AMERICA ON THE ROPES: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE JOHNSON-JEFFRIES FIGHT
By Wayne A. Rozen
Casey Press LLC, 324 pages, $70
BEYOND GLORY: JOE LOUIS VS. MAX SCHMELING AND A WORLD ON THE BRINK
By David Margolick
Alfred A. Knopf, 348 pages, $26.95
It is hard to imagine any sporting event these days (at least any not involving a cameo by Janet Jackson's breast) having a real impact on American society. Despite the occasional BALCO scandal, today's games and matches are fodder really only for the sports pages, not for the pages of history. But as two new superbly researched books make clear, there was a time when a single athletic contest could galvanize the nation, and even the world.
That the two events were prizefights should be no surprise. Today boxing is marginalized, the stuff of niche pay-per-view telecasts or failed reality shows, but for the first half of the 20th century the sport was rivaled in popularity and importance only by baseball, and no athlete stood taller than the heavyweight champion. Further, as David Margolick writes in the introduction to Beyond Glory, "Unique among the sports, boxing seemed to crystallize the ethnic, racial and political tensions of a culture."
In America on the Ropes, Wayne Rozen vividly conveys just how explosive those tensions were in the U.S. when Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries faced off before 15,000 spectators in Reno on July 4, 1910. For months the nation's papers--front pages and editorial columns as well as sports sections--had been filled with previews of the event and heated analysis of its racial implications. And after Johnson, the first black boxer to hold the heavyweight crown, knocked out Jeffries, the former champion who had been coaxed from retirement to assume the mantle of Great White Hope, race riots erupted across the country, claiming more than a dozen lives.
While Geoffrey Ward's biography of Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness (published last year), is likely to remain the definitive work on the controversial champion's life and times, America on the Ropes--a heavyweight in its own right at 324 oversized, handsomely illustrated pages--is a valuable companion. Rozen spins an engaging account of events leading up to the bout and of the fight itself. Far more compelling, though, are the scores of images he has collected. There are photographs of Johnson and Jeffries in training, as well as riveting shots of the brutal action in the ring. One particularly striking photo shows Johnson, relaxed and grinning, as he manhandles the battered Jeffries.