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The Galveston giant



Muhammad Ali could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee in the boxing ring, Sugar Ray Leonard is probably the fastest boxer to this day, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson perhaps the best puncher pound for pound in the history of the sport, Roy Jones Junior the most talented of the lot, and Floyd Mayweather the richest in the history of the sport. All of these men are remembered for their pugilistic excellence, real gladiators of the modern era, but there is a figure I met on a library shelf those many years ago in 1993 that is greater than all of these ones combined. This is a figure whose finesse in the ring easily beats that of Sugar Ray, whose bravado makes Muhammad Ali’s antics similar to an altar boy’s. Even Roberto ‘Manos de piedra’ Duran’s hands of stone could not punch harder than this overconfident black boy from Galveston, Texas’ hands punching the seeing daylights out of prejudice in the early 1900’s. And if you thought Floyd Mayweather is living large, think again, because Jack ‘The Galveston Giant’ Johnson knew what living large meant, driving around in the best automobiles when the Ford motor car was a toddler, and Mercedes Benz had not yet shed its milk teeth. With a killer smile that had throngs of white women following him around in an age (The Jim Crow Era) when it was illegal for a black man to even think about dating a white girl, Jack Johnson proved to the world what being the greatest really meant. Greatness knows no bounds, no colour bars, no racial lines, no prejudices, it darn walks all over them and makes them worship and lick its boots and kiss its behind in wonderment and worship. This was Jack Johnson, this is Jack Johnson, the greatest boxer of all time in doubter and believer’s books. John Arthur Johnson was born on March 31st, 1878, the third of Henry and Tina Johnson’s nine children. Tina and Henry were former slaves who worked service jobs as a janitor and a dishwasher, and his father Henry served as a civilian teamster of the Union’s 38th Colored Infantry. Jack (as he came to be affectionately known in the boxing) described his father as the “most perfect physical specimen that he had ever seen”, although he was left with an atrophied right leg from his service in the war. Growing up in Galveston, a poor secluded corner on the Texas coast, Johnson attended five years of school because like all of his siblings, Jack was expected to work. It is said that as a young man, the giant Johnson was frail, which is quite a surprising factor if one looks at his physical achievements later in life. Although Johnson grew up in the South, he said that segregation was not an issue in the somewhat secluded city of Galveston, as everyone living in the 12th Ward was poor and went through the same struggles. Jack remembered growing up with a ‘gang’ of white boys, in which he never felt victimised or excluded; one could guess that the black and the whites living therein somehow had to accept each other and to share their squalid quarters in peace. Remembering his childhood, Johnson said: As I grew up, the white boys were my friends and my pals. I ate with them, played with them and slept at their homes. Their mothers gave me cookies, and I ate at their tables. No one ever taught me that white men were superior to me. Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, Jack Johnson was a boxer who, at the height of the Jim Crow era, became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, holding the title from 1908 to 1915. He remains the period’s most dominant champion, a boxing legend whose feats in the ring remain unequalled though he remains unacknowledged. It is with his 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries in what was dubbed the “fight of the century” that Johnson really proved his mettle, achieving the status of a boxing demi-god, and going on to live his life fearlessly. Critics would have wanted to hate the Galveston Giant, but his feats in the ring easily drew admiration from haters; the finesse and elegance with which he boxed in the ring was a sight to behold. Colour bars and racial lines became blurred whenever Jack Johnson sparred in the ring. And his lavish lifestyle and bravado in his public speeches made him the most popular man in America of the period. According to filmmaker Ken Burns: For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth. Transcending boxing, he became part of the culture and history of racism in the United States. In 1912, Johnson opened a successful and luxurious “black and tan” (desegregated) restaurant and nightclub, which in part was run by his wife, a white woman. Major newspapers of the time soon claimed that Johnson was attacked by the government only after he became famous as a black man married to a white woman, and was linked to other white women. Johnson was arrested on charges of violating the Mann Act—forbidding one to transport a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes”—a racially motivated charge that embroiled him in controversy for his relationships, including marriages, with white women. Sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson fled the country and fought boxing matches abroad for seven years until 1920 when he served his sentence at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Throughout his career Johnson built a unique fighting style of his own, which was not customary in boxing during this time. Though he would typically strike first, he would fight defensively, waiting for his opponents to tire out, although becoming more aggressive as the rounds went on. He often fought to punish his opponents through the rounds rather than knocking them out, and would continuously dodge their punches. He would then quickly strike back with a blow of his own. Johnson often made his fights look effortless, and as if he had much more to offer, but when pushed he could also display some powerful moves and punches. There are films of his fights in which he can be seen holding up his opponent, who otherwise might have fallen, until he recovered. It is seen in the 1910 fight where the former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson, saying “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro”. He was whipped like a baby throughout the fourteen rounds their bout lasted that afterwards, Jeffries was humbled by the loss and what he had seen of Johnson in their match. