Boxing by the Book: “In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part II: The Reign”

By Cheekay Brandon on May 23, 2016
Boxing by the Book: “In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part II: The Reign”
John Arthur “Jack” Johnson toyed with his opponents using advanced cognitive tools.

Adam Pollack doubles down on the compound historical microscope that made the first book so remarkable…

“As I look back on life…I feel mine has been a full life, and above all, a human life.”—John Arthur “Jack” Johnson

Adam Pollack’s first book on John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, 2013’s In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part I: The Rise, set the origin story for one of boxing’s most provocative historical figures. It was unprecedented in length, scope, and granularity, written for both casual fans and the sturdy bookshelves of academic historians. Over 700 pages in length, it was as expansive a boxing biography as you will find, and yet, only covered Johnson’s ascent to champion status (“The Rise”), and not the events of Johnson’s life as champion (“The Reign”).

In his latest book, In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part II: The Reign, Adam Pollack doubles down on the compound historical microscope that made the first book so remarkable, and takes us inside the life of Jack Johnson after his victory over Tommy Burns (Dec. 1908) in the world heavyweight championship, starting the “Great White Hope” era of boxing. What follows is another monstrosity of a text, the product of a staggering amount of research. Part II: The Reign tells many stories, but for the sake of discussion can be divided into two thematic halves: Johnson’s run of dominance in the “Great White Hope” era (Chapters 1-12) and the circumstances behind his legal troubles and eventual fall from champion status (Chapters 13-20).

THE GREAT WHITE HOPE ERA
The book spends nearly 500 pages on the “Great White Hope” era, where white fighter after white fighter was buoyed as the potential vanquisher of the mostly maligned but unbeatable Johnson. The book chronicles the mounting hype between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, with Jeffries emerging as the best candidate to humble the despised Jack Johnson. In covering this epoch, the book features many of the major fights leading up to Jeffries: bouts with Tony Ross (June 1909), Al Kaufman (Sept. 1909), and Stanley Ketchel (Oct. 1909).  Pollack captures the looming shadow of Jeffries vs. Johnson, all while delivering the boxing scientific details for the pure fight fan. For example, Pollack provides play-by-play on round three in his fight against Al Kaufman (Page 125):

“[Jack] Johnson set a fast pace, repeatedly using left and rights to the body and head. Jack drove a wicked left to the jaw and followed with a hard clout to the stomach. He cut loose with more right uppercuts, one of which badly cut Kaufman’s lip and broke his teeth, causing the blood to spurt and spray from his mouth in profuse torrents.”

In doing so, Pollack displays all the historical chops of a first-rate boxing scholar while providing the animated commentary of your everyday Jim Lampley. This is a theme with Pollack’s writing: the ability to pull off several challenging writing feats simultaneously.

As the book’s pace slows in approaching the Jeffries fight, Pollack recreates the zeitgeist of those times: the imminent fight with Jim Jeffries isn’t simply between two champions, or a fight between a white man and a black man. It was the “Battle of the Races,” whose outcome was burdened with as many social implications as any sporting event in history (to that point, and perhaps still). The date of the fight, July 4, 1910 (Independence Day) was no accident: this fight was about who belonged and who didn’t, when the Negro race was to be put in their place for good.

Pollack cites local news in Nevada (Page 351):

“The negro population of the south is intensely interested in the outcome of the great battle, believing that the fight will determine the social position of the black man in the society of the nation.”

But Pollack does more than simply tell us that there was animosity towards Johnson; he is able to convey its perverse nature. What aggravated whites about Johnson wasn’t simply that he was winning, but how he was winning. In the standard stuff of racist phantom (often double) standards, Johnson’s tactful engagements were labeled as his “yellow streak,” that he was afraid to actually fight. This “yellow streak” label was nothing more than expressed frustration with how Johnson was toying with his opponents using advanced cognitive tools: an advanced understanding of angles, timing, pacing, ring generalship (all characteristics that Johnson was ahead of his time in mastering).

Pollack highlights how Johnson eventually deconstructed this myth in the eyes of many (Page 424):

Jack Johnson “proved to the satisfaction of the writer, at least, that the ‘yellow streak’ so commonly reported to be one of the natural inheritance of the negro was ‘left at home’ in his case, and that he could take, as well as administer, a glove punching at the hands of the foeman of equal girth and measurement.”

Johnson’s very obvious strategic advantages in the ring became difficult to deny after he conquered Jeffries in such dominating fashion.  And while Johnson momentarily won the “Battle of Races”, that victory ultimately brought him as much grief as glory.

THE UNITED STATES vs. JACK JOHNSON
Unsurprisingly, racial animus in the U.S. and abroad increased after the decisive defeat of Jeffries. It is at this juncture that Johnson’s full-on collision with the train of racism occurs, long developing throughout his career. In this, Pollack highlights how the victory over Jeffries seeded an unbridled white rage that made Johnson the pariah for all things that racists feared about Black Americans: their potential excellence, independence, and equality.

Pollack describes a series of events ranging from Johnson being charged with striking a chauffeur (July, 1912) to the now infamous case of the United States of America vs. Jack Johnson, the “White-slave traffic Act” or Mann Act trial, in which he was accused of transporting a woman across state boundaries for “the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent and purpose to induce, entice, or compel such woman or girl to become a prostitute or giver herself to debauchery, or to engage in any other immoral practice…” 

These charges followed Johnson’s brazen public appearances with numerous white women. Because of ambiguity in the language of the Mann Act, it could be twisted to apply to anyone that authorities found unwelcome (a cocky black heavyweight champion more than fitting the bill) as sexual relations between black men and white women were at least a taboo, and in many places outright forbidden.

