Jack Johnson & Muhammad Ali: A like But Definitely Different

17.01.05 - By Frank Lotierzo - - Today Muhammad Ali turns 63, ironically one of the fighter's Ali has most often been compared to Jack Johnson, it just so happens that a new documentary airs on him tonight. Why is it that Ali and Johnson usually are linked together? The most obvious reason is the United States Government felt threatened by both of them and conspired to rid them from boxing regardless of what it took.

In Johnson's case it was his black skin and the fact that he dated, married, slept with, and reportedly pimped young white women. Johnson was charged with violating the "Mann Act," a law brought about by Urban Legends of the era who believed there was an underground network of thousands of young white girls being enslaved into prostitution. Which of was course a complete myth.

The vehicle used to try and rid Ali was the Vietnam War and the Draft. Cassius Clay the Olympic champion was liked and not perceived as a threat. Muhammad Ali the card carrying member of the Nation of Islam was thought to be capable of starting the race war that Charles Manson hoped to a few years later but couldn't.

What often times is overlooked is that Joe Louis was the first black heavyweight champion after Johnson, and Ali was the next great black champ after Louis. Johnson was envious how Louis was accepted and loved by white America, unlike him. Johnson liked to admonish Louis and highlight his style flaws as he saw them to the media and press. Johnson also relished betting on Schmeling to beat Louis the first time they fought, and went out of his way to flash the money he won getting 10-1 odds on Max.

However, the first Louis-Schmeling bout didn't garner much coverage and only became a big thing in Germany after Schmeling had won. Louis became a legend and fully accepted by the white establishment after taking Schmeling apart in their rematch. And that was mainly because of Adolph Hitler's reign of terror, more so than Louis being adopted because of his black skin. In the rematch against Schmeling, Louis was seen as fighting for America and that made the color of his skin irrelevant. Johnson also despised how Louis was groomed to be everything he wasn't out of the ring.

The bad blood between Ali and Louis initially started because the U. S. Government used Louis as a tool to try and recruit Ali into the Army. On top of that Louis sighed with Jackie Robinson saying to the media that America has given Ali the chance to make a fortune and became a rich man. They both thought Ali should do the right thing and fight for her.

Funny how stupid the Government was regarding their approach to Ali. They had no credibility at all with him, but when they said they would treat him the way they did Sgt Joe Louis, and he would never see the front line of a firing squad, they really blew it.

Ali retorted to the draft recruiter saying something on the lines of, I see how you treated a good one, no thanks. What will you do to me who you view as a bad one and a Militant? The inference being that Louis donated two of his entire purses to the Army Relief and the Navy Relief, but was haunted by the IRS for the money owed on the unpaid taxes that he wasn't even aware of. Louis was had the IRS looking over his shoulder almost his entire post boxing life. Had Frank Sinatra who idolized Louis not paid his tax bill, Louis would've went to his grave in debt to the U.S. Government.

The other major thing linking Johnson and Ali is they didn't fight like conventional heavyweight's. During Johnson's era, heavyweight bouts were usually won by the stronger and tougher fighter. You hit me and I'll hit you and we'll see who's standing at the end was the mind set of a majority of the heavyweight's during Johnson's era. This is not night and day different from how some of the top contenders during Ali's era fought. Johnson fought defensive and sought to block, slip, and parry his opponents punches before striking offensively. Ali used his legs to circle the ring to the left while throwing his jab staying a moving target instead of a stationary one. The style and the way both fought wasn't predicated on the knockout punch, something else that was hard for the boxing scribes of the establishment to swallow at the time.

Although their careers had many parallels, there were more than a few differences. One of the main ones being that Ring Magazine founder Nat Fleischer loved Johnson and despite supporting Ali's stance on the Vietnam war, didn't care for his fighting style. At that time Fleischer was the voice of boxing and was the major influence. Those who did have a voice and a pen usually never challenged Fleischer on any stand he took regarding a fighter or boxing. A lot of Johnson's legendary status today is derived mainly from Fleischer singing his praise from 1922 through his death in 1972.

Yet Fleischer admonished Ali for not being a knockout puncher. But Johnson who fought many smaller fighters and had less than a handful of knockouts in his title defenses was praised. Although to justify his less than overwhelming knockout percentage as champ, many historians like to cite Johnson carried his white opponents so he could taunt and humiliate them and thought he could've scored more knockouts if he wanted to. The only thing I can say to that is it's easy to say you carried your opponent after the fact.

Here's all you need to know about Fleischer's all time ratings as he saw them through 1972, keeping in mind he was extremely biased towards the older fighters. I'm not saying he was wrong or right, but he definitely favored them. Nat rated Johnson the greatest heavyweight of all-time, and he had Schmeling in the second five among the top ten. He also said after "The Fight of The Century" between Frazier and Ali, that if Joe Frazier was really a good puncher he would've knocked Ali out. Which if you go by that rationale, Ali never fought a single puncher because he was never stopped. I happen to think Ali having one of the greatest chins in heavyweight history had something to do with Frazier not being able to knock him out.

I know today many writers go by two things, what the writers of Johnson's era said, and the film they have seen of him. I don't belong to that fraternity. The film available on Johnson is so herk-jerky with missing frames, I defy anyone who says they know how great Johnson was based purely on the film they have studied. It's not like there is a library full of it to view. And personally, I'd rather base my opinion on what I saw. Johnson was champion 50 years before I was born, so I don't feel comfortable forming absolute opinions on fighters I have no way of legitimately knowing how good they were or the competition was they faced in order to form an opinion. That's just me.

Some base their evaluation on a five minute highlight reel justifying Johnson's defensive wizardry on. And when it comes to going off what the writers say to justify his or any other athletes greatness, I'm a little hesitant and leery of that. Had I been born 50 years after Tyson and went back and read what was written on him during the late eighties, I would be mislead into thinking he was an all-time great heavyweight champ which I know wasn't the case. And his so called legend was actually due to many novice writers with a limited boxing acumen buying into the most brilliantly contrived marketing campaign in world history.

I know this, Johnson didn't care about the perceived troubles of other blacks like Ali did. Johnson cared about himself above all else and did all he could not to have to defend the title against the other black fighters who deserved a title shot. Something Ali could never be accused of in a million years.

Johnson defeated a young Sam Langford who weighed all of 165 pounds, yet Langford chased him around the Globe trying to get a deserved title shot. Which never happened. Name the fighters that had to chase Ali to get a title shot or a rematch. Johnson also had a suspect chin according to some historians. So who's right, the ones who said he was the greatest heavyweight ever, or the ones who questioned his chin and opposition. I know two things that can never be questioned or considered suspect regarding Ali are his quality of opposition and chin.

Here's what is known about Jack Johnson, he was a target because of his skin color, and went out of his way to buck the establishment, which is somewhat a testament to his bravado and courage. As a fighter, in all honesty his legendary status comes from Nat Fleischer's hero worship and victories over a middleweight champion and a great heavyweight champion who hadn't fought in six years.

Pardon Johnson for the trumped up charges against him because of the way he lived his life and the color of his skin. But don't Plaster-Saint him as a fighter because he was the first black heavyweight champ ignoring the obvious questions that surround him as a fighter.

Article posted on 17.01.2005

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