Boxing by the Book: “In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part I: The Rise” by Adam Pollack

By Cheekay Brandon on July 4, 2014
Boxing by the Book: “In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part I: The Rise” by Adam Pollack
More than a biography, Pollack's book is an experiment in boxing research in the new era.

To many familiar with African-American culture, he is the father of “swagger,” the quintessentially brash, confident projection of black excellence…

“This book is particularly dedicated to all of those who at one time or another in their lives were picked on, put down, pushed around or to feel like lesser human beings. I hope that you find Jack Johnson’s story inspirational.”—From the Preface of In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part 1: The Rise

Jack Johnson, former heavyweight champion, casts a giant historical shadow over the sport of boxing, and yet, has remained both highly regarded and misunderstood. When we think of him, an iconic image comes to mind: tall, close-shaven, muscular African-American man, standing Adonis-like in the obsolete pugilistic fight stance of yesteryear. For the more studied among us, his notorious bravado comes to mind, his public defiance of racism, and his inside-the-ring dominance. To many familiar with African-American culture, he is the father of “swagger,” the quintessentially brash, confident projection of black excellence, the progenitor of Thelonius Monk, Muhammad Ali and Jay-Z. Even further, because much of Johnson’s popular legend is built around the “Great White Hope” era, we know little of his beginnings, his rise to stardom. Adam Pollack focuses on his emergence in his courageously fine-spun biography, In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part I: The Rise. It is many biographies in one: a meticulously researched 700-page encyclopedia of the turn-of-the-century boxing world, a reel-by-reel story of the rise of Jack Johnson, and a tale of perseverance, personality, and legendary might.

Starting at the Color Line
The book’s first task is in recreating the boxing world as it existed before Johnson’s arrival. Pollack could very well have produced a stand-alone volume on the history of the boxing color line, as he recounts, character by character, fight by fight, the slow march towards its collapse. In doing so, we are introduced to many famous names in boxing history, including John L. Sullivan, Peter Jackson, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jim Jeffries. Pollack’s history of the color line reveals a peculiar, seemingly contradictory history: while the savage nature of boxing made the participation of blacks perfectly acceptable (Pollack’s writes that enslaved Africans were arranged in bareknuckle prizefights), fights against whites were prohibited for many years.

Pollack writes:

“The color line was about power. Allowing blacks to compete with whites would convey the idea to blacks that they would or could have the opportunity to advance themselves to the level of whites, or even above them.”

In examining this world, Pollack has summarized what makes the pugilistic sciences so unique: Corruption and shenanigans aside (and even in spite of them), they are mostly meritocracies that provide individuals the chance to prove their relative worth. And because boxing defeats have such finality, the idea that a black fighter should have the opportunity to defeat a white fighter made proponents of racist views shake in their boots—if they could defeat whites in the ring, perhaps society might get the crazy idea that everyone deserved equal rights.

Pollack summarizes this nicely in writing about Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns (a white man) for the heavyweight title (Chapter 28):

“Hence, the fight’s result could have worldwide racial and political implications. Many whites of all nationalities were concerned about the larger symbolic impact, particularly given that most white nations had conquered and colonized most non-white nations, and had instituted racial caste systems. The whites did not want the non-whites to get any ideas that they could be victorious over whites, or that white dominance might not be the result of the natural and automatic order of things.”

From Social Climate to Sweet Science
The book succeeds in a unique method of biographical storytelling: at times it focuses directly on the life of Jack Johnson, his various trials and tribulations. At others, Pollack uses Johnson as a vehicle to discuss the state of the boxing color line, and further, race relations. Pollack succeeds marvelously in this endeavor; by simply studying press coverage of the fights in various cities, Pollack has recapitulated a history of race in America and the world. 

While the emphasis on recreating the social climate of the time runs throughout the book, the book is about Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion, and it is in the specifics of his rise where the book hits its stride. We learn of Johnson’s introduction to boxing, his motivations, that there was nothing essentially violent about his nature, and that he saw a morality in his embrace of the pugilistic arts:

“Fights between kids give them self-confidence and are the first lesson in the struggle for survival.”

For the boxing purist, Pollack, an experienced boxing writer, provides us something special: unparalleled coverage of the fights that comprised Johnson’s rise to stardom. In doing so, Pollack delivers on the phrase in title, In the Ring. For example, in Chapter 8 Pollack describes one of Johnson’s fights in the bay area against Joe Kennedy:

“Johnson sent in a hard left to the face and repeated it a second later. [Joe] Kennedy then landed his most effective punch, a left uppercut which Johnson dodged into.”