The events that lead to the “White-slave traffic Act” trial are documented in a pivotal Chapter 15, Impediments and Tragedies, which begins just after his Independence Day victory over Jim Flynn (July 4, 1912). The case against Johnson builds slowly before being formally examined in Chapter 16, The United States vs. Jack Johnson. Adam Pollack’s experience as an accomplished attorney is on display in these chapters, as he demonstrates a mastery of the legal literature in providing a highly nuanced background to the Mann Act trial. Pollack skillfully weaves together the legal history with the social climate that was the trial’s ambiance. In the process, he even introduces us to complexities of the Johnson case that might surprise the casual reader, notably, that the black community was strongly divided over their support of Jack Johnson. The great educator Booker T. Washington summarizes some of the black community’s opposition to Jack Johnson (Page 669):

“It is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions.”

Many in the black community felt that Johnson’s actions reflected poorly on the entire race, and consequently, that many would suffer because of them. This left Johnson without a solid bedrock of support, short on sympathy, and more vulnerable to public scolding. There were other members of the black community, however, that were fully supportive of Jack Johnson despite his less-than-perfect persona, seeing the injustices at face value. In their eyes, he might not have been the perfect victim, but he was a victim nonetheless.

Pollack details just how virulent the racism was surrounding the Mann Act trial, quoting local newspapers (West Liberty Kentucky’s Licking Valley Courier, page 675):

“[Johnson had] tried the stunt that every nigger who is given the opportunity tries – To equalize himself with white people.”

These sentiments were not uncommon, and through Pollack’s deft use of a diversity of sources, we are reminded that this was the reality for Jack Johnson (and millions of others).

A HUMAN LIFE
Over 800 pages in length, Part II: The Reign was a challenging book to review: how could I recapitulate the vast amount of content? But while Part II: The Reign might appear bloated, it is better described as a lengthy read, but not a difficult one. The writing is casual in tone, which is an achievement given how well it deconstructs a history as rich and complicated as Jack Johnson’s. If readers are time-limited and unable to take on all 800 pages at a time, I encourage them to approach this book chapter by chapter, perhaps even skipping around to those pieces of history or figures that they are curious about (thankfully, the index makes this easy on the reader). For example, I might argue that the specifics of, and fallout from, the Mann Act trial (Chapters 15-17) are given such comprehensive treatment that it could qualify as a stand-alone book. That said, Pollack’s decision to convey the Jack Johnson experience in its entirety, through a chronological narrative is appropriate: by reading the events of Johnson’s life in order, you learn how the experiences are interconnected, with racism a ubiquitous and pernicious presence through them all.

Part II: The Reign is among the most well researched biographies I’ve had the pleasure of encountering (sports, or other): the amount of care that went into its construction is monumental and a testament to Pollack’s dedication to covering Johnson’s life with great acuity. And while the story of Jack Johnson probably doesn’t qualify as “untold,” (there have been several books and films about him) no prior works have tackled it with anywhere near Pollack’s rigor. In Part II: The Reign, we learn that Johnson was a pugilistic savant, imperfectly glorious, a man who lived a life that we can learn from and be inspired by.

And in the end, Pollack’s work doesn’t only tell us the ins and outs of the Johnson experience, but also provides a fitting biographical metaphor for racism in America (and perhaps, the world). After all, study the history of racism and several themes emerge: how power, and wealth, and sex play a role; how theories on the immutable “nature” of some races vs. others are also central; how the “inferior culture” of certain groups colors our justifications for discrimination and segregation. All of these motifs are visible in the rise and reign of John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, robustly and carefully captured in Adam Pollack’s two-part history, a new standard to which microscopic examinations of historical figures, boxing or other, should be held.

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  1. Cheekay Brandon 02:42am, 05/29/2016

    @The Fight Film Collector: too many to capture in a short review. And the even the events that are the same are covered in muuuuuuuuch greater detail. I’m traveling and don’t have access to my library at the moment or would point out a few things. But the detail is far better.

  2. The Fight Film Collector 09:47am, 05/27/2016

    What events are covered “In The Ring” that wasn’t covered in Geoffrey C. Ward’s 2004 “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”, and in the Ken Burns documentary?

  3. Lindy Lindell 10:37am, 05/23/2016

    Thanks Cheekay.  I wouldn’t want to think that Pollock was pulling another Robert Caro with his bio of Lyndon Johnson that he may well not complete.
    I’m wondering if you could tell me about the Johnson arrest in Detroit and other Detroit connections (he has been said to be an agent to putting musical acts in a nightclub called Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a Detroit suburb) inasmuch as neither of these appear in any of the previous biographies.

  4. Cheekay Brandon 10:12am, 05/23/2016

    Post fight career and the like are covered, and quite well. Could only talk about a sample of the content in a review, as the amount of information in the book is substantial.  Highly recommend.

  5. Lindy Lindell 09:22am, 05/23/2016

    Given that Part II is called “The Reign” and given that Brandon ends his review with the Jeffries fight, I’m wondering:  Are the ensuing riots covered?
    Is the rest of Johnson’s reign going to be covered?  Is Johnson’s arrest in Detroit shortly after the Jeffries fight covered?  Does Pollack intend to cover Johnson’s post-fight career in a 3d or 4th volume?

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