Jack Johnson: Shufflin’ in the Shadows

By Ted Spoon on December 18, 2013
Jack Johnson: Shufflin’ in the Shadows
“Louis’ stance is wrong. As a matter of fact, he hasn't any. His feet are too close together.”

There would be no more tomfoolery. Internal injuries are the culprit but it would be just as accurate to say Jack Johnson died of natural causes…

“Age merely shows what children we remain.”—Goethe

Still smiling…

It’s 1944 and Jack Johnson has got the gloves on again. Towering in the opposite corner is old rival Jess Willard, famous for decking Lil’ Arthur in the bruising climate of Havana. There’s no do-or-die atmosphere on this occasion, scheduled to box a friendly exhibition. Johnson has been notably active in these fundraisers, a fact of which America finally approves, but we can’t pretend he gets his kicks from being a do-gooder. Jack looks textbook mischievous at the first bell. 

Each feint is savored. There’s even some impressive agility on show. Physique is a different story. It’s Johnson’s sixty-sixth birthday and the thick muscles which use to trap opponents have miserably deflated. In terms of height and weight, Jack was never huge, but he was ominously built. It’s hard to believe that the colored gent with the sunken chest and withered arms held the heavyweight title for seven years.

Age has mellowed the great man, in a sense. Johnson’s spirit is unmistakable. Later asked about the current crop of boxers…

“They’ve got plenty of nothing.”

Through with the event he slips back into a neatly tailored suit. A bowler hat covers that shaven head and in a snap he’s outside. If you’re too young to know who Jack Johnson is you will at least spot an elderly chap walking with purpose. Despite a stormy past this cat has plenty left to do.

Five years ago the end looked near. 

While America ushered in 1940, Johnson was bedridden with pneumonia. The public are informed of this via newspapers columns about the size of postage stamps. Few would have cared had he passed, even fans of the sport (many of them now big Joe Louis fans). Jack Blackburn would have rejoiced. Instead the former champ regained his strength, picked up his cane and got back to doing what he loved; sparring with the sport that made him. 

In the same year Jack Dempsey, forty-five, came out of retirement to shut the pie hole of Cowboy Luttrell, an arrogant wrestler. Little more than a week later, while Dempsey fans were drooling over an unlikely pop at Louis, Johnson threw down the gauntlet to Dempsey in the form of a three-six round exhibition. Reminded about the seventeen year difference between them Johnson asserted “That makes it even easier. I’ve got seventeen years more experience.” 

Dempsey had been goaded back in the ‘20s, when the Mauler was a bad man. They would never share a ring but this was a minor gripe. Joe Louis was different. Johnson remained his number one critic.

Originally chased away from their camp back in 1934, Johnson’s helping hand came across like a poisonous tentacle. There was not a chance Louis’ well-oiled team would let such a rogue into the group. Johnson’s desire to teach didn’t suffer; if anything it increased. Tweaking heavyweight contenders became a focus of his. 

The promising figure of Leroy Haynes caught the old man’s attention. Big things were expected of this boxer (his manager modestly declared a splice of Bob Fitzsimmons and Joe Gans), but twice stopping Primo Carnera and waging war with Al Ettore would be as glorious as it got. A few years later Harry Bobo encouraged Johnson to visit Pittsburgh, a boxer with range and a spiteful punch. The chance of turning a good fighter into a genuine threat was exciting but Haynes’ limitations would also become apparent after tangling with the big boys.

1941 offered Johnson the best chance and it came in the hulking form of Abe Simon, next challenger to Joe Louis’ crown. Not the most natural of fighters, Abe listened carefully as Johnson tinkered with his stance in the stuffy confines of Stillman’s gym; the idea was to get everyone one of those 255 lbs. behind his fists.

“I’m not predictin’ nothin’, but anything can happen if Abe lands on Louis’ chin.”

Lasting thirteen rounds was quite the achievement though, evidently, Simon needed more than dynamite.

Jack “Chappie” Blackburn could leave the Olympia Stadium comfortably, for now. Louis’ beloved trainer continued his battle with alcohol amidst failing health. In Joe’s last bout before the war (a rematch with Simon) Blackburn listened from a Chicago hospital bed as his pupil did the business inside of six. A month later Chappie was gone. 