“Finally, in a fierce rally, Johnson landed a hard left to the jaw, and as Joe tried to steady himself, Jack landed a stiff straight right to the nose, knocking Kennedy down flat on his back. Joe took the full ten-count.”

It is the level of detail that separates this work from many other boxing biographies, as Pollack has created, in essence, a pure boxing history of Jack Johnson. This is especially important because boxing is often exploited by literary figures and historians as a backdrop for some other story, or even as a metaphor. The problem here is that the boxing is more than a vehicle for stylish writing, but rather, an elaborate science, and the scientific aspects warrant as much attention as anything.

Rising to the Occasion
More than a biography, Pollack’s book is an experiment in boxing research in the new era. In an age of search-engine scavenging that masquerades as scholarship, Pollack’s book is the standard by which modern boxing investigations should be conducted. It’s the product of an amalgam of approaches, ranging from digital-based methods to bootstrap library digging and microfilm mining. In an attention-deficit epidemic era where memes propagated through social media are taken as facts, Pollack has demonstrated how to create a robust historical picture about an iconic figure. In the case of Jack Johnson, Pollack’s consistent use of primary sources creates a book that is undoubtedly the most thorough take on Johnson’s rise, more so than well-regarded biographies of Johnson’s life such Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward.

In an interview, Pollack elaborated on why he went to such lengths: “The more perspectives one reads, the better feel for the fight one can obtain. Plus, as we know today, sources can have biases, and two people can watch the same fight and see things differently. I include detailed descriptions of the fights, training, negotiations, what other fighters were doing, racial, social, and legal context, perceptions by the local, national, and international press, both white and black, and the perspectives of sporting men, other boxers, managers, fighters, etc.”

In the end, what biographers reveal in their studies can change our entire perception of the figures we admire, for better or worse. The best biographies divulge stories within stories, subtle triumphs that add to already great legacies, a characterization that befits Pollack’s work on Jack Johnson. It is a biographical tour de force, and an essential component of any boxing historian’s collection, as it teaches us about the ugly nature of our past, and about the magical powers of resilience.

The boxing world eagerly awaits the sequel, In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part II: The Reign, where Pollack will describe the niceties of Johnson’s time as champion, most feared man in the world and object of venomous jealousy and hatred.

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  1. Björn Ljungberg 01:17pm, 06/10/2015

    Personally, I rank Jack Johnson as the best heavyweight ever. He was a marvel in the ring, especially in the rise to the title fight against Burns. To live with all the hate, and threat to his life must be a tremendous burden to handle. He dominated boxing from 1903 to 1915. Today, many fighters collapse after their first defeat and they are never the same fighter again.

  2. boxing gloves 03:51am, 09/26/2014

    very useful article. I know a lot about boxing glove in this article, thank you very much

  3. Eric 02:31pm, 07/07/2014

    Irish… Thank you, sir. Please don’t overrate me though, I don’t want to be another Jack Johnson. hehe. I think Art Linkletter said that 10 year olds and 80 year olds always gave the best interviews because of their honesty, and I’m somewhere in between. Maybe that’s what it is, God only knows I’ve had numerous times when my opinion wasn’t that readily accepted or appreciated.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:32am, 07/07/2014

    It could just be me and my predilections but for my part Eric’s posts are levels above the posts and comments found on other sites and rank with the very best submitted to Boxing.com.

  5. Eric 07:53am, 07/07/2014

    And we all know that Jim Brown wouldn’t dominate in today’s NFL like he did back in Sixties, so why do people assume a 184lb Marciano or a 212lb Ali would mop the floor with Lewis or the Klits?  Much was made about Johnson’s age when he lost to Willard but fact is that Willard was 33-34 years old himself, while Johnson was 37 years of age. Not a huge difference in age as one would have thought. As mentioned, the movie, “The Great White Hope,” distorted reality. In the movie, the character portraying Willard is nicknamed, “The Kid.” Willard in reality was certainly no “kid.” Size must be taken into the equation when evaluating heavyweights. People assume that Marciano would bulk up if he were fighting today, but in bulking up, wouldn’t Marciano lose some of that stamina that made him so great? Willard’s huge size was one of the main reasons he was able to defeat Johnson that day. And no doubt, Johnson, who was known as the “Galveston Giant” used his size advantage over much smaller men during his career. Size is an attribute just like punching power, hand speed, foot work, etc.

