A few months ago I came across a pre-publication excerpt of Bernice McFadden’s new novel Glorious in “Renaissance Black Noire, a literary magazine published by New York University and edited by the poet (and Miles Davis biographer) Quincy Troupe. The passage opened by posing a series of hypotheticals:
If Jack Johnson had given up and allowed James Jeffries to clip him on the chin…
If Jack Johnson had let the shouts of ‘Kill the Nigger’ unravel him…
If Jack Johnson hadn’t gotten the notion some years earlier to cap his teeth in gold…
All of which leads to the father of Glorious’ heroine collecting on the substantial wager he had made the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight, which in turn directly presages an unspeakable and horrific assault on his daughter.
I’m not going to give up the whole plot here, but trust me, it’s powerful stuff. And while Glorious is a work of fiction, the episode central to its opening pages accurately reflects similar acts of violence perpetrated on “Negroes all over the country in reaction to Johnson’s victory.
Not until Muhammad Ali emerged from exile and fought Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden would a prize fight have such a polarizing effect on all of America. And, the sociological ramifications of Frazier-Ali I notwithstanding, at least people didn’t get killed over it.
The July 4, 1910 fight between Johnson and Jeffries has come to occupy a place in American history that transcends boxing. Jack London’s report, flawed by its unmistakable undercurrent of racism, remains the best-known of the first-hand accounts, but the literature inspired by that historic occasion is considerable.
America on the Ropes, Wayne Rozen’s new coffee-table volume on the “Fight of the Century, is the latest addition to that body. There have been dozens of magazine stories dissecting a fight whose Centennial will be celebrated in Reno over the Fourth of July weekend. Jack Johnson himself has been the subject of half a dozen biographies (not to mention two autobiographies; one of them, Mes Combats, was originally written in French and has only lately been translated into English), of Ken Burns’ well-received PBS portrait, “Unforgivable Blackness, and, in a slightly altered fictive guise, of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. (Howard Sackler’s “The Great White Hope; the 1971 film version resulted in Academy Award nominations for James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.) Elements of the Johnson-Jeffries encounter have also found their way over the years into several history-based novels, the most recent of them Ms. McFadden’s.
* * *
The July 4 fight was originally scheduled to take place in San Francisco, but bowing to opposition from business and church groups, California Gov. James C. Gillett evicted it just three weeks ahead of its scheduled date. Nevada Gov. Denver S. Dickerson had no such problem. The last bastion of the anything-goes Old West, Reno epitomized all things raffish, and its leading civic lights were the operators of gambling dens, saloons, and houses of ill repute.
Reno and promoter Tex Rickard hastily prepared for the historic occasion, throwing up a temporary stadium capable of seating 20,000 – more than the city’s entire population at the time — on short notice. By the end of June over 300 journalists had gathered there to file daily dispatches, and their number would double by the time of the fight. Almost to a man, their coverage reflected the racial theme, often in race-baiting language that made Jack London’s seem restrained.
Boston Globe readers, for instance, might find it enlightening to learn that that liberal icon mockingly described Johnson as “Mr. Sambo Remo Rastus Brown. A New York Times editorial fretted that “if the Black Man wins, [African Americans] might misinterpret a Johnson win as “justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.
Rickard himself served as the referee. (Pres. William H. Taft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had each been offered the position, but both turned it down.) Johnson’s entry into the ring was preceded by a brass band’s rendition of a popular ditty called “All Coons Look Alike To Me.
The contest was almost brutally one-sided. By the time his corner rescued him in the fifteenth round, one of Jeffries’s eye was closed, he was bleeding from the nose and mouth, and had sustained numerous lumps, bruises, and at least a dozen cuts to his face.
Johnson took his leave of Reno within hours of the fight, but as word of the outcome spread across the country over the telegraph wires, there were serious outbreaks of racial violence in Washington, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Norfolk, Va, Three black men were beaten to death in rural Georgia, while in New York, newspapers reported that a mob was about to lynch two Negroes by hanging them from lamp posts in Hell’s Kitchen when police arrived to rescue them.
* * *
The watershed fight not only profoundly affected the future course of American boxing, but of American sports writing. Prior to Johnson-Jeffries, most major fights had taken place West of the Mississippi River, and boxing was frequently outlawed in more “civilized jurisdictions. Now, in an age when the rest of the country seemed to be moving from east to west, boxing effected the reverse migration.
