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The Seminal Master: Why Jack Johnson Would Be King Today

By Mike Casey

For some considerable time I have wanted to write a technical appraisal of the magnificent and timeless Jack Johnson. I have refrained from doing so because Jack, the great Lil’ Arthur as he was known, comes with so much historically vital yet distracting baggage. His story – and ye gods, it is some story even now – is so crammed with political intrigue and controversy that his immense boxing skills are nearly always shoved onto the back burner and mentioned in passing. 

Johnson was a giant of a man in every way, but the prime objective here is to demonstrate his wonderful knowledge and mastery of something we used to call the Noble Art. Quite simply, it was the art of hitting without being hit. It was about utter dedication and devotion to an astonishingly difficult and slippery discipline. If you have ever stepped into a boxing ring, even for nothing more than a light-hearted session with a pal, you will know how infernally hard it is to avoid being struck. I have talked to many young and eager amateurs who have nurtured dreams of stepping up in class. Armed with the firm conviction that their defence is as sound as the good old dollar used to be, they have reeled from sparring sessions with modest professionals in a state of shock and disarray after being clobbered hither and yon. 

Jack Johnson came from tough stock and got his grounding the hard way. Men of his generation did. That is a crucially important point in itself when we compare them to the men of today. Johnson and his peers were naturally hard men who had to quickly learn to think on their feet in much harsher and less sympathetic times. Getting to the top of the ferociously competitive fight game required tremendous commitment and no slacking on the fundamentals. 

Johnson had a good role model in his rugged father and was sensible enough to listen to the wisdom passed down. Back in 1912, as he surveyed the world from his championship throne, Jack said, “You want to know the real secret? What got me started right away back when I was a kid? I’ll tell you. It was my father, who was a slave before the war and who drove a United States army wagon through almost all the struggle. 

“He was the most perfect physical specimen I have ever seen and he gave me the first lessons I ever had in taking proper care of myself, which is the basis of all physical culture. Father was not a giant in stature, but he was built like the old Roman gladiators. He could lift enormous weights and was a fairly good wrestler, but he never did any boxing. He died in Texas six years ago, 84 years old, strong till the day of his death. When I got started on my career as a boxer, I always used to remember that instruction he gave me. I had such admiration for his physical strength that whatever he said made a strong impression on me. I realise now that I got my real start toward success in those old days down south watching my daddy and heeding the advice he gave me.” 

Two Ways 

A boxer can go one of two ways when he is blessed with the natural athleticism and talent that immediately places him on a higher standard than legions of others. He can be satisfied with what he has, still be superior to most and sail through life at a steady clip as he indulges his other pleasures. What Jack Johnson did was what all the genuine greats are driven to do. Recognising the head start that the gods had granted him, he worked diligently to polish and perfect his gifts and elevate himself to the highest possible plateau. Why be content with a stiff jab if you can have a sledgehammer jab? Why be happy to merely deflect punches if you can learn to prevent them from even taking flight? This was Johnson’s way of thinking. 

Jack learned his trade thoroughly. Much like Bob Fitzsimmons, Johnson had a constantly inquisitive brain and refused to accept textbook teaching that he believed to be wrong or too constricting. Such was his dedication and sheer bloody-mindedness, he even worked at bucking biological constants. Yes, an orthodox man’s right arm will always be stronger than his left. But as Jack saw it, one could still shorten the odds on that little equation. He worked tirelessly at making the strength and power of his left arm almost the equal to that of his right. 

From his earliest days, like so many of the past masters, Johnson realised that a correct stance, perfect balance and a sound defence were the essential bedrocks of a boxer’s armoury and would increase his offensive effectiveness accordingly. Through constant practice and study, Jack acquired a water-tight shield of arms and gloves that could slip, feint and block incoming fire and quickly return punishing artillery. In his majestic prime, he never seemed to be in a position where he could not hit effectively, and was one of the craftiest and most hurtful counter punchers the ring has ever seen. Nor should the power of Jack’s blows be underrated. While he wasn’t in the league of Dempsey, Louis or Marciano as a major league hitter, the superb accuracy and timing of Johnson’s punches made them greatly damaging and debilitating to his opponents. In the Great War, a particularly destructive German artillery shell, which emitted thick black smoke, was known to British troops as a ‘Jack Johnson’. 