  6. Cheekay Brandon 07:01pm, 07/06/2014

    @nicolas

    Thank you for that.  FYI, this “black brethren” has both Marciano and Dempsey in his top 10 all-time, just like many other black brethren, and unlike many white brethren whose top 10s have neither. 

    Different strokes for different folks, and the Top X ever debates are eternally complicated by whether or not we are talking subjectively or objectively.  Objectively, a mediocre NFL running back of today would run wild in the NFL of the 1950s for obvious reasons. Subjectively, Jim Brown is the best ever by a mile.  Boxing isn’t much different—its not a stretch to say that the Klitchkos would probably make short work of most all-time greats in the HW division, even those far more accomplished. Subjectively, neither have accomplished what Marciano or Louis did (though Wlad is far closer than we tend to think).

    As for the point about whether the Klitschkos would be hated if they were American—I was watching and wincing, but had to interject after that point.  They’d be absolutely adored if they were American. Just like Kelly Pavlik and Mickey Ward were adored (me, a black brethren, was/am a huge fan of both), paid handsomely, perhaps in excess of what their in-the-ring accomplishments warranted (debatable in the case of Pavlik, but not in the case of Ward).  I have zero problem with this, btw. Its how demographics work in sports. But to argue the opposite of this is….well…silly.

  7. nicolas 03:05pm, 07/06/2014

    From Irish Frankie, ‘the most hated athletes in America’, I think not. they would be very popular in the USA if they were American. Had Gerry Cooney succeeded in becoming heavyweight champion he too would have been extremely popular. It is understandable however why world heavyweight champions who are white have not been so highly by as someone suggested by ‘our black brethren’. From the reign on Joe Louis, to the reign of Lennox Lewis, only some four or five years did a white heavyweight champion arise in Rocky Marciano and Ingemar Johansson. From Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali, you have six black men who were heavyweight champions, yet while countless white fighters were offered the chance to become heavyweight champion, only three other black fighters were offered that opportunity, and two were light heavyweight champions. i think though that Marciano today is more highly regarded than Dempsey, even by black people. The diminishing of Marciano was somewhat started by Larry Holmes, and he may have paid a price in the second Michael Spinks’ fight for his views. I think that as Clarence stated about Louis easing racial tensions, I feel that if people could have heard Johnson speak in the early part of the 20th century, as shown in the last YouTube video here, perhaps those tensions might have been eased.

  8. Eric 02:35pm, 07/06/2014

    @Jim Crue…Interesting story. Sorry to hear how the big guy was taken in by those worms. Beattie wouldn’t be outsized even by the giants of today. I think Jim was spot on about James Earl Jones’s pugilistic skills too. Carl Weathers is the only actor who played a boxer that was even remotely creditable. Of course, Weathers was an ex-professional athlete and the countless others were just plain old actors.  James Earl Jones looked totally out of his element, and doesn’t look like much of an athlete at all.  Still not a bad movie though,  just historically it is bullsheet, but what out of Hollyweird isn’t.  I know that Jake LaMotta stated that De Niro could’ve been a good boxer, but man come on,  Jake was obviously hyping the film and had to go with that same story years later, like his same old jokes. Thanks for sharing, and I wish Mr. Beattie the best.

  9. Jim Crue 02:08pm, 07/06/2014

    Hey Eric,
    you are correct about the Great White Hope. Jim Beattie is a good friend of mine. We live 2 blocks apart in Minneapolis. He just had his 72nd birthday. Two CBS documentaries were made about him in the 1960’s. He was managed by the NYC mob, a young guy from St. Paul,MN, had no idea who they were. He was trained by Freddie Fiero who was in the corner of Mickey Walker, Joey Maxim and Billy Conn among others. Jim really choreographed the fight scenes in the the movie. Mushy Callahan was the guy they hired but Jim has told me Mushy was shall we say not exactly with it any longer. Jim has great stories about the movie. He has told me James Earl Jones was a wonderful, albeit theatrical, guy who was not exactly a tough guy and very anxious during the boxing scenes.
    Jim gave me photos of him and his “team”  and Ray Arcel taken at Jack Dempsey’s restaurant. Jim told me Arcel took him in the basement and taught him more about boxing in an hour than he had learned up to that time. Arcel also asked him if he knew who the guys were that were managing him. Jim was very unsophisticated and did not catch on until the mob screwed him and left him adrift in NYC with no place to live and no money.