Johnson wasn’t the kind of fellow to sit around and reminisce, but the passing of Blackburn may have urged him to spare a thought for his former opponents…Tommy Burns had turned to religion, Jim Jeffries was forty years content at Burbank, California. Thing weren’t going so well for Sam Langford, penniless in Harlem, often whistling to himself come Christmas. 

If Johnson’s thoughts did wander, he didn’t stumble on them. Boxing exhibitions, conducting jazz bands, and driving like there’s no tomorrow across States; the old man was wired. Keeping busy during the war was essential to make a buck. A hectic existence sure, but there was always a window to park it, light up and read the print. In February of 1943 there was a headline to prompt the king of all golden smiles. 

Jack Johnson Rated Greatest Champion, With Louis Fifth

No less than James J. Johnston, renowned matchmaker and manager, figured that Johnson “would have defeated any other fighter who ever became champion.” Such praise only fuelled Jack to act boldly and sure enough he was challenging Louis in the fall “to entertain soldiers or in an arena to sell war bonds”, or so he reasoned. If Johnson could be seen to get the better of Joe, even if only for a moment…the delight would be immeasurable.

Unsurprisingly, they never touched gloves, but Johnson kept that possibility at the end of his jab. Next year came the Willard exhibition which us brings us back to that well-dressed pedestrian.   

Third wife Irene Pineau is still by his side, and photographs taken of the couple are cosy, but most of Johnson’s time is spent in the cellar of a New York Flea Circus where he provides flickers of what was. Every now and then the chance to oppose modern contenders like King Levinsky and Lee Savold appears. It’s rare for there to be no spectators though you’d be mistaken for thinking black folk are right behind him. Many are sore over the fact Johnson “never had a good word to say about a colored fighter” and they gladly missed his arrogant strut; not quite the hero of Reno.

Two years on sees the end of the war and the same old Johnson.

The absolute truth behind his fight with Willard continues to snare reporters and he enjoys being vague, the verbal equivalent of marching opponents off-balance. There remains a conniving element to the great man, a childish glint which deals in bullshit and gets off on frustration. Reporter Harry Grayson would have been aware of this when he fished for Johnson’s opinion on the much hyped rematch between Joe Louis and Billy Conn. When they met Lil’ Arthur was straight down the pipe.

Conn and his 13th round heroics were grilled for starters. Johnson quickly got on to critiquing Joe, and he didn’t leave anything out this time.

“Louis’ stance is all wrong. As a matter of fact, he hasn’t any. His feet are too close together. He stands too square, has no backdrop. He can be spun in any direction, is easily knocked off balance and down.” 

Your feet must be positioned so. Then it’s your hands.

“Louis holds his hands too close to his chin, lacks the tremendous advantage enjoyed by the boxer who properly uses his left hand like the rudder of a boat, and is in position to move quickly in any direction.”

It’s all spoken through a grin, but there’s nothing insincere about his two cents. 

If Johnson was subtlety communicating his mastery over Joe it wasn’t a theory lacking in faith. Despite Louis’ solid relationship with the public it was a widely held opinion that Johnson’s defensive, sharp-shooting would have diffused the Brown Bomber. Johnson’s last remark is that the $100 ticket price set by Mike Jacobs for Louis-Conn II is ludicrous, pointing at harmful downtime they’ve both had. 

“This time there’s likely to be two hollow shells.”

Fortunately, Jack would not be around to suffer “The Flop of the Year.” 

Johnson carried on with his kamikaze timetable which landed him in Texas. It was the usual gig there, shufflin’ to his own tune, boasting to anyone who cared to listen. Inevitably the aging performer missed the bustle of New York and prepared for a long trip back. Cruising through North Carolina, Johnson and his companion Fred Scott needed to refuel, their stomachs that is. A diner in the town of Raleigh seemed like a good idea. Ordered to eat outside for reasons all too familiar, that golden smile disappeared. Lunch was tasteless. 

The pair got back into Johnson’s 1939 Lincoln Zephyr.

Never one to roll down the road, Johnson is off like a shot and the veteran with the hearing-aid turns boy racer. Seventy mph is nothing out of the ordinary for this petrol-head but, seething over lunch, Johnson isn’t thinking clearly. Near the town of Franklinton is where things start to get hairy. Approaching a turn, the man renowned for his cool attitude does something completely out of character; he misjudges and loses control. Impact follows. 

A bent telephone pole is not the only thing that needs repairing.

