Monday, January 17, 2005

Back In The Day...

I was reading Tom Shales' review of the new Ken Burns documentary on Jack Johnson in the Washington Post this morning ("The Life Of His Fight "), when I came upon this passage:

"Some of the vintage fight films are almost harrowing to watch, especially a match that took place in the 105-degree heat of a Cuban afternoon -- scheduled for 45 rounds (!) and pitting Johnson against a gigantic former ranch hand, the 6-foot-6 Jess Willard. At 27 he was 10 years younger than Johnson, and in the 26th round Willard knocked him out."

A 45 round fight? In 105 degree weather? Doesn't this sound like the farfetched tales rambling grandparents tell about how things were "back in the day." "You see, boy, back then they didn't fight for 10 or 12 rounds. Not unless you were baxing in a boy's under-10 league. Nah, you needed 'bout 23, 24 rounds just to warm up. And the fighters didn't wear gloves, they used bricks."

Is Shales right? 45 rounds? That is a fight that -- if it went the distance -- would have lasted over two hours. In 105 degree heat, under a punishing sun. If true, it would only add to high reverence I have for Johnson, even if he lost the epic bout. A black man fighting at the turn of the 20th century, he had the guts to state publically, "I am better and stronger than any white man alive." Johnson was a not only ostentatious and outspoken, but he was a brutal boxer as well. He hit Stanley Ketchel so hard in a 1909 fight that he ripped five of Ketchel's teeth out at the roots.

I did some research and indeed the fight actually happened. It took place on April 15, 1915 in Havanna, Cuba against a giant of a man named Jess Willard. Willard had killed another boxer (Bull Young) a couple of years before with one crushing punch

Johnson's career had kind of petered out leading up to the fight, and he had not really trained for the fight. He spent most of the previous several years on the run from U.S. authorities who wanted to jail him for violating the Mann Act -- he was accused of taking white women across state borders for immoral purposes.

Apparently, Johnson dominated the fight for the first 20 rounds, before being knocked out by a hard right from Willard in the 26th round. Willard would go on to hold the heavyweight championship until he was defeated by Jack Dempsey in 1919. Johnson's life and career went downhill after the 1915 Havana bout.

Some people speculated that Johnson threw the fight, despite having bet $2500 on himself. Whatever the truth, it is mindblowing to think it happened. Now, we have these glam, pointless 10 or 12 round boxing affairs; we really grew soft and superficial over the course of the 20th century. Old grandparent would probably say, "I don't know why people are getting so worked up over biting Evander Holyfield's ear lobe off. I remember a middleweight named Detroit Slim Jenkins biting both of Moose Braxton's eyes out in the 7th round of a fight back in 1937. Moose kept fighting, but he wasn't so good with his jab after that, not being able to see and all."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know much about the Mann Act? Did it only apply to black men and white women? Were white men also prosecuted for transporting black women across state lines for "immoral purposes." What constitutes an immoral purpose? Just wondering....

4:42 PM  
Blogger tequilita said...

i'm watching the documentary "unforgiveable blackness" now.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Joseph K said...

I saw most of the documentary, missed part of it travelling yesterday. Aside from his Civil War series, I generally find Burns' documentaries to be sterile, boring, and lifeless. I thought this documentary was actually pretty good (except for the choice of Samuel Johnson as Johnson's voice -- I kept expecting him to bust out in some Pulp Fiction burst of profanity at some point.

10:39 PM  

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