  10. Eric 08:30am, 07/06/2014

    Marciano is my favorite heavyweight and favorite fighter, but I do feel he is somewhat overrated, not to the degree Johnson is, but he definitely shouldn’t be in the top 5. I’ve even seen Marciano as high as #3 on some lists. Marciano is like Holmes, both started going up in the rankings years after their retirements. I do rank Marciano above Frazier, but fighters like Ali, Louis, Foreman, Lewis, Klitschko brothers, Tyson, Liston ( who is as underrated as Johnson is overrated), Tunney, Dempsey, should all rank above Marciano IMO. Tyson is another underrated fighter, who is mainly judged by his dismal performances in the latter stages of his career. Certain people through racial bias or political slants lift Johnson to some lofty status that he doesn’t deserve at all, IMO. However, his courage can’t be questioned. I have great admiration for a man who has the balls to not back down from his beliefs in front of overwhelming odds. As one poster commented, Johnson always had to fight the crowd as well as his opponent. Johnson like Marciano, are both often ranked in the top 5 of all time heavyweights, neither one realistically belongs there. Both of these fighters have fans who rank them way above what they realistically were, and haters who rank them far below what they realistically were.

  11. Eric 07:52am, 07/06/2014

    Hollyweird has certainly made plenty of boxing movies and one that isn’t bad is, “The Great White Hope,” starring James Earl Jones. As is often the case, Hollyweird gives a very inaccurate and slanted REEL version on REAL history. Jack Jefferson aka Jack Johnson speaks Ebonics in the REEL version of his life, but Johnson was articulate in REAL life. For the ultimate laugher look at how the film portrays the Willard fight. I can’t even get through watching the whole REAL Willard vs. Johnson fight, it is too damn BORING. But look at the REEL version,  Jefferson aka Johnson and Willard take turns flooring each other numerous times, at one point, Jefferson/Johnson drapes an exhausted Willard over the ropes. Willard is portrayed by REAL boxer Jim Beattie who was about 6’9” tall and wasn’t that bad a fighter in REAL life.

  12. Clarence George 10:07pm, 07/05/2014

    Irish has a point.  Among our black brethren, there’s an indefensible lack of regard for guys like Dempsey and Marciano (particularly the latter).  An acquaintance ranks Pep only in the top 30 among pound-for-pounders.  Top 30?!  C’mon, Willie is easily among the top five, at least the top 10.

  13. GROOVEY! 05:40pm, 07/05/2014

    In my opinion, no other fighter in the history of sports showed the courage that Jack Johnson showed. The mere fact that he actually fought and destroyed white men in stadiums with as many as 100,000 white people in attendance during the time period when lynching was legal. No other athlete has had to perform under those conditions. If Johnson had fought in any era after his, he would not even know what the word pressure stood for. That in itself shows how great a fighter he is.

  14. Winston Mount-Batten 03:17pm, 07/05/2014

    Jack Johnson is a myth, created by Nat Fleisher!!! Willard knocked him out and Dempsey would gave totally destroyed Johnson!!!

  15. Eric 09:32am, 07/05/2014

    Irish…All this time I thought the Klits were criticized and ignored by ESPN because they were “boring,” and boxing is no longer a first tier sport. I figured they might not be accepted because of their nationality, or maybe because of their funny accents, but not because they are w-h-i-t-e. Shhhhhhh.

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:03am, 07/05/2014

    All of this is so much horseshit under the wagon….this is 2014 not 1914….and the truth is this….over thirty years ago Larry Holmes was calling Gerry Cooney “the Great White Hoax” and today if the Klitschkos were Americans they would be the most hated athletes in the country…..thanks in large part to the suckass, self hating, politically correct, lap dog, mainstream media stenographers.

  17. Clarence George 09:03am, 07/05/2014

    You may indeed be right, Matt, but my guess is that most people (and probably truer of a hundred years ago than now) see boxing as primarily a matter of physical strength and skill, of brutishness, and tend to roll their eyes at the very idea of a boxer employing strategy, tactics, and overall ring intelligence.  I think what it comes down to is that many whites saw Johnson as a threat exactly because he so epitomized, at least in their eyes, all they feared and hated about the “jungle.”

  18. Eric 08:02am, 07/05/2014

    @Matt… Agreed on the cultural impact. And the criticism leveled at Dempsey and Marciano is somewhat justified. I’m starting to feel even these Gods of the Ring, could be somewhat overrated, but not nearly as much as Johnson. I remember seeing Reggie Jackson sitting down with Norton, Foreman, Frazier, Ali, and Holmes, at a restaurant, something to do with the film, “Champions Forever.” Anyhow, Holmes goes on a rant that he could’ve beaten Ali in his prime, Marciano, Frazier, etc., and that the only fighter he might have trouble beating was Jack Johnson. Even brash, arrogant, Larry Holmes has been inculcated by the Jack Johnson myth. Holmes would’ve beaten Johnson, IMO, but not in his own opinion. teehee. Holmes himself is overrated, but come on Larry, you are better than Jack Johnson. I would put Johnson in the top 25, maybe. People hear something for years and just automatically accept it as fact, never bother to questioning whether the it is myth, fact, or just plain old bullsh*t.