Fred’s injuries are minor while Johnson is barely conscious of the fact St. Agnes Hospital is his next stop. A few hours later the doctors stop working. There would be no more tomfoolery. Internal injuries are the culprit but it would be just as accurate to say Jack Johnson died of natural causes.

Tomorrow’s tributes come in at a healthy pulse; for whatever hostility America reserved for the former champ it doesn’t mask the truth. Not only was Johnson great but many (white men) go to their grave insisting he was the best. That superb defense, his longevity; praise is divided into popular categories. One reporter hit on a deeper note, stressing the importance of Jack Johnson in the legend of Joe Louis. 

Most blacks would consider that an honor. 

With relish, Jack would’ve considered it an insult.

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  1. Darrell 08:29pm, 12/22/2013

    Fine read…...conjures up a time when a man could live off his wits.  Seems like this truly great fighter did just that!

    From what I’ve read Johnson was what we down under would call a larriken or a hangman….in other words, a bit of a lovable rogue.

  2. beaujack 09:23pm, 12/21/2013

    This thread about Jack Johnson reminds me of the time in the 1940s that my dad took me to Huberts Flea Circus on 42st near 7th avenue where Jack Johnson appeared as a side attraction…In the basement Lil Arthur wearing a beret punched a little bag, and answered questions from the fans watching…My dad and I along with a few others then shook hands with the former great champion. I at that time knew little of Jack Johnson but soon started to read about him….About a few years later I read that he died in a car crash, as he was driving to see the second Joe Louis/ Billy Conn fight in 1946…Hell, as a youngster I shook the hand of a guy who stopped Stanley Ketchel and Jim Jeffries…

  3. Matt McGrain 02:07pm, 12/20/2013

    Jolly good.  Got this one in right before the Adam Pollack deadline!!

  4. Eric 02:05pm, 12/19/2013

    @nicolas….Exactamundo!! This has been going on forever.  Only a few heavyweight champs like Tyson are ranked highly at first but slip down in rankings after they retire. Usually someone like a Marciano or say a Larry Holmes are not nearly regarded as highly while they were active as they are several years after they have retired. Look at articles written on fighters like Holmes or say Marciano while they were active compared to articles long after they’ve hung up the gloves. The one thing I do find baffling is how back during the Ali and Holmes eras that a lot of boxing experts were conceding that fighters like Marciano, Dempsey, Tunney, Charles, and others were too small to compete against the 220-225lb heavyweights of that era. Now all of a sudden, people like Marciano and Dempsey are not only large enough to compete against 6’3” 220lb heavyweights but even heavyweights who stand 6’6”-6’7” and weigh 240-250lbs. Amazing!?!?

  5. Mike Casey 11:53am, 12/19/2013

    Does our Ted ever write a bad article? No, he doesn’t. ‘Reads like a song’ says Fight Film Collector. Yes, it does.

  6. nicolas 10:20pm, 12/18/2013

    Johnson’s answer about “today’s heavyweights” back in the 40’s is common, “they have plenty of nothing”. When Johnson won the heavyweight championship back in 1908, the same thing was said that the heavyweights weren’t that good, and that is why Johnson is champion. Many of the ‘boxing experts’ back in the 40’s also said the same thing about the 1940 fighters, yet many of us today feel that people like Sugar Ray Robinson, and Willie Pep were the best fighters ever. After the First Ali-Frazier fight, Nat Fleischer said that Rocky Marciano, who he had tenth best of all time would have knocked out Ali in 10. Now today, many of us revere Ali as the best heavyweight of all time, and Mike Silver has said how someone like Jersey Joe Walcott would have taken out Wlad Klitschko in two rounds. Who knows, perhaps in 60 years people will say that Vitali Klitschko was the greatest heavyweight of all time.

  7. Clarence George 08:57pm, 12/18/2013

    Very nice piece on one of the truly great heavyweights.

    I’m reminded of an article I read long ago about a top-flight amateur, 30 years Johnson’s junior, who got into the ring with Johnson at the former champ’s insistence.  The amateur intended to take it easy on the old man.  Presumptuous pup!  He soon got the message that Johnson, however much he creaked, could literally kill him at any time.  A lesson in humility and in having respect for one’s elders…and betters.

  8. The Fight Film Collector 07:29pm, 12/18/2013

    Reads like a song.  Thank you, Ted.

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