who, from the very beginning, refused to bow to the racist norms of society. In his book Unforgivable Blackness… (2004), GC Ward gives a vivid and profound portrait of the first black heavyweight champion, who, because of his many convincing victories, and his behavior outside the ring, became a hero for a greater number of his racial traps.

The publicity and the money. For most whites, Johnson's behavior seemed challenging. Not least his dealings – and marriage – with white women. Other masters had also cultivated women of different races without being used against them. Johnson was harassed by the authorities, and had to serve a year in prison, among other things. It was said that he was simply "crucified for his race."

As world champion, Johnson achieved a fame no other color had gained. Author Joyce Carol Oates writes that Johnson, unlike Ali, wasn't really interested in boxing. It was the publicity and the money that mattered. Yet, as Ali later, he was an eminent defense boxer, a representative of scientific boxing.

Johnson had shown that it was no longer possible to block the colored from the social arena the sport represents. Many would also consider him one of the three biggest, perhaps the greatest, of the world's pugilists, alongside Ali and Joe Louis.

Boxing expert Nat Fleischer, longtime editor of the acclaimed magazine The Ring, argued until his death in 1972 that Johnson would have defeated every single heavyweight champion over the years.

Joe "The Brown Bomber" Louis himself thought he clearly wanted to master Ali: "He knows nothing about fighting 'on the ropes'", he said. "It would be crucial in a fight between us." Although Louis in the 1930s never engaged as strongly as Ali in anti-racist actions, his efforts were of great importance to the self-respect and pride of the colored. In my article in Ny Tid no. 51, 2006, «Schmeling vs. Joe Louis », I emphasize that Louis for both color and white had become an important symbol of the democratic forces' struggle against the authoritarian and racist nations in Europe (Nazi Germany, Italy and more). Had he behaved like Ali in the 1930s, he might never have created such enthusiasm and joy in his racial peers through boxing.

It could be added that Jack Johnson had 113 games, 79 wins, twelve draws, eight losses and 14 "no decision". He lost the "heavyweight crown" in 1915 when he was knocked out by the heavy cowboy Jess Willard, who was later round-robed by Jack Dempsey. Louis had 70 games, 67 wins and three losses, while Ali had 61 games, 56 wins and five losses. ■

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