  19. Matt McGrain 06:35am, 07/05/2014

    Eric
    I would agree that the details of Johnson’s title run is very uninspiring.  But I don’t think that would have changed his cultural impact, for all that, yes, his title years are overrated.

  20. beaujack 05:48am, 07/05/2014

    How great was Jack Johnson as a fighter, we will never know. Nat Fleischer had the Galveston Giant as No.1, for what it’s worth. What I do know is as a youngster in the 1940s, my dad took me to Hubert’s Flea Circus on 42nd St. in Manhattan, where Jack Johnson was an added attraction performing in the basement, where I, my dad and others shook his paw. I knew little of him being so young, but I soon gained knowledge of the man known as “Lil Arthur”...About 2 years or so later I read that Johnson was killed in a car accident speeding to the Joe Louis/Billy Conn fight…Time marches on…

  21. Ted Spoon 05:19am, 07/05/2014

    Nicely done, Cheekay Brandon. To echo a little what Matt said, many newspapers kept banging on about how Johnson’s “weak midriff” could be his undoing against Jeffries. Some wrote matter-of-factly that, along with the black man’s dearth of intelligence, he couldn’t take a shot to the gut.

  22. Eric 04:57am, 07/05/2014

    Those “white guys” that Johnson was humiliating were either broken down shells of their former greatness or midgets. Let’s get real here. I love when people criticize Marciano or Dempsey’s title reigns but hardly anyone mentions how pathetic Johnson’s list of title opponents were. People will mention Johnson’s fights against fellow black fighters. Sam Langford, who stood all of 5’7 “(actually sometimes listed below that height) was relatively inexperienced at the time he fought Johnson. And Harry Wills is a fighter that is about as overrated as Johnson. Dempsey would’ve flat out murdered Wills, just as Marciano would’ve slaughtered Nino Valdez, just people wanting to say these fighters avoided these fighters because they were black. Johnson beat little 5’7 1/2” Tommy Burns for the title. Three of Johnson’s most notable opponents stood under 5’10,” Ketchel was 5’9” and weighed barely above 160lbs when he fought Johnson, Burns and Langford weren’t even 5’8.” haha. Another great little guy that Johnson beat was a washed up 40 year old version of Bob Fitzsimmons. This is laughable. Johnson is regularly rated in the top 10,  a great deal of the time in the top 5,  for beating up midgets? Sure, big Jim Jeffries is a real heavyweight, but he hadn’t fought in 5 years and ballooned to over 300lbs, Jeffries had to lose nearly 100lbs to get in shape to fight Johnson, not to mention he was very old 35. Then people believe the crap that Johnson “threw” his fight with Willard. bwaaa. Who in the hell “throws” a fight but waits till the 26th round to take the dive. This is truly laughable.

  23. Matt McGrain 03:32am, 07/05/2014

    Hey Clarence.
    I think the reason that Johnson was so problematic was his style in the ring.  Yes, like Sonny Liston, he confirmed the stereotype that frightened white America at the time, but the real problem wasn’t his strength, but his enormous ability and outstanding generalship.  My impression is that the archetype frightened them, yes, but it was the things that contradicted “the other” that were truly terrifying.  Blacks were “stronger” but they were also less intelligent and less brave.  So to see a fearless genius out-thinking white guys and humiliating them was terrifying.

  24. Clarence George 11:14pm, 07/04/2014

    I’m not a Jungian, despite my interest in synchronicity, but I wonder if whites (anyway, some of them) saw Jack Johnson as an archetype, as the quintessential representation and symbol of the black man as they understood him to be—a savage or animal.  They couldn’t deny his success in the ring, but they could rationalize it.  “Sure, Johnson beat Jeffries and the others.  But what do you expect?  Blacks are just naturally stronger and more ferocious than we are.  Everybody knows that.”  This attitude would be greatly diminished during the reign of Joe Louis. Several reasons for that, but one of them is that the Bomber was far more sympatico and three-dimensional than Johnson, and did more than many people know or understand to humanize blacks in the eyes of whites, thus significantly easing racial tensions.

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