Now let us get the thoughts of a man whose boxing brain I have admired for some time. My good pen pal and fellow historian, Mike Silver, who will treat us to what should be a crackerjack of a boxing book this Fall, is convinced that Jack Johnson still stands supreme among the heavyweight champions, all of a hundred years after his prime. Mike’s reasons for according Jack this accolade are numerous, and worthy of great consideration by those who are blinded by today’s overriding obsessions with weight, supposedly superior fitness (including various methods of cheating that are quaintly referred to as ‘diets’ and ‘supplements’) and the popular myth that boxing’s progress can be measured on the same scale as track records and baseball averages. 

Johnson’s brilliant and innovative mind was arguably his greatest weapon. “Just think,” Mike Silver says, “at the turn of the century the sport was still transitioning from bare knuckle to Queensberry boxing. The greatest boxers of that era had to be innovative geniuses. Leading the contingent were Jim Corbett, Peter Jackson, Tommy Ryan, Joe Gans, Sam Langford, Jack Blackburn, Abe Attell, Owen Moran and Jem Driscoll. 

“But they broke the mold with Jack Johnson. He was one of a kind, both as an individual and as a fighter. Except for one other boxer  - I’ll name him later and it’s not who you think – Jack’s unusual style has yet to be duplicated by any fighter of any weight, past or present. The modern day pundits who erroneously rank as great boxers such athletically gifted but (unbeknown to them) technically flawed and incomplete fighters as Floyd Mayweather Jnr and Roy Jones Jnr., would not understand the subtle genius of Jack Johnson. 

“Johnson adopted a stance that was similar to the ‘on guard’ position of a fencer. It allowed him to quickly sidestep or shift his weight to either leg for offense or defense. Combined with his cat-like reflexes, the stance caused opponents to misjudge their distance when they tried to reach him. The effort would invariably throw them off balance, at which point Johnson would step in and counter with a solid jab, right cross or uppercut. His superb jab is often overlooked, but it was the main weapon in his formidable and varied arsenal. 

“Balance, distance, leverage and timing were of paramount importance to Johnson – as they were to all master boxers of his era. Jack always maintained proper balance and distance when he moved his feet or shifted his weight. There was no wasted motion or effort – the mark of a master craftsman. And he was always quick to recognise and exploit opportunities. Johnson was basically a defensive minded counter puncher. Feinting was still very much in vogue during Jack’s time and he used his head, legs, arms, shoulders and eyes to create openings or confuse opponents. Johnson could hypnotise you with his hand motions. They were always moving, sometimes broadly and sometimes in little circular motions, ready to feint, lead, block or counter punch. Johnson perfected the art of blocking or parrying punches with an open glove – a lost art of today among many others. He was effective on offense or defense, at long range or in close, and was capable of analysing another fighter’s flaws and adjusting his style to fit the opponent. 

“In his prime, it was almost impossible to hit Johnson with a solid shot. In later years, thanks to his superb defensive skills and depth of experience, a bloated Johnson tended to ‘loaf ‘ in order to conserve energy, but his superb boxing skills were always in evidence and he did not take unnecessary punishment. When he WAS hit (rarely), it was never with the same punch twice. Sadly, other than the mismatches with Stanley Ketchel and Tommy Burns and his easy go with a washed up Jim Jeffries, there is no film of Johnson when he was at his absolute best – from 1905 to 1910. Jack understood his art like Einstein understood the theory of relativity. Remember, when everyone was praising a young Joe Louis in early 1936 as unbeatable, it was Johnson who noticed the flaw in Joe’s armor: his vulnerability to a right hand counter. 

“Only one other fighter had a similar style to Johnson’s. The great Benny Leonard (lightweight champion 1917-1925) came closer than any other fighter to duplicating – purposely or not – Johnson’s unique fencer’s stance and all round ability. Move Johnson up to warp speed and you have the whirling dervish boxing master Benny Leonard. Slow Leonard down to 33 1/3 and you’ve got a facsimile of Johnson.” 

