Boxing is absolutely filled with loud mouth schnooks, bragging and smack talking their challengers and providing a great deal of entertainment value in not only their athletics prowess but also as rather dramatic characters that put on quite a show, before, during and after their bouts. While everyone is familiar with the legendary stories of Ali and his exclamations of being the Greatest or Roy Jones Jr. who currently makes use of his big mouth by both taunting opponents and rapping.
Jack Johnson was one of the originators of this tradition even before the turn of the 20th century. Back in 1897, Johnson liked to tease and mock anyone that was slated to fight against him in an effort to first create intimidation in his adversaries as well as to wind up the primarily white audiences. It amped up the level of entertainment and served to draw more people to his fights if only to jeer and boo him while he was in the ring. It was a wise strategy in these days of racism and favoritism. The press, of course, made him out to be the bad guy thus proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
His brash personality might have been what originally drew the crowds but it was his fighting style that kept them coming back for more. Johnson went more than 10 years without being defeated. He was known for carrying his antics one step further even in the ring, humiliating and playing with his rivals by holding them up when they went down so that he could continue to pummel them.
He had a very strategic boxing style, stepping back from his jabs immediately after they were delivered so that his opponents’ punches would rarely land and if they did, the change in distance would ensure that they were reduced in power. He dodged and sidestepped blows, tiring his opponents before he grew more aggressive and went at them full throttle.
Consistent to the racial tension of the times, boxing fans were impatient for a “great white hope” to rise and beat Johnson and end his reign of impertinent mockery. Fighters came out of retirement to train and take him on including James Jeffries, creating an extraordinary buzz around the approaching bout between the two. But that didn’t stop Johnson – Jeffries knew that he was outmatched and threw in the towel in surrender. Johnson enjoyed a small degree of peace from naysayers and the press for a short time afterward.
While numerous other black fighters showed up in the ring over this time, it was Johnson’s confrontational style and seeming invincibility that triggered racial riots in his vicinity. He received many threats and was imprisoned for attempting to travel with his Caucasian fiancee. Apparently, a law was in place connecting transportation and immorality that conveniently allowed the law to punish Johnson out of hatred rather than concern for his soon to be wife. It really was the drama and controversy and the ability of authority to castigate Johnson that truly the greater toll on him. He and his wife fled the country and lived in exile for seven years before returning to serve out his sentence.
Johnson continued to fight until 1938 until he was 60 years old and died in 1946 in a car crash.
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