Nothing in Johnson's appearance, however, suggested scholarly pursuits. His broad face had the hammered-down look of primitive sculpture, and his head resembled that of Brer Fox's Tar-Baby, as drawn by A. B. Frost. Throughout his life Johnson frequently found that it suited his purposes to play the clown, but he could assume an air of regal authority on occasion; he was remarkably well cast, for example, as a captured Ethiopian general in a New York Hippodrome production of A�da. And he had his moments of genuine dignity. "When you write about me," he said in later life to John Lardner, "remember that I was a man, and a good one."
Johnson had experience in many fields other than prizefighting. Before his life came to its tragic end he had been a house painter, a dock worker, a coral fisher, a groom, a clerk, a musician, a bullfighter, a volunteer secret agent in World War I for the U.S. Government, and possibly also for the Kaiser, a nightclub owner, a wrestler, a preacher, a physical instructor, a camp cook, an actor, a beer salesman, a political orator, a patron of the arts and one of the most celebrated convicts ever to serve a prison term in the U.S. He was rated among the biggest eaters and drinkers of his time and was probably also the only Negro ever to deliver an address on the golden rule before a klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. He was matched in a foot race with a kangaroo, in a wrestling bout with a boa constrictor and in an extraordinary contest of another sort with Grigori Rasputin, the notorious monk at the court of Nicholas II.
Although his actual career was, to put it mildly, a highly unusual one, Johnson lived an even more remarkable fantasy life, which he often failed to distinguish from reality. It was not enough, for example, to experience an air raid in London during World War I: Johnson firmly believed that a zeppelin was following his personal automobile through the streets, its pilot keeping him spotted in a spyglass. The same spirit of exaggeration caused Johnson to see his routine introductions to other celebrities as audiences in which he dispensed advice and counsel based on his deep experience and wisdom. In a world alien and unfriendly to men of his color—and often to himself in particular—Johnson no doubt felt the need of this type of imaginative reassurance of his own status as a man and a performer; when imagination failed, and the world insisted on enforcing its rules against him, the affable Jack could become extremely hard to handle.
One outstanding symptom of Johnson's underlying anger was his obsession for dangerous driving. From the time he first got behind the wheel in 1904 he was a notorious speeder, and six serious accidents form a sinister pattern in his life. Another clue to Johnson's sense of resentment lay in his readiness to engage in brawls outside the ring. He was especially dangerous in this respect during the years just after his defeat by Willard, and on one occasion in this period was forced to pay a London theatrical manager �1,075 for injuries sustained by the complainant in an argument over money.
Deplorable as it was, Johnson's free use of his fists was less obnoxious to the respectable world than his propensity for marrying white women. He married four times, and only the wife of his early youth was of his own race. In addition, Johnson made no effort to hide his dealings with numerous women to whom he was not married. Such a boldly uninhibited personal life, combined with his liberal use of liquor, made Johnson an object of moral censure on a nationwide scale. From every sort of pulpit preachers cried out against him before both black and white congregations, uplift societies passed resolutions condemning him, and the famous evangelist Billy Sunday crowed that his downfall before Willard was due to the "hellish, iniquitous booze" with which he was saturated.
Not all white Americans, to be sure, shared the Rev. Mr. Sunday's horror of hellish booze or even of Jack Johnson. One influential citizen who approved at least of Johnson was R. J. Coady, a red-headed Irishman who started the Washington Square Art Gallery and edited a magazine called The Soil. In one of its issues there could be found, along with reproductions of works by Matisse and Picasso and photographs of aboriginal carvings, a camera study of Johnson as champion with accompanying text which proclaimed that "after Poe, Whitman and Emerson he is the most glorious American."
This minority report from the white world undoubtedly would have found full agreement among the mass of Negro people. They gloried in a cluster of star Negro heavyweights which included Hank Griffin, Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford and Sam McVey, each regarded as equal to Johnson himself, though he managed to get past them all at one time or another. But what was more important to members of his race, Johnson was the only one among these powerful black men to have a chance at the championship of the world.
The title had been resigned in 1904 by the great and undefeated Jim Jeffries, and Tommy Burns disposed of the successor, Marvin Hart, in 1906. For a heavyweight champion, Burns was not very big, as he stood only 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a top fighting weight of 180 pounds, but he had great arrogance and was fast on his feet, with a long reach and a hard punch. A native of Canada, he was christened Noah Brusso and borrowed the more euphonious name from a jockey when he went into prizefighting after years of toughening at lacrosse. In the two years he wore the heavyweight crown Burns won 14 fights, defeating the Australian, English and Irish champions on their home grounds. During this time it was evident that he was in no hurry to meet Jack Johnson.
But by the end of 1908 he could no longer brush Johnson aside, for Jack was also hammering down all opposition, including some of Burns's own victims. When they finally arranged to fight, champion and challenger turned down the parsimonious offer of London's hallowed National Sporting Club and entrusted the general management of their bout to the Australian promoter who was known, far and wide, as Huge Deal McIntosh. A former bicycle racer and Member of Parliament, and the founder of the British milk-bar industry, Hugh D. Mcintosh impressed Johnson by his acuity in buying up all the bunting in New Zealand just prior to the visit of the U.S. fleet, so that the official welcomers had to pay his price before they could put out suitable flags.
McIntosh also earned Johnson's admiration when he talked a lumberman into lending the wood to construct the arena at Rushcutter's Bay in the outskirts of Sydney, the timbers to be returned when the fight was over. And although McIntosh gave further evidence of his bargaining skill by cutting Johnson's end of the take to little more than expenses, both Jack and his manager, Sam Fitzpatrick, were content, for they felt sure that Burns would lose. On his part, the champion worked up confidence by a series of brags like those of Mark Twain's riverboat bullies. "I will bet a few plunks the colored man will not make good!" he cried to the New York World. "I'll fight him and whip him." By Christmas night of 1908, the eve of the match, Burns and his followers were in a high state of optimism and sat up bellowing Where the River Shannon Flows. Johnson turned in early and got a good night's sleep.