Pounding Home The Lesson 

It has long been a popular newspaper ploy: Put a meek and humble man of God in the company of a brooding black brute and see what shakes out. Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson got the treatment in one way or another, and Jack Johnson got it way before that. When he was training for the Jeffries fight in Reno in 1910, Jack was visited by the Reverend S.G. Wilson, pastor of the Emanuel Baptist Church in Sparks, Nevada. The good reverend didn’t care for the bloody fight game of course, but nobly suffered the experience anyway. “I was astounded at the great muscles on Johnson’s shoulders, chest and arms,” he remarked. Johnson, streetwise and possessed of deadly insight, immediately picked up the patronising vibes. “If you had an arm like mine, Mr Wilson,” he replied, “you could pound the Bible and pound religion into the people.” 

Johnson was deadly serious in training camp and meticulously mapped out a programme for himself that accounted for every eventuality in the fight proper. To be sure, he was still his usual mischievous self and enjoyed some joking and teasing with his sparring partners. But they very quickly learned that they weren’t there to have a picnic. In preparing for Jeffries and all the manic and intimidating fan support that would come in Jeff’s wake, Johnson wanted to be in exactly the right physical and mental shape, able to cope with any adverse developments from his opponent or outside agencies. Jack knew the weather conditions would likely be brutal and worked from the premise that he and Jeffries would be battling long and hard under a relentlessly hot sun. ‘Sparring sessions’ would be a soft and wholly inappropriate description of the hard fights Johnson put himself through in his extensive and exacting preparations. 

On July 28, he fought four men in succession at his training camp and lashed them all with a strangely jocular coldness that clearly signalled his steely determination. Jack laughed and taunted in these sessions, as Jack always did, but he drew much blood and bled continually himself from one of the few stray wallops that penetrated his magnificent defence. The sessions were no stroll in the park for the unfortunate quartet of Al Kaufman, George Cotton, Walter Monahan and David Mills. The temper of each man would gradually boil over as Johnson baited them and punished them with jolting jabs and savage uppercuts. While Al Kaufman and a few others around the camp bemoaned the high altitude, Johnson wasn’t bothered by the searing heat and thin air. 

It was Kaufman who cut Jack’s mouth, an act of impudence that galvanised the champion to up his pace and intensity Johnson kept Kaufman in line with a series of stiff and varied punches and a steady tattoo of short jabs. Jack also exhibited his outstanding defensive skills, honed from years of educative campaigning against all-comers. When Kaufman fired, Jack would instinctively open his arms and either block the blows or quite literally catch them in mid-flight. When the four allotted rounds were up, Al left the ring on unsteady legs, his face a bloody mess. 

As each sparring partner followed, so Johnson exhibited more of the vast range of tools in his armoury. He feinted wonderfully with subtle shifts of his head and body that would send out all sorts of wrong messages to the recipient. The fast hands would often signal imminent strikes, which would either remain in cold storage or be quickly retracted and then fired again when the opponent had already committed to his counter strategy. 

George Cotton, a young, muscled black fighter, enjoyed a brief period of success against Johnson before taking too many liberties and receiving his due punishment. Two lightning smashes to the face sent the claret flowing from George’s nostrils. A mischievous and humorous man who wasn’t easily deterred, Cotton smeared his blood all over Jack in the clinches and ignored repeated warnings to cut it out. Johnson quickly resolved the issue. Two slamming lefts, one to the jaw and the other flush on the chin, rooted Cotton to the spot. His eyes closed and his hands dropped limply to his sides as several trainers jumped into the ring just as he was collapsing. They draped George over the ropes as they administered him iced water and salts. 

Walter Monahan, a young and willing Irishman who was known to bleed heavily, bled very heavily after Johnson caned him. David Mills, the last of the sacrificial lambs, didn’t fare much better. 

Jack Johnson was in the prime of his life and Jim Jeffries would discover the folly of trying to turn back the clock. 

Big George on Johnson 

Years after his nightmare experience against Muhammad Ali in Zaire, a much mellowed George Foreman came out of denial and was able to admit to his tactical blunders. Big George was a great fan of Jack Johnson and said, “I loved the parrying he did in the ring. A lot of times he would stop the punches before they got started. I did this early in my boxing career – defense first, then look for the punches. I forgot this with Ali, stormed in and got my lights punched out. Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, John L Sullivan and even Ali are names that still shake this world. Those names spell courage and great strength.” 