In 1911, more or less as a direct result of the events in Reno, New York state passed the Frawley Act, which legalized boxing on a limited basis in the Empire State. Although it would be repealed at the outset of World War I (boxing was permanently restored with the 1920 Walker Act), the return of boxing to the Big Apple was almost immediately reflected in the composition of New York newspaper sports departments.
Kansas-born Damon Runyon, who had cut his journalistic teeth covering boxing for newspapers in Colorado, saw his first New York byline, in the American, in 1911. He would be joined in New York (at the Mirror) by his friend and Denver Post colleague Gene Fowler. San Francisco Chronicle boxing writer W.O. (Bill) McGeehan was a contemporaneous hire at the Herald. Bat Masterson, the onetime Dodge City lawman, was lured to New York (as an “expert on boxing and horse racing), and became the sports editor/columnist of the Morning Telegraph.
Runyon and Fowler would eventually graduate to bigger and better things. McGeehan, a sagacious presence at ringsides for several decades, would mentor entire generations of New York boxing writers, from Grantland Rice and Paul Gallico to Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon.
Masterson, on the other hand, soon moved on to that great Boot Hill in the sky, figuratively dying with his spurs on when he collapsed at the Telegraph sports desk in 1921. According to Jack Dempsey, the folksy lead Masterson had just composed remained in his typewriter:
There are many in this old world of ours who hold that we all get the same amount of ice. The rich get it in the summertime and the poor get it in the winter.
That Jack London was an unapologetic and unreconstructed racist is beyond dispute — an equal-opportunity bigot, London also popularized the term “Yellow Peril in an essay of the same name — but those whose image of Bat Masterson remains the jaunty lawman portrayed by Gene Barry in the popular television series of the late 1950s might find it surprising that the real-life Bat Masterson, in his sportswriter incarnation, freely used the N-word– and that, moreover, the Telegraph printed it.
Over the decade that followed Johnson-Jeffries, in any case, New York evolved into the epicenter of boxing. The New York State Athletic Commission, established with the passage of the Walker Act, would for nearly half a century remain the most powerful and influential regulatory agency in the world.
* * *
Belying his trade, Jack Johnson was a cultured man who recited poetry from memory, an accomplished musician who traveled with his own bass viol, was fluent in several languages, and often read novels in French. In his newfound celebrity he affected foppish attire, opened a chic Chicago nightclub called the Café de Champion, and more ominously, thumbed his nose at societal mores by flaunting his predilection for the companionship of white women. Unable to beat him in the ring, the authorities closed Café de Champion, and persuaded a federal grand jury to indict him for violating the Mann Act, the so-called White Slavery statute prohibiting “transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes.
Johnson’s 1912 TKO of Jim Flynn was his only post-Jeffries title defense on American soil. Following his indictment he fled, via Canada, to exile in Europe. He had two fights in Paris and one in Buenos Aires, and in 1915 was persuaded to defend his championship in Cuba against “the Pottawatomie Giant, Jess Willard. By then 37 and out of condition, he succumbed in the 26th round.
In a 1920 plea-bargain arrangement with the government, Johnson returned to the United States and served eight months of a one-year at the federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth – whose warden was none other than Denver S. Dickinson, the former Nevada governor who had welcomed the Johnson-Jeffries fight a decade earlier.
The role the United States government itself played in the persecution – and there is no better word to describe Johnson’s treatment — of the first African-American heavyweight champion was so shameful an episode that the movement to restore his reputation has been spearheaded not by some bleeding-heard liberal, but by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who on at least three separate occasions has introduced Congressional resolutions calling for a posthumous presidential pardon.
(Few of us realistically expected George W. Bush to pardon Jack Johnson, but President Obama’s failure to act on the resolution has, for me, been beyond disappointing.)
* * *
Still haunted by McFadden’s chilling rendition, I found myself wondering: If John Arthur Johnson had had but an inkling of what the rest of his life would be like, let alone how many innocent Americans of color would perish as the result of his triumph, might he have been tempted to fall to the floor at an opportune moment? Once there, might he have raised his glove just high enough to shield his eyes from the hot noonday sun the way they said he did in Havana five years later, as he took the referee’s count? And what might Jack London have written about that?
That led to another reflection: that the entire history of boxing, and in many cases the history of boxing writing, has been a delicately constructed, centuries-old process replete with similar watershed moments that could easily have turned out otherwise.
