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June 22, 1959
As fugitive, loser, prisoner and failure, Jack Johnson Kept his dream of glory intact
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June 22, 1959

Jack And The Game

As fugitive, loser, prisoner and failure, Jack Johnson Kept his dream of glory intact

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With the help of such influential men as American-born Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, and Lord Lonsdale, Britain's great patron of sport, Johnson managed to appeal against the ouster, but when he was attacked one dark night by a band of rowdies he finally decided it was time to go. At this critical point an old associate appeared with an interesting proposition. The friend was Jack Curley, the boxing promoter, who lunched with Jack and Lucille at the Savoy and reported that New York theatrical men had put up money to promote a world heavyweight championship prizefight and a suitable white hope had been found in the person of Jess Willard, the Pottawatomie Ploughboy.

"Who is this Weelard?" Johnson asked in the French accent he sometimes affected. Curley said he was nobody to worry about, though rather large and strong. Willard stood 6 feet 6 inches tall, weighed 250 pounds and had killed a man in the ring. None of this intimidated Johnson, who said, "All right, I will take this Weelard for you. And you can call the round."

Curley replied that he was not so much concerned with what round ended the fight as with finding a place to hold it. Johnson, facing a white hope who had a chance of beating him, would be a tremendous drawing card anywhere in the U.S., but the champion could hardly defend his title in jail, and the Mann Act sentence still hung over him. On this point Johnson always maintained that Curley said he had politicians working on the case and if Johnson would throw the fight to Willard the fix was in. "We reached an agreement," Johnson wrote in his memoirs, "which would give Willard the championship and permit me to return home."

Whatever he really thought Curley had been telling him, Johnson met Jess Willard under a blistering sun at Havana on April 5, 1915 before some 16,000 people in a wooden arena at the Oriental Park Racetrack. This was to be the last time a Negro figured in a heavyweight championship bout until Joe Louis faced James J. Brad-dock 22 years later. Willard was in the best condition of his life, having trained six months for this day. Johnson was heavy around the middle. He had gone on a South American theatrical tour after his interview with Curley in England and apparently had done no preparatory work except his boxing exhibitions and a few strongman stunts such as pulling a team of horses or allowing a horse to stand on his chest. Johnson later said there was no use working hard for a fight he intended to lose.

Johnson's story was that his wife, who was sitting at ringside, was to receive a package of bills taken directly from the box office, and amounting to $50,000, which was to be his payment for throwing the fight in the 10th round. "But when that round arrived," Johnson recorded, "the money had not been paid. It was nearing the 26th round when the money was turned over to Mrs. Johnson. I had specified that it should be in $500 bills so that the package should be small and the amount quickly counted. After examining it she gave me the signal. I replied that everything was O.K. and she departed. In the 26th round I let the fight end as it did."

It is true that Lucille Johnson left the arena before the 26th round, but it is a great deal more likely that this was to avoid seeing Johnson defeated than to carry away a package of $500 bills. Indeed, bills of that denomination are so seldom presented at box office windows that this detail alone is enough to discredit the story. So far as the fight was concerned, Johnson was floored in the 26th and did not get up. One of the best known of all sporting photographs (above) shows Johnson on his back with Willard towering over him. Much has been made of the fact that Johnson's right arm is raised as if to shield his eyes from the glaring tropical sun. All this means is that Johnson was not completely unconscious, any more than Jeffries was at Reno. But, like Jeffries, he was finished so far as the fight was concerned. Also like Jeffries, Johnson spoke frankly about the fight and his part in it shortly after leaving the ring, while still in the shock of defeat. " Willard was too much for me," he told a reporter. "I just didn't have it."

Jack Curley's recollections were in full accord with what the deposed champion said in this moment of truth. Curley stated years later in New York, "Nobody ever took Johnson's charges of fakery seriously. He was well past his prime, fat and dissipated, and he was worn down and knocked out by a strong, game and well-conditioned opponent." This was also how it looked to Willard, who merely said, "If Johnson throwed it, I wish he throwed it sooner. It was hotter than hell down there."

After the fight reliable advisers told Johnson that if he entered the U.S. he would go directly to prison. He returned to London, having received word that the Foreign Office would tolerate his presence so long as there were no reports of bad behavior. He hoped to make big money from exhibiting movies of the Willard fight in the United Kingdom. And his sense of injustice was not soothed when a certain Mr. A. Weil challenged his rights in the pictures and actually scuffled with him at the express office for possession of the prints. Mr. Weil was bent slightly out of shape in this encounter, and Johnson kept the films. But in a few weeks he was in ugly trouble.

This came from an altercation at the Hippodrome in Preston, where Johnson was offering a musical sketch called Seconds Out. His company manager, Jack du Maurier, resigned and asked for traveling expenses back to London, in addition to other sums. Johnson objected, and du Maurier came out of the ensuing debate with a badly injured left eye. He got a judgment of �1,075 for the damage, and shortly afterward Johnson left England for Spain.

Movies—he played the starring role in a picture called False Nobility—and bullfighting occupied Johnson' for a while in Spain, but he was thinking of an even more dangerous game. With the war at its height, German submarines were known to be in Spanish waters. When the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917 it was necessary to start coast-watching operations from La Coru�a to Bilbao, and other confidential missions had to be performed. Johnson spoke to Major Lang, the U.S. military attache in Madrid, offering his services for espionage and informal warfare. This fitted nicely with Johnson's taste for melodrama, and the tight security over such activities made them rich material for fantasy. The business was well suited, moreover, to moonless nights when all kinds of contraband might be moved through coastal inlets. Johnson seemed to feel that his mysterious goings-on entitled him to special treatment. He told the American consul at Malaga, for example, that he would soon receive money from Major Lang and meanwhile requested the guarantee of his hotel bill, which was refused. Johnson left with dignity and may or may not have gone directly to German agents and offered his services to their country. In any event, the State Department had good reason to believe that an application by Johnson for a post as German agent reached Berlin and was rejected there. The impenetrable gloom of espionage procedure surrounds all aspects of this curious episode. But those inclined to blame Johnson for treating with the Germans should bear in mind the possibility that he might have been attempting the hazardous role of double agent, and that in so doing he was carrying out instructions. No action was ever taken against Johnson for approaching the enemy, and no known citation was issued for services to the American side.

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