In 1961, Rocky Marciano was asked about the great heavyweights and said, “I’d give Jack Johnson, whom many consider to be the greatest of ‘em all, the edge over Utah’s Jack Dempsey. Of course, Johnson was far ahead of my time, but old-timers tell me he had everything – every requirement of the greatest of them all.” 

Jack Dempsey unhesitatingly described Jack Johnson as a boxing genius. Said the Manassa Mauler, “Johnson was a master on the defensive, a natural fighter who came from the lower divisions and, through hard work and constant study, developed himself into a title-holder. I believe Johnson was one of the greatest heavyweight champions we have had.” 

Legendary manager Jimmy Johnston saw plenty of talent during boxing’s golden age, when the sport vied for column space with baseball as the top sport in America. In 1943, Johnston said, “Jack Johnson, is, I think, the greatest heavyweight champion the world has had under the Marquis of Queensberry rules stretching back to late in the nineteenth century. Johnson is number one on my list because of his boxing ability, his defensive tactics and his knowledge of ringcraft. On the day he won the title, he would have defeated any other fighter who ever became champion.” 

In making his choice, Jimmy Johnston considered the factors of boxing skill, footwork, all-round cleverness, adeptness at feinting and avoiding punches, strength, sportsmanship and the ability to fight back when hurt. 

A Champion For All Seasons 

Jack Johnson was not merely a fistic wonder of his era. He was a seminal and timeless world heavyweight champion who would have dominated his peers in any pocket of time, most especially in the weak and shallow seas where today’s bloated and manufactured heavyweights wallow like whales in their dreary comfort zone. 

Huge heavyweights, especially those of the present era, rarely possess the killer instinct. They will invariably run from smaller aggressors or tip-toe gingerly around them like an elephant around a mouse or an arachnophobic around a spider. We have seen the overwhelming evidence of this in the faltering progress of Wladimir Klitschko, who, for all his recent technical improvement and punching power, will always be a major accident waiting to happen. He was plainly fearful of Corrie Sanders and duly got wrecked. Klitschko came unhinged again in his first fight with Lamon Brewster and very nearly came a cropper against Samuel Peter. The Ukranian went on a nice little knockout run after that, but was right back to his tentative, safety-first approach in the ‘big one’ against Sultan Ibragimov. 

With increasing weariness, I have just about lost count of the number of slow waltzes I have seen in recent times between big blobs with big muscles who are sucking in air and cuddling each other for dear life after three rounds of what might be politely described as ‘action’. 

Jack Dempsey argued repeatedly that a giant heavyweight couldn’t help but lose a significant degree of athleticism and punching effectiveness. Jack maintained that the ideal weight was between 190-200lbs and certainly not more than 220. He described Jim Jeffries as the perfectly proportioned heavyweight, as indeed was the young George Foreman at his wrecking ball peak in the early seventies. 

In this writer’s opinion, only three other heavyweight champions are fit to inhabit the same lofty ground as Jack Johnson: Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. 

Dempsey, the perfect fusion of boxer and fighter, has become a hero once again to the new-age, slam-bang brigade whose boxers must be sub-human and fight to the death in cinematic-like battles of brutality and blood. Well, yes, Dempsey could do all that and acquit himself exceptionally well. Sadly, however, Jack’s once parallel (and thoroughly deserved) reputation as a versatile boxer of cunning cleverness is now either neglected or simply not known to a uniform generation that feels insecure if it can’t slot people into specific pigeon holes. Thus Dempsey is simply classified as a slugger, a swarmer and a banger by those who don’t or won’t look and learn. 

In facing Johnson, I have always felt that Dempsey, who could be as patient as a lion when the assignment was especially threatening, would have got home at some point with the decisive smash that would have unhinged Lil’ Arthur and set him up for the kill. But I tell you honestly, as a fairly successful betting man, that I would steer well clear of having a punt on this one! It is this uncertainty that fascinates me about Johnson. The more you know, the more you learn, so it becomes impossible to state with firm conviction that any heavyweight would have taken him. 