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best”, Jeffries said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1 000 years.” This is not a sentiment those who had gone out looking for the ‘great white hope’ shared because even the New York Times, one of the biggest newspapers in America, wrote of the event: If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors. Despite the negative sentiments about which John Arthur Johnson did not care before the fight, it is after the fight that John L. Sullivan reveals the real mastery of the sport that Jack had, revealing the real sentiment of the white people watching around the ring: The negro had few friends, but there was little demonstration against him. (Spectators) could not help but admire Johnson because he is the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen. He played fairly at all times and fought fairly. … What a crafty, powerful, cunning left hand (Johnson) has. He is one of the craftiest, cunningest boxers that ever stepped into the ring. It is easy to hate a lion, but it is quite hard not to admire the power of his roar and the spring of his regal step. Many would have wanted to hate Jack Johnson, but they could not help loving the skill he had in the ring as a showman and a fighter unequalled in the period and even to the present day. Jack Johnson has had no equal; he just cannot be reduced to being a mere invisible man by the hate directed at him even after all these years just because he believed in himself on a level seven leagues above average. Such is the countenance of the man whose beginnings were as uncertain as those of the others of his colour in an America that is quite tough to crack despite its being called the land of dreams. It is said that after Johnson quit school, he began a job working at the local docks. He then made several other attempts at working other jobs around town (Galveston) until one day he made his way to Dallas, the capital of Texas, finding work at the race track exercising horses. Jack stuck with this job until he found a new apprenticeship for a carriage painter by the name of Walter Lewis. Lewis enjoyed watching friends spar, and Johnson began to learn how to box. Johnson later claimed that it was thanks to Lewis that he became a boxer. At 16, Johnson moved to New York City and found living arrangements with Barbados Joe Walcott, a welterweight fighter from the West Indies. Johnson again found work exercising horses for the local stable, until he was fired for exhausting a horse (tiring a whole horse?!!!). Upon his return to Galveston after being fired, he was hired as a janitor at a gym owned by German-born heavyweight fighter Herman Bernau. Johnson eventually put away enough money to buy two pairs of boxing gloves, sparring at every chance he got. After returning home, Johnson had a fight with one Davie Pearson. Johnson remembers Pearson as a “grown and toughened” man who accused Johnson of turning him in to the police over a game of craps. When both of them were released from jail, they met at the docks and Johnson beat Pearson before a large crowd. Johnson fought in a summer league against a man named John “Must Have It” Lee. Because prize fighting was illegal in Texas, the fight was broken up and moved to the beach where Johnson won his first fight and a prize of one dollar and fifty cents. Johnson made his debut as a professional boxer on November 1, 1898, in Galveston, Texas, when he knocked out Charley Brooks in the second round of a 15-round bout for what was billed as “The Texas State Middleweight Title”. On February 25, 1901, Johnson fought Joe Choynski, who would turn out to be his mentor and the man that instilled confidence in him in Galveston. Choynski, a popular and experienced heavyweight, knocked out Johnson in the third round. Their prize-fighting bout was considered illegal in Texas at the time and they were both arrested. Bail was set at $5 000 which neither could afford. The sheriff permitted both fighters to go home at night so long as they agreed to spar in the jail cell. Large crowds gathered to watch the sessions. After 23 days in jail, their bail was reduced to an affordable level and a grand jury refused to indict either man. Johnson later stated that he learned his boxing skills from Choynski during that 23-day stint in jail. The two would remain friends thereafter and Johnson always attested that his success in boxing came from the coaching he received from Choynski. The wise aging Choynski saw natural talent and determination in Johnson and taught him the nuances of defence, stating: “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch…” thus began the lifelong career of the man who enthralled a young boy turning the leaves of a pictorial history of boxing back in 1993. Ever flamboyant, it is said that once, when he was pulled over for a $50 speeding ticket, Johnson gave the officer a $100 bill; when the officer protested that he could not make change for that much, Johnson told him to keep the change as he was going to make his return trip at the same speed. Now, that is the tale of the man who punched his way to stardom and made sure to enjoy every minute of it in an era when black was illegal normal. A girlfriend of his Irene Pineau whom he met at the race track in Aurora, Illinois, in 1924 and with whom he lived together until his death on June 10, 1946 was asked by a reporter at Johnson’s funeral what she had loved about him, to which she replied: “I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.” A 1970 Miles Davis composition goes: I’m Jack Johnson. Heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right! I’ll never let them forget it! There is none greater in the history of the sport, none greater than the man who improved the monkey wrench from a jail cell, the man who made black the fashion of the times even when racism ruled. He is the greatest of all time. That is it! Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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