Jack Johnson, the Unknowable

Many, if not most of the heavyweight champions set their stories down in autobiographies (usually with the help of professional writers), but of all of these books, none can compare with Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out. For voice, style, and sheer audacity, it’s unmatched. Though a good portion of the book is likely fabricated, distorted, or imagined, Johnson’s irrepressible voice comes out on every page: willful, relentlessly egotistical, self-deluding (perhaps consciously, if that even makes sense), and so literate and charming that it is hard to resist, even as the knowledgeable reader must keep in mind that he is being bamboozled.

For those not familiar with Johnson, he was probably the most complex, multidimensional man ever to hold the heavyweight title. For white Americans of his time, he was close to Public Enemy Number One—a black man who bested white men in the ring and bedded white women outside of it. White America's hatred for Johnson played the crucial role (though Johnson's recklessness offered an assist) in his prosecution in 1913 for violation of the Mann Act, which prohibited the transport of women across state lines "for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or any other immoral purpose." He was convicted on charges generally regarded today as trumped-up and still a matter of interest for those campaigning for a posthumous pardon. Instead of serving his time, he fled the country, embarking on a series of adventures in Europe and Latin American before crossing the border in 1920, agreeing at last to serve a one-year sentence in Leavenworth.

He was a man of many interests: music, literature, art, and, according to one British boxing contemporary who spent some time with him, theories of early-childhood development (though Johnson, as far as we know, had no children himself). Regarded in his day as a master of defensive boxing—“he had a knack of catching punches as an outfielder catches a baseball,” Damon Runyon wrote—his skills at parrying extended well beyond the ring. Though he was brave—heedlessly brave—and admirable in other respects, too, he was never a reliable source on events concerning his highly eventful life. He was a teller of tales, rather brilliant in his fashion, but also exasperating; he layers so much contrivance, or seeming contrivance, on almost every story that separating artifice from fact requires an act of will (or, more promisingly, secondary sources).

In the Ring and Out is oddly structured—it seems to begin and end, then begin again. I’ll skip over what to boxing people will be the more obvious stuff, such as Johnson’s allegations that he “took a dive” against Jess Willard in 1915, losing his title on purpose, and that the photo of him shading his eyes in the Cuban sun proves it. He made this allegation years before publishing this autobiography, so he was not breaking any news when he retold his account here. Unless some astounding new evidence surfaces to the contrary, his claim is safely regarded as bunk.

The real fascination of In the Ring and Out is what it tells us about Johnson as a person. He never lost his sense of himself as a grand subject and his life as a modern legend worthy of endless retelling—in which the details could change shape and substance as he saw fit, since he always remained the hero. Part of the intrigue for the reader is trying to parse when he is in earnest, when he is knowingly deceiving us, and when he is perhaps deceiving himself. For those of a literary bent, he is a classic real-world example of the unreliable narrator.

Jack Johnson's   In the Ring and Out  , originally published in 1928; the cover above is from Citadel's 1992 reprint edition.

Jack Johnson's In the Ring and Out, originally published in 1928; the cover above is from Citadel's 1992 reprint edition.

Johnson’s egotism is never more than a few pages away. He was in London at the time of George V’s coronation in 1910, he writes (an event memorably described by Barbara Tuchman in her opening to The Guns of August). As Johnson tells it, even though the coronation brought throngs of royal families from around Europe, whenever his car was spotted, people flocked to him and forgot all about King George. 

Elsewhere, Johnson mentions that he has met world leaders from King Edward and King Alfonso of Spain to French statesmen like Poincare and Joseph Caillaux, and Teddy Roosevelt; but while he is eager to ask these men questions about politics and the like, he never gets much chance—they're too busy asking him questions about himself! 

Likewise, during the portion of his exile that he spent in Mexico, Johnson’s train is set upon by a band of wild, ruthless Yaqui Indians, and he and his fellow passengers fear for their lives—until the Indians recognize him,  and let everyone go.

Johnson’s athletic prowess knows no bounds, in his telling. In Australia, he outraces a kangaroo, which finally collapses, dead, while Johnson is none the worse for wear. He also runs a jack rabbit to death. He claims these events were reported in Sydney newspapers. I’m sure something was reported in the Sydney newspapers.

“Throughout the half century of my life," he writes, "events have whirled about me in an amazing manner and either engulfed me or lifted me with scarcely any effort or thought on my part.” To hear him tell it, it was just the winds of fate, not his own willfulness, that shaped his dramatic life. Does he really believe this? Maybe. But I always picture him winking.

“I have lived rapidly, intensely, eagerly.” No winking here. On this, no one would argue.

“In the fifty years of my life," he writes, "there has been such a rapid change in human habits and thoughts that, when the two extremes are compared, one feels that he has suddenly leaped from one form of existence to another.” Johnson was speaking about the period from 1878, when he was born, to 1928, when his autobiography appeared, and you could make a good argument that that half-century saw greater change to the material conditions of human life than any other.

“Woman cannot enjoy equality and chivalry at the same time.” This forecast has apparently proved out, along with some other Johnson observations that seem remarkably contemporary. He chides Americans for eating their food too fast, he thinks that we are becoming increasingly sedentary in a mechanized age, and he worries what will become of family stability as more women seek to compete with men. 

 “The more that is written and said concerning one who has held public interest, the less the public knows about that person.” Another contemporary observation, truer today than ever. Yet it’s rich to hear Johnson, a master of disinformation, point it out.

“If the troubles of Job were compared with the troubles of Jack Johnson, I think that mine would be found the more intense, for they struck at my soul, while Job’s greatest cause for complaint was that he had been deprived of his worldly possessions and his health.” To call this grandiose feels too obvious. I sense that Johnson is enjoying himself here, though he doesn't point out a more obvious contrast between himself and Job: Job’s misfortunes were foisted upon him, while Johnson’s were inextricably bound up with his own decisions.

“I have found no better way of avoiding racial prejudice than to act in my relations with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist.” Johnson was, in a sense, post-racial long before such a concept was articulated; he lived as if there were no restrictions on him. At the same time, his consistent attraction to white women, usually prostitutes, suggests a deeper awareness of race than perhaps he was even aware of. Randy Roberts puts it well when he writes that white women "provided both a badge of [Johnson's] advanced status and reminder of his inferior position. To expect his attitude to be anything other than ambivalent would ignore the complexity of the man or the situation."

“Even a boxer must come in contact with life and its many problems.” Johnson’s life embodied this truism. 

Of all the characters I wrote about in The Boxing Kings, Johnson remains, for me, the most mysterious and unknowable.



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