What if Tom Cribb’s legion of supporters hadn’t unfairly interfered in that 35-round bout in Sussex back in 1810? The redoubtable Pierce Egan (the English language’s first boxing writer) believed the freed American slave Tom Molyneaux to be well on his way to a win at Copthall Common until his finger was broken when more than a hundred Englishmen interrupted the fight by rushing the ring in the 19th round.
Had Molyneaux emerged victorious, he would have become the first African-American heavyweight champion a hundred years before Johnson fought Jeffries in Reno.
What if John Graham Chambers hadn’t come up with the concept of codified boxing rules that he published under the aegis of his sponsor, the Marquess of Queensberry, in 1876? In the absence of the cloak of respectability provided by the Queensberry Rules, would the New Orleans City Council have legalized boxing in 1890, paving the way for the fight between Gentleman Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan two years later? Or would American boxing have remained an outlaw sport, conducted in rings erected on Mississippi River sandbars, in Colorado saloons and San Francisco opium dens, removed from the scrutiny of the authorities?
For that matter, what if Tom Allen hadn’t decided to cash in on his bare-knuckle championship by making his exhibition tour the centerpiece of an American traveling circus? He might still have eventually fought and lost to fellow Englishman Joe Goss, but it wouldn’t have been in Cincinnati, and Goss probably wouldn’t have been available to fight Irish-born Paddy Ryan in West Virginia four years later, nor, in all likelihood, would Ryan have defended his title against John L. Sullivan in New Orleans.
As both the last bareknuckle champion and the first to defend under the Queensberry Rules, Sullivan was a seminal presence, but what if his fight against Corbett had been conducted under the London Prize Ring Rules instead of the more sanitized Queensberry regulations? Would Corbett still have knocked out Sullivan in the absence of boxing gloves, or might he have succumbed to injury had, say, the great John L. stepped on him with those inch-long spikes he would have been permitted to wear on his boots under the earlier code? And how might the composition of that early pantheon of Sullivan, Corbett, Fitzsimmons and Jeffries — today regarded as the Founding Fathers of modern-day heavyweights, a quartet boxing devotees are inclined to view with a reverence other Americans customarily accord Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – have been affected?
What if Jack London hadn’t encountered interminable delays in the construction of his hand-built ketch, the Snark? Had he and his second wife Charmian departed San Francisco Bay on schedule for what was supposed to be a seven-year, round-the-world adventure, London might still eventually have been afflicted by the illness that interrupted the journey, but it probably wouldn’t have been at Guadalcanal in November of 1908, and the nearest modern medical facility might well have been somewhere other than Australia.
And if London hadn’t gone to Sydney in search of treatment for what he feared was leprosy (it turned out to be psoriasis), he might never have learned of the upcoming fight in which Tommy Burns would defend his heavyweight title against Jack Johnson, nor would he have been visited in his hospital quarters by the editor of the Australian Star with an offer to write a series of articles culminating with a ringside account of the Boxing Day title bout.
In the absence of his deal with the Australian paper, would London still have contacted the New York Herald and arranged for simultaneous publication of his dispatches?
Had Jack London not been writing from ringside at Rushcutter’s Bay that day, the journalistic legacy of that fight would not be “naturally I wanted to see the white man win, but, left to rely on the coverage of the Australian press, Americans might instead have found themselves reading the account of the Sydney Sportsman, which denounced the new champion as “a gloating coon… with the instincts of a nigger.
And had London not been there to conclude his fight-day story with his impassioned “Jeff, it’s up to you plea, would the public demand for a Great White Hope have assumed the same sense of urgency? Or might the reluctant Jeffries, in the absence of the London-generated frenzy of pressure, more wisely have elected to contentedly remain right where he was, on the old alfalfa farm?
What if Johnson hadn’t insisted on flaunting that succession of white wives and white mistresses and white prostitutes (and sometimes they were one and the same) and instead exercised discretion, as Joe Gans and George Dixon, two prominent black boxers of the era who were also married to white women, did? It might have required a diplomatic restraint for which Jack was temperamentally unsuited, but they probably wouldn’t have prosecuted him under the Mann Act.
And what, you might ask, has that to do with Jack Johnson or Jim Jeffries one hundred years ago in Reno?
Nothing. And everything. We leave it to the great A.J. Liebling to explain:
It is through Jack O’Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadelphiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. Jack had a scar to show for it. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose. I wonder if Professor Toynbee is as intimately attuned to his sources. The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.