The dark ghost in Ali's corner

The Times, January 07, 2006

by Geoffrey C. Ward
Pimlico, £8.99; 512pp

HE “FIGHT OF THE century” between the former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries and the reigning — and first black — champion Jack Johnson took place on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada. By the third round Johnson was taunting his white challenger. “Come on now, Mr Jeff,” he said, “let me see what you got. Do something, man. This is for the championship.”

A crowd of 12,000 mostly white men watched as Johnson demolished Jeffries, the man who for six years had drawn “the colour line” — he would not demean himself by fighting a black boxer.

Jeffries had emerged from retirement to fight Johnson in answer to white America’s call for an avenging angel. Two years earlier Johnson had won the title from the Canadian Tommy Burns, to the outrage of white supremacists all over the world. Nowhere were feelings higher than in America, whose Supreme Court had recently decreed that the Jim Crow laws and racial segregation were not unconstitutional, and which was by then an imperial power thanks to the Spanish-American War (in which the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hawaii were annexed).

As a youngster, the Texas-born Johnson ran the gauntlet of the infamous “Battles Royal”, in which up to 12 black fighters would be thrown into a ring together for the entertainment of white crowds. The last man standing would take home any money thrown into the ring. Some boxing historians have suggested that Johnson’s masterful defensive skills were honed in these brutal contests. What is certain is that Johnson means as much to the history of America as he does to boxing. He is, as Muhammad Ali’s cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown would say during Ali’s fights, the “ghost in the house”.

Geoffrey C. Ward’s compelling biography relies heavily on contemporary newspaper reports to tell the Johnson story, but is no less effective for that. Johnson was up against appalling racism that is all the more shocking when read in the “free press” of the day. He was pilloried as a “coon” or “nigger”, as the “hitherto dominant” race cast around for its saviour. His relationships with white women only added fuel to the frenzy.

Johnson’s life was a chaotic tableaux of women, fights and fast cars. He had a penchant for cigars, liked a bet and was no stranger to the courtroom. A fugitive in Europe for several years after a dubious indictment under the White Slave Traffic Act, he returned to America and served just under a year in Leavenworth prison.

Ward depicts all this and more in gripping prose, so that it is only later that a quibble such as the absence of much by way of historical context mildly undermines Unforgivable Blackness. By then, though, it is difficult not to conclude that Johnson’s life was so full as to be beyond biography — and certain, too, that his resonance will endure for years to come. Hats off to Ward for getting as close to the ghost as anyone ever will.