A Muhammad Ali for his time rises and falls in this vigorous history by Ken Burns collaborator Ward (Not for Ourselves Alone, 1999, etc.).
Born Arthur John Johnson in Galveston in 1878, Jack Johnson “was an inexhaustible tender of his own legend, a teller of tall tales in the frontier tradition of his native state.” He remembered his father, for instance, as “the most perfect physical specimen I have ever seen,” even though the man was only five and a half feet tall and was disabled by a bad leg earned in the Civil War. Years later, he would allow a legend to surround him that he single-handedly captured a U-boat on the high seas, “subdued the Austrian captain and blew up the submarine and was rescued after drifting three days.” Johnson himself, Ward writes, was magnificent, handsome, and picture-perfect, and he attracted women of all races as he traveled from city to city and continent to continent, taking on all contenders in prize matches. Indeed, he wrote, “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist.” It did, of course, in those days of Jim Crow, and Jack Johnson was derided by the press and eventually investigated by the fledgling FBI on charges of having engaged in white slavery. He was, Ward writes, “a master of timing in the ring. . . . Outside the ropes, that mastery often deserted him.” Johnson eventually fled the charges and lived in exile in Paris and elsewhere abroad, evidently regarding WWI as a personal affront but taking pride in the fact that the French artillery had named a big cannon after him for the punch it packed and the black smoke it raised. On returning to the US, Johnson spent only nine months in federal prison and was released for good behavior, but his magic was broken.
A sturdy and surprising work: good reading for fans of boxing and American history alike.