Having explained my all-time rankings in various other articles, I don’t have the space in this feature to re-iterate my criteria. Let me just say that the ratings are not based purely on who would have beaten who. Joe Louis presents an interesting case in point here. I give Joe the narrow edge over Johnson largely because of the Bomber’s great reign as champion. In terms of pure fistic talent, however, I believe that Jack held more aces than Joe, both physically and mentally.  We know that Louis could be thrown by subtlety and cleverness. He nailed Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott in the end, but would Louis have nailed the quintessential ring mechanic in Johnson? I don’t believe so. I envisage a scenario where Joe would still be looking for the big shot at the final bell, having been bewildered all the way through by an array of shifts, feints and bluffs. Gene Tunney, at his absolute best, might have ghosted past Louis in similar fashion. 

Muhammad Ali, arguably, would have given Johnson his most formidable chess match. At his very best, which I still believe was from late 1965 to 1967. Ali might just have been sufficiently quick and funky to ‘steal’ a decision off Johnson. But Muhammad would have needed the speed he had in those golden years before he came down off his feet and matured into the wise old general. Those latter gifts wouldn’t have got him home against Johnson, who was the greatest general of all. Put on the spot, I can’t see either version of Ali outsmarting Johnson. Muhammad would have been encountering an obstacle he just wasn’t accustomed to; that of an even smarter boxing brain than his. Johnson knew everything that Ali did, and plenty more besides. 

But enough of one man’s opinion. Here is style analyst Curtis Narimatsu on Johnson’s strengths and his chances against the fellow greats: “Johnson’s intelligence was his greatest asset. He demoralised foes by psyching them out. Ali, the talking head/noisebox, was Jack’s incarnate. Johnson backed up his act via mobility and defense. His offense and general superiority was amplified by his fast hands. When he sat down on his punch, he was lethal, but he flitted about because was not a killer by nature, more a mischievous chap. 

“My great old pal Hank Kaplan said that Johnson was the greatest ever defensive heavyweight, because he used his feet to evade attack, not his torso a la Ali, which had Muhammad only inches within being hit. 

“The greatest fighters adapt to the times. Johnson’s natural, God-given athleticism is the perfect match for today’s zip-quick ring style. As we know, Jeffries lamented that he might not have beaten Johnson even at Jeff’s peak. Johnson had the legs to outwork Jack Dempsey and the legs to outbox Louis. Johnson had everything in the wagon to dominate Marciano. Ali had faster hands and quicker feet, which he would have employed by necessity to outbox Johnson. It is a tribute to Jack that Ali credited him for the famous ‘anchor punch’ in the second Liston fight.” 

Historian Mike Hunnicut, a good and valued friend of mine whose love and knowledge of the old game shines like a lighthouse, has watched hours of quality film on the great fighters, measuring their strengths and weaknesses in the finest detail. Mike believes that Johnson was one of only seven truly great heavyweights. Here is how the esteemed Mr H sees it: “In order of greatness based on a 10-fight series against the top 500 heavyweights ever, those with the most wins, in my opinion, would be Dempsey, Louis, Tunney, Sullivan, Johnson, Jeffries and Ali. 

“Johnson was off the charts in reflexes, boxing genius and the ability to take chances to prove he was the greatest defensive boxer the heavyweights ever saw. Tommy Loughran was the only other fighter in history, on film, to pick punches out of the air with ease. Johnson’s balance and strength were incredible. He had an exceptional chin, rock hard body, very fast hands, and a good, hard punch in either hand. The only weakness I could see in Jack was, at times, not closing the show when he should have. 

“I see Sullivan, with his great endurance, able to take 6.25 bouts from Johnson out of 10. Jeffries would win only twice from Jack, due to styles over 15 rounds.. Dempsey’s off-the-chart scores in co-ordination and compact punching to the head and body, sees him winning six out of 10 times over Johnson. Tunney would also edge Jack, due to being a bit too busy. Louis would knock out Johnson three times but lose the rest as Johnson’s strength, reflexes and knowledge would overwhelm Joe. Ali never truly saw his prime and needed a bit more seasoning to win any more than four times against Johnson, who was more experienced, harder to hit and a harder hitter. 

