Monday, 5 July 2010

Jack Johnson - 100 Years On

While watching the last edition of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights I was reminded of a very historic event.

It was 100 years ago, on July 4th, 1910, that Jack Johnson, the world’s first black heavyweight champion, took on former undefeated champion James J. Jefferies in front of 20,000 fans in Reno, Nevada. Johnson had been champion for about eighteen months, and this fight was a pivotal point in the history of professional boxing.

So after seeing the item on ESPN I began to get the urge to see the man in action again, courtesy of DeAgostini’s Boxers DVD series, which contained footage from four of his fights.

December 26th, 1908: Johnson challenged Canadian Tommy Burns for the World title in Sydney Australia. Johnson had been hounding Burns for ages, trying to get a title shot, even following the champion around the world as he defended his title, buying ringside tickets and shouting at him as he fought.

The footage began with shots of the two men sparring, before it moved on to the fight itself. It really is an extraordinary piece of footage. The bout is contested in a ring with six massive wooden beams for posts, and even though there’s only a few rounds of footage, you can clearly see that Johnson is so dominant. Burns looked like a featherweight compared to him.

It was a remarkable performance. Johnson was so confident that he spent a great deal of time smiling and talking to the people at ringside.

The end came in the fourteenth round. After a flurry of blows rocked Burns the police ordered that the cameras should stop rolling before they entered the ring to save the champion from further punishment, awarding the title to Johnson.

October 16th, 1909: Johnson defended the title against Stanley Ketchel in Colma, California. Ketchel was the reigning middleweight champion, and Johnson outweighed him by a massive forty-nine pounds.

Johnson’s tactics were simple here - let Ketchel force the pace, wear himself out so he could counter attack. Johnson had his man down for a five count in the second, and he probably could have finished him at any time, but he was intent on punishing him.

The plan worked, but a Ketchel right in the twelfth had Johnson down for an eight count. However, seconds later the victory belonged to Johnson after a big right of his own put Ketchel out for the count.

July 4th, 1910: “The Fight of the Century”. James J. Jefferies came out of retirement to chal4lenge Johnson for the title in Reno, Nevada.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this piece is the pre-fight footage which showed Jefferies six months before the fight, meeting with the legendary John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett.

There was also an intriguing story about the lead up to the fight. The promoter Tex Rickard had contacted H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle about refereeing this fight. Both refused, as did U.S. President William Howard Taft. In the end Rickard ended up refereeing the bout himself, despite the fact that he had no prior experience.

By the tie the fight started Jefferies had shed well over one hundred pounds to get down to his old fighting weight.

The fight began cautiously, and the feeling out process lasted for a number of rounds. But it wasn’t long before Johnson took control, and in the fifteenth he had Jefferies on the canvas twice. That was enough for his corner, who stepped in to save their man from further punishment, giving Johnson the win.

July 4th, 1912: A year later, Jim Flynn challenged Johnson for the title in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Johnson did barely any training for this fight, and went in weighting around 250, some forty pounds more than his normal fighting weight.

This was a dirty fight. Flynn was warned on numerous occasions for head butting, seeming rather put out the he was warned at all.

But despite this Johnson controlled the fight throughout. In the ninth round the local sheriff entered the ring to save Flynn, giving Johnson another dominating title win.

Johnson would go on to hold the title until April 5th, 1915, when Jess Willard defeated him in Havana, Cuba, knocking him out in the 26th round. There were rumours that Johnson took a dive, although many feel that Willard’s victory was a legitimate one.

Johnson continued to fight until 1938, losing his last fight to Walter Price. His final record was 73 wins, 13 losses, 10 draws and 5 no contests. He died eight years later in a car crash in North Carolina. He was 68 years old.

In conclusion - you know, I could go on forever about the impact Jack Johnson had, not just in the world of boxing but in the wider world as well. The man is a bonafide legend, a fighter years ahead of time, and the four fights on this DVD are tremendous examples of his work.

I could go on about the other aspects of his life, but there have been and will undoubtedly be many more pages devoted to the man. But no matter what is said about him, he will always be remembered as a great fighter.

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