Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Boxing Glove Book Review: In The Ring with Jack Johnson

The Boxing Glove Book Review By Peter Silkov
"In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part 1: The Rise"  Written By Adam J. Pollack

There is probably no figure in boxing history as controversial as Jack Johnson. While Muhammad Ali comes a close second, due to the tumultuous times that he lived through, his proximity in time makes him an easier book to read than Johnson. Ali lived much of his life in front of TV cameras and with a dozen or so pressmen constantly on his tail.  Johnson on the other hand, because of the time in which he lived, is still very much more of a mystery to us than Ali is. Certainly, Johnson, like Ali after him, lived much of his life pursued by the media, but there are still many questions regarding his character and the characters of those around him. It has often been said that much of the trouble that came Johnson’s way during his life was his own doing. He has been called a braggart and a self-centered bore, who when he won the World heavyweight title let his success go to his head and became a spoiled megalomaniac. Yet, this was a man who was as sinned against as sinning.

It is difficult for us today to have any real appreciation of the social pressures and conflicts that Johnson faced during his lifetime and boxing career. While it is true that racial inequality and stigmatization exists to this day, the social landscape of Johnson’s time was even more dangerous and unforgiving. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jack Johnson took on the whole social establishment during his boxing career, and he did so with a rare mixture of talent, courage, intelligence, and sheer determination, that must be admired.  No man of lesser strength of character and will power, along with self-belief, could ever have accomplished Johnson’s feats. When he finally got his fight with Tommy Burns for Burns’ World Heavyweight title, it took a huge amount of work and will power on Johnson’s part. In the end, it was his strength of character, as much as his performances in the boxing ring, that made it impossible for Burns to ignore Johnson. In many ways, Johnson’s greatest feat was gaining his shot at Burns’ World heavyweight championship, and becoming the first colored world champion.  By doing so, he opened the way for later greats such as Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.  If there had not been a Jack Johnson, then there would not have been either a Louis or an Ali.

“In the Ring With Jack Johnson: Part 1 The Rise”  by Adam J. Pollack is different from the many other books on Jack Johnson as it focuses upon his rise to the world championship, and ends with Johnson’s famous bout with Burns. This is the moment when he finally cornered the World heavyweight champion into the same ring as him in Sydney, Australia, and duly won sports greatest prize. 

Author Adam Pollack has spent the best part of the past decade writing a series of highly detailed biographies of the World heavyweight champions, beginning with John L. Sullivan, and later including, James J. Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, James J. Jeffries, Marvin Hart, Tommy Burns, and now Jack Johnson. Each book goes into an amount of detail seldom seen before; each book is not so much a biography, but a study of the men, their boxing careers, and the times in which they lived. Great use is made of newspaper reports and interviews of the day; we hear these fighters in their own words as never before. We are also given round-by-round reports of their fights, taken from first hand reports of the time. In addition to this, there are numerous photos, many never seen before in publications. These are weighty books of 500+ pages each, but they have been constructed with such care and skill that they do not weigh heavily when read.

Given his tumultuous life and career, and his multifaceted character, it is fitting that Pollock has decided to dedicate two books to the life and boxing career of Jack Johnson. It says much about Johnson that this is one of Pollock’s longest biographies so far, coming in at approximately 700 pages, despite the fact that it only follows Johnson up to the point where he wins the Heavyweight crown from Tommy Burns.  Yet, as we see, so much happened to Johnson, just in this early part of his life, and his journey to his title winning triumph against Burns proves fully worth the attention given to it by one whole book. We are shown Johnson’s development as a fighter step-by-step, and fight-by-fight. His fights are portrayed in minute detail, with attention given to pre and post fight interviews and anecdotes, as well as blow-by- blow, round-by-round reports of the fights. It is possible now to analyze Johnson’s fights with his great coloured rivals Joe Jeannette, Sam McVey, and Sam Langford, and see just whom he struggled with the most.

The portrayal of all Johnson’s early fights gives us a fascinating insight into Johnson’s fighting style and his development from a talented, yet, raw and inexperienced youth, into the best heavyweight in the world, and one of the greatest of all time. There is also great insight into Johnson’s character, with numerous interviews, and eyewitness reports allowing us some rare glimpses into his character and feelings at certain moments of his life. It is hard to imagine a more detailed biography of this period of Johnson’s life, both inside the ring, and outside of it. We are also given an in-depth portrait of the times in which Johnson was living and the various social frictions that existed between the races. The racist attitudes of the era, including many of the top white fighters of that time as well, are both enlightening and in many cases quite shocking. It becomes clear that Johnson had to be the character that he was in order to survive his times, and most importantly, to break through the barriers like he did.

This book is a fantastic portrait of a man who is still considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight champion ever. For what he had to overcome just in order to get reasonable fights, Jack Johnson was a very unique man indeed. Throughout this book, there are some great insights into the other fighters of this period, Sullivan, Corbett, Jeffries, Burns, Langford, McVey, Jeannette and Choynski, amongst others. Some of them do not come out of this book too well. While it is true that these men were all formed by the times in which they lived, it’s fair to say that some of them were formed rather more rigidly than others.

“In the Ring With Jack Johnson” is a must have for anyone who is interested in the life and boxing career of the first coloured man to perform the incredible feat of becoming the first black Heavyweight Champion of the world.  It was an achievement that sent shock waves through the sporting and social world, both for good and bad.

While there are other books on Johnson that give a good focus on his life in general and his character outside the ring, no other book on Johnson goes as deeply into the fighting side of Johnson’s life as this volume. This, along with the many detailed interviews with Johnson taken from newspapers of the time, gives us a view of Johnson that is both informative and refreshing. You will end this book wanting to read volume 2, which will focus upon Johnson’s life while he was world champion. It is sure to be another engrossing read.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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