“Marciano and Joe Frazier would be among Johnson’s toughest opponents, but wouldn’t win more than four times out of ten. Tyson might win once by knockout, otherwise he’s in for a thrashing. Lennox Lewis would be humiliated, and I don’t think George Foreman would win one fight in a 10-bout series against Johnson. Even early on, Foreman threw sweeping haymakers and Johnson would duck and throw him into the ropes – as he did to Frank Moran – and maybe out of the ring when Foreman tires. Johnson was freakishly strong like Foreman. Jack could swing his 300lb manager around on his neck for fun. For me, Johnson is the one man who comes closest to whipping the prime Dempsey, but Dempsey was too much of a killing panther even for Johnson.” 

King Of The Eras 

Mike Silver can find little joy for the past and present champions against Jack Johnson at his magnificent best. “I give the edge to Johnson in fights against Louis, Dempsey and Ali only because of Johnson’s superior boxing brain combined with his experience and ability to quickly adjust to different circumstances and styles. Johnson would have outboxed Louis and tied him up on the inside. Same with Dempsey. In both cases, Johnson’s jab would be the deciding factor. And he had enough power to keep them both honest. But Johnson’s footwork would have had to be working overtime as well. By no means would it be easy – we are talking about great vs great after all – and the punching power of Louis and Dempsey would make them dangerous throughout a 12 or 15-round encounter. But I would still make Johnson the favourite in both these fights. 

“Ali, at his best, presents a different problem, because he was so unconventional and his speed and evasiveness as a heavyweight is unparalleled. I am confident that Johnson would have figured out Ali’s style and how best to fight him.. The question is, whether he could overcome Ali’s speed and reflexes. But Johnson also had great speed. He would analyse Ali’s style, find the flaws, keep Ali occupied with a busy jab and catch him enough times to take a close but unanimous decision. It would be an interesting tactical fight, but in this case it all comes down to boxing ability. As Ali aged and slowed, it became obvious that his boxing skills, minus his speed, were limited. As Johnson aged and slowed, his great boxing ability became even more apparent – at least to those who understand such things. 

“How would Johnson have done against today’s heavyweight pretenders? It would be a joke. Jack often toyed with overmatched opponents. During the fight he would talk and wave to ringsiders he knew, or carry on conversations with reporters while hapless opponents tried to hit him. Today he could send out for a full course meal, finish it with one hand, then have a cigar, read the evening paper and follow it with a short nap – and he would still come out the winner! 

“Bottom line: in my opinion, Jack Johnson is the greatest heavyweight champion of all.” 

Rock ‘n’ Roll Over! 

Jack Johnson undoubtedly became bitter and resentful with the passing years, as he continued to be excluded from the mainstream. His constant baiting of Joe Louis reached tiresome and unfair proportions. But one could understand much of Jack’s frustration as he surveyed the new kids on the block. He had learned his great trade inside out and could detect the steady dilution of quality and education. The Mozart of boxing couldn’t bear to see his classical music turning into rock ‘n’ roll. “You don’t see many good boxers today,” Johnson mourned at the age of fifty-seven. “You don’t see men who know how to block and parry punches as they should. All they know is to weave in and try to land blows with their right hands. Then after a few fights they’re screwy from getting hit on the jaw too much. 

“I started to box when I was sixteen, never had a cauliflower ear, never suffered a bad cut, nor so much as a nose bleed in the ring. Why? Because I learned how to box.” 

Johnson said the greatest boxer he ever saw was Jim Corbett. The most accurate hitter, in Jack’s opinion, was Bob Fitzsimmons. Freckled Bob, weighing less than 160lbs, knocked out the 300lb Ed Dunkhorst with a single, devastating shot to the pit of the stomach; such was Fitz’s scientific knowledge of punching. Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, Ali and Tunney possessed similarly quick and lateral minds that could adjust to a shifting playing field and conjure the route to victory. They were boxers of wonderful intelligence, power and grace. 

Thanks anyway, but these men would have no need of a cruiserweight division in 2008. They would likely regard it as patronising.

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