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Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward

Release date: 10th January, 2006
Publisher: Pimlico

List Price: £8.99
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Unforgivable Blackness
By Geoffrey C. Ward
Pimlico Books price: £7.19 (saving 20% on rrp)

When, in 1908, the powerfully built boxer Jack Johnson captured the world heavyweight championship title by defeating the Canadian Tommy Burns in a brutal encounter in Sydney, a sense of outrage gripped certain elements of the boxing fraternity.

It was immediately predicted that Johnson's ownership of boxing's most sought-after crown would lead to civic unrest; politicians and industrialists debated Johnson's exalted sporting status at length. Newspapers wrote in less than glowing terms of Johnson's sexual appetite, while police forces in some US counties maintained a state of permanent readiness lest rioting should commence. Before long, it was concluded that something had to be done to halt the man who many establishment figures believed was a danger to the natural order.

But what had Johnson done to attract such scorn? Was he not a boxer who had fought his way to the top? He was, but incredible as it may seem today, in the early twentieth century, many people felt his accession would threaten white supremacy. You see, Johnson was the first-ever black heavyweight champion. Moreover, he was to hold onto the title for the following seven years.
Texas-born Johnson began his ring career fighting in the notorious "Battles Royal" spectacles which involved up to a dozen black fighters battling with each other until only one was left standing. More often than not, it was Johnson, who subsequently collected any money thrown into the ring by the watching crowd.
A century ago, boxing was still unregulated and actually illegal in some areas of the world, but Johnson picked up enough ring savvy from these early 12-man contests and allied it to his natural ability to literally fight his way to the top of the tree, only to encounter even more vehement opposition than he had faced as a championship contender.
Although his victory made him a hero to some black Americans, Johnson was no liberal crusader fighting for equality. Had he been, it is doubtful whether the US Federal government would have deliberately portrayed him as arrogant and profligate, an altogether unwholesome piece of work (as they did), but Johnson simply didn't care.
He was an avid gambler, he enjoyed fast cars and was to squander much of his earnings on prostitution. Inside the ring, he ridiculed his opponents; outside, he was brutal to his wives and friends and ended up being a regular visitor to court. Indeed, following a period of exile in Europe after an extremely dubious indictment, he returned to the States to serve a year in Leavenworth prison.
Ironically, when one considers all of the opposition he faced, Johnson invoked his own "colour bar", seeking relationships only with white women, while he refused point blank to defend his heavyweight title against some of the top black contenders of the day.
Despite his gregariousness and eccentricity, one gets the impression that above all else, Johnson preferred his own company. He didn't give a hoot about what anyone else thought and approached his fights with the single-mindedness professional boxer's were to find absolutely essential half a century later. In that respect, Johnson was ahead of his time.
Geoffrey Ward has produced a marvellous, meticulous, well-researched biography of a maverick, a fascinating figure who held on to sport's most coveted world crown for seven years; it is a 'must-have' for the bookshelf of any sports fan.

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