On a fine afternoon in the spring of 1897 a professional boxer and circus roustabout named Bob Tomlinson, who was traveling through Texas with a carnival troupe, found himself in difficulties. Tomlinson performed in a tented ring, offering $5 to anyone who could stay four rounds against him. Few of the farm boys, ranch hands and freight hustlers who tried for this prize survived even one round, and none had ever been upright at the end of four. But on this balmy afternoon, in a vacant lot on the outskirts of Galveston, trouble overtook the carnival man in the person of a tall, gangling 19-year-old Negro named John Arthur Johnson.
Throughout three rounds the youth easily avoided Tomlinson's rushes or tied him up at close quarters, smiling all the while with the kindly air of a dining-car attendant or a Pullman porter. Tomlinson decided the time had come to bull young Johnson into the canvas curtain, behind which lurked a confederate waiting to slap a blackjack against the curve of his skull. But Johnson refused to be crowded, tossed his adversary halfway across the ring and then whipped over a belly punch that made the tough grifter's eyes bug out. Tomlinson was barely able to flash the sign to the timekeeper to tap the gong. And the $5 which Johnson thereupon collected were the first of the estimated $2 million which he was to earn through his fighting skill.
This early triumph of Jack Johnson, the first Negro to become heavyweight champion of the world, had the authentic stamp of his amazingly fast reactions. The catlike quickness on defense and electrifying speed in the counterpunch owed something to brawls on the Galveston waterfront against enemies armed with knives and baling hooks, and to the swift reflexes required in jumping off boxcars and escaping through freight yards when pursued by railroad cops carrying metal-weighted billies. The bout in which he took the starch out of the rugged showman also demonstrated a feature of Johnson's own showmanship: while working he liked to chat with the crowd, and even with his opponent, beaming benevolently and inquiring as to the other boxer's health.
"I devoutly hope I didn't happen to hurt you, Jeff," Johnson would say from time to time during the fight in 1910 in which he shocked the white people of the world by his easy mastery of the huge Jim Jeffries. The ring conversation had been considerably less urbane two years before, when Johnson took the championship from Tommy Burns. On this occasion the men traded insults as well as blows, but that was because Burns would have it so. Ordinarily, Johnson liked to see people happy and comfortable, and he sometimes paid tribute to the craftsmanship of other fighters, as he did in Paris while defending his title against Frank Moran in 1914. All through the match he was clearly ahead of Moran, which displeased the unanimously anti-Johnson crowd, including Gaby Deslys, Mistinguette, Maurice Chevalier, the Dolly sisters, the Princesse de Polignac and the novelist Elinor Glyn. Moran finally landed a good punch and the crowd went wild. Looking around the V�lodrome d'Hiver at the frenzied fans, Johnson politely stepped back and joined in the applause, pounding his gloved hands together and bowing cordially to his opponent.
"My sincere congratulations, Frank," he said, flashing his chryselephantine smile. He then broke Moran's nose with an uppercut. It was not Johnson's habitual practice to punish other boxers so severely. But in this case Jack's fire power had been reduced when he broke a bone in his left arm while fighting a Negro known as Battling Jim Johnson a short time before. In addition, he was badly out of training from a diet of champagne, mutton chops, cherries and beer, which he usually drank through a straw. It was therefore a tactical necessity to inflict real damage on Moran.
Other things being equal, Johnson was content merely to keep order in the ring, particularly in his hundreds of exhibition bouts and sparring demonstrations. This was exemplified in 1910 when the champion went two rounds with Colonel Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, redoubtable amateur boxer, professor of mayhem to the U.S. Marines and author of The Life Of James J. Corbett
. Although Biddle was obviously gunning for a knockout, Johnson at first merely expostulated, "Now you boy, there—don't get yo'self stirred up," until stung by a sharp blow, whereupon he struck the colonel on the head with considerable force, causing him to take a less belligerent attitude.
It would have been almost beyond belief, and a matter for extra editions of the newspapers with headlines in the largest type, had Biddle or any amateur succeeded in putting Johnson on the floor. Aside from Jess Willard, who took the championship from him in Havana in 1915, only a few professionals accomplished this feat. One was Joe Choynski, a powerful hitter who caught Johnson young and flattened him in the third round of a match which ended in a raid by Texas Rangers. Legend has it that Johnson subsequently perfected his superb defense under the veteran Choynski's coaching while the two boxers were serving their four-week sentences for the illegal prizefight. Another fighter who floored Johnson was Stanley Ketchel, who put him down during the 12th round at Colma, Calif., in 1909, apparently in violation of previous arrangements. Johnson instantly arose and knocked Ketchel senseless with a blow that ripped off his front teeth at the roots.
This proved that when the spirit moved him the great defensive fighter could throw a deadly punch. His virtuosity made his performance look deceptively easy, like the dancing of Ray Bolger or Fred Astaire. This seemingly negligent technical mastery cost Johnson the referee's decision in a bout against the mediocre Marvin Hart at San Francisco in 1905, though at one point he knocked Hart halfway out of the ring. Johnson always thought of himself as a basically aggressive fighter; the aging Bob Fitzsimmons could testify to this when Johnson knocked him out in 1907. Johnson said, "I was always attacking—my attack was to counter the leads I forced."
Nevertheless, many learned men of the barroom and sport page theorized that Johnson lacked initiative. The real experts knew better. One of these was Thomas Aloysius (Tad) Dorgan, the Hearst cartoonist and writer, who recognized Johnson's genius early in 1901. Damon Runyon said simply, "He can fight." And with all the evidence before him, the boxing historian Nat Fleischer wrote in his authoritative The Heavyweight Championship, "After years devoted to the study of heavyweight fighters, I have no hesitation in naming Jack Johnson as the greatest of them all."
Standing a quarter of an inch over 6 feet tall and weighing from 195 to 220 pounds when ready for business, Johnson resembled Bernard Shaw's fictional prizefighter Cashel Byron in being so beautifully balanced he seemed to be made of cork. He also resembled Cashel in his love for fine clothes and high living, just as he was like Gene Tunney in his leanings toward the works of heavyweight authors, claiming Herbert Spencer as his favorite for whiling away an idle hour, with Dumas and Hugo next in his esteem. Indeed, it appears that Tunney was not the first pugilist to take an interest in Elizabethan drama, for an essayist writing at the time of Johnson's last ring appearances in the late 1920s recorded that Jack was "conversant with the works of Shakespeare, having delved deeply into the volumes."