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June 15, 1959
BEGINNING the extraordinary story of Jack Johnson, the Negro fighter whose brilliant skill won for his race the first championship of the world, and for himself a life of spectacular excess and ultimate tragedy
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June 15, 1959

Black Hamlet Of The Heavyweights

BEGINNING the extraordinary story of Jack Johnson, the Negro fighter whose brilliant skill won for his race the first championship of the world, and for himself a life of spectacular excess and ultimate tragedy

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Early next day the sporting population of Sydney moved in a solid mass toward Huge Deal McIntosh's stadium, swinging wooden rattles, blowing tin trumpets and loudly predicting victory for Burns. The bell sounded at 11:15 a.m. before a crowd of some 20,000 men, and two women whose names were not put on record. Burns was aggressive as he went against Johnson's perfect defense and was immediately floored by a counterpunch. This was the first fight to be called "The Battle of the Century" and also the first to be adequately photographed. The pictures still clearly show the champion's wild, angry frustration at his inability to damage Johnson.

"Who told you I was yellow?" Johnson inquired at the start. Burns replied with cursing and bad words, which were copiously returned. A British writer stated that Johnson's answers included such rounded lines as "You're white, Tommy—white as the flag of surrender!" Actually, nothing so elegant was said, but an authentic and printable remark from Johnson after a rush by Burns was, "You ain't showed me nothin' yet."

At the start of the 12th round a bookie yelled, "Even money Burns is there at the finish!" Johnson yelled back, "A hundred to one he don't black my eye!" In the 14th round Johnson felled Burns for a count of eight and was punching him silly when police entered the ring to save him from serious injury. Huge Deal McIntosh, who was thriftily serving as referee, thereupon declared Johnson winner and new champion.

What happened thereafter was epitomized by the scorching prose sent off from Sydney to the New York Herald by its special correspondent, Jack London. He compared what he had seen to an Armenian massacre, a hopeless slaughter, a funeral and a bout between a pygmy and a colossus. Burns never landed a blow, London related, and "a dew-drop had more chance than he with the giant Ethiopian." And it all pointed to an inescapable conclusion: "But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you!"

Seldom has public opinion been more accurately expressed. The racial feeling in the dispatch was further emphasized by hundreds of lesser journalists, who frankly called the new champion "the black shadow on American boxing" and used the term "white hope" in reference to any possible challenger who was not a Negro. Johnson was also stigmatized in England, where the London Times foreshadowed the hatreds of Notting Hill by referring to him as a "flash nigger," while the London County Council made no secret of its dislike in refusing to license him to fight Bombardier Billy Wells.

None of this seemed to disturb Johnson, who continued to do exactly as he pleased. Shortly after the Burns fight he started on a 30-week vaudeville tour of the U.S. and Canada, entertaining packed houses with a medley of bag punching, sparring and performances on the bass viol, an instrument he played by ear. He fired Sam Fitzpatrick, which was widely regarded as evidence of ingratitude and conceit. He disposed of a sturdy white hope in Vancouver when he beat Victor McLaglen, later to be the only winner of a Hollywood Oscar who also had engaged in a heavyweight championship fight. But the heavyweight hopes were mostly so uninteresting that Johnson decided he could do better business with the world's middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchel, a bold, colorful character who was a highly competent fighter. Ketchel came up to 170 pounds for the bout and planned to give Johnson a terrible surprise. On the way to their respective camps at Colma, Calif. Johnson drove his 690 Thompson Flier past Ketchel's white Lozier at 62 mph on the wrong side of the road. Johnson showed a similar superiority in the ring, and all authorities agree that Ketchel brought upon himself what happened there.

A few weeks after his destruction of Ketchel, Johnson was in Pittsburgh and met a girl named Etta Duryea. He married her on January 28,1911, an act which, since Etta was white, drew unfavorable comment both from the general public and from many of the couple's friends, but in the meantime Etta was with him when he set out with a party of secretaries, valets and professional pals-of-the-champion on a world theatrical tour. His first stop was London, where he opened the autumn music hall season before large but not entirely friendly crowds. Johnson also got plenty of attention offstage, as when the landlady of Loughborough House on Northumberland Street in Paddington ran to court with a tale of smashed crockery and broken furniture. His next court appearance was in answer to a police summons for using bad language in Coventry Street. This complaint was cooled off, but when the law slapped him with a �1,500 judgment for breach of a theatrical contract, Johnson crossed the Channel into France.

There was excitement in Paris almost immediately when Johnson got into a street brawl, which spread to a general ruction, over a real or fancied insult to Miss Duryea. Johnson landed several good punches and was quite amazed, like the members of the American Expeditionary Force some years later, at the expert manner in which Frenchmen kicked each other during the melee. The police were sympathetic to Johnson and all charges were dropped. Soon after this, reliable word came that back in the U.S. the white hope agitation had finally produced something worthwhile: big Jim Jeffries was on the point of agreeing to come out and face Jack Johnson in the ring.

The story of the fight, staged by Promoter Tex Rickard in Reno on July 4, 1910 (SI, April 29, 1957) and of Johnson's immense superiority to Jeffries, whom he finished with a technical knockout in the 15th round, is as well known as any in the history of boxing, for it was exhaustively discussed and reported by a corps of newspaper and magazine experts, together with such journalistic trained seals as the famed novelist Rex Beach, author of The Spoilers, and John L. Sullivan, last of the bare-knuckle champions. Johnson's victory sent a powerful shock through the entire country along the filaments of a great web of emotion which had the ring at Reno as its center. The news was spread, almost as rapidly as it would have been by radio or television, through various facilities across the land. The Kansas City Star , for example, engaged Convention Hall for a crowd of 14,000, who heard a blow-by-blow account, telegraphed from ringside and bellowed by announcers through megaphones. On Long Island a more select audience was gathered at the Edgemere Club, where William K. Vanderbilt Jr., Howard Gould, Lawrence Drake and others followed the action through the bulletin service of the Times. The clubmen stationed in front of the Times building an agent who ran to a telephone booth and passed the word as each bulletin was posted. The flash that Jeffries had lost was received in the Edgemere lounge without applause.

The experts were almost as dazed and demoralized as Jeffries himself. Some now took the line that the fight had been at best an exhibition of brutality and so it didn't really matter who won. Others maintained that so horrifying a result meant the end of professional boxing and agreed with Sullivan when he intoned, "It will be the last big fight in this country." Tad Dorgan, of course, had no need to hedge or moralize, for he had predicted that Johnson would win. But on the whole the journalists were inconsolable. One of the most learned and sagacious of them, Robert Edgren of the New York World, was able to believe that Jeffries had been given poison in his tea, and so maintained for years afterward. Jeffries himself may have come to accept the poisoned-tea theory in his old age, but what he said shortly after the fight had the ring of authenticity. "I could never have whipped Jack Johnson at my best," he told a reporter on the train going back to California. "I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in a thousand years."

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