Battling Jim – The Johnson Who Fell Just Short By Christopher J. LaForce
John Arthur “Jack” Johnson is universally recognized as one of Boxing’s great heavyweight champions. His reign, unfortunately, was marked by a dearth of talent among the white heavyweights, but there were certainly some formidable black dreadnoughts practicing their craft at the time. Sam Langford, Joe Jennette (sometimes spelled Jeanette or
Jeannette) and Sam McVea (or McVey) were a trio who made their way into Boxing’s Hall(s) of Fame and were an ordeal for any fighter to trade punches with. The irony here is that Jack pulled the old “color line” against them, saying, “Two black boys don’t draw flies.” Meaning, of course, that the amount the public would pay to see them duke it out wouldn’t be enough to warrant the risk involved. That was crap. Plenty of green was offered for these fights.
Johnson fled the United States in June 1913 to escape the persecution of white bigots who detested his audacity. “Li’l Artha”had the courage to live his life according to his own choices rather than submit to the dictates of a largely racist society which had instituted the “Jim Crow”laws. He married several white women over the years, and the real surprise is that he wasn’t lynched at some point. When the government convicted him to a one-year prison sentence on trumped up charges via the recently-enacted Mann Act
(which prohibited interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes”)
Jack Johnson, circa 1907
Jack furtively escaped into Canada, taking a steamship to France. On December 19 of that year, despite his claim that he would never defend his world title against another of his race, Jack had a bout against a large (usually listed at 6′3″ and 220 pounds)* and useful, but limited black boxer by the nom de guerre, “Battling” Jim Johnson.
* Jim’s height has also been given as 5′11″, and existing footage of a 1910 bout he had with Sam McVea makes him look much shorter than 6′3″.
The contest was held at the Premierland Français at Elysee and Montmartre in Paris, and was only the second real fight the “Galveston Giant” had engaged in for nearly 3½ years. Coupled with wine, women, and the night life of Paris he’d been enjoying, it can be understood that Jack wasn’t quite prepared for a stern test. His namesake, Jim, was a hard rock whose pugilistic career began in 1908, and who was known for his strength and stamina. “Battling Jim” had already faced many of the top names of the era, including Sam McVea (August 7, 1910 Draw 15; November 19, 1910 Lost by KO 18), Joe Jennette (July 29, 1912 No Decision 6; October 30, 1912 No Decision 10; January 1, 1913 No Decision 10; January 21, 1910 Lost by Foul 15 [or 12]); and Sam Langford (May 14, 1910 No Decision 6). He had defeated several other good heavyweights, such as “Big” Bill Tate and Tom Cowler, but was considered a fringe contender.
The legend says that Jack claimed a broken arm and had a friendly referee terminate the bout as a draw after 10 of the scheduled 20 rounds, and that Jim should have captured the crown that day. This, in turn, might ultimately have allowed the likes of Sam Langford, Joe Jennette, or Sam McVea to have a crack at the bauble and a taste of the championship. The French newspaper Le Figaro wrote on the day of the fight, December 19, 1913, just prior to the actual event, that the match was to be “un combat un dix reprises de trois minutes” (a battle of 10 rounds, of 3 minutes each). This is at odds with the popular notion that the bout was originally slated for 20 frames, but was halted after only 10, due to the injury sustained by Jack. The following fight account is an amalgam of multiple sources, mostly contemporary.1
“Battling” Jim Johnson
The opening round wasn’t notable, but in round two the champion landed “a couple of smashing body blows with his left hand.” No real harm was done, however. The majority of his follow-up attempts to the midsection in this and later rounds were blocked by “Battling” Jim, who, it was said, fought out of a deeper crouch than Jim Jeffries. This allowed “Battling” Jim to land his own rattling blows to the stomach. He forced the action, largely making the fight, though Jack certainly got in more than his share of left jabs to the head. He
doubled up on it, got in a multitude of right uppercuts as well and moved adroitly on his feet. Le Figaro claimed that Jack broke the radius of his left arm in round 5, when Jim crashed home a powerful right hand to his elbow. From the 6th to the end of the match, the latter was on the defensive. In the 7th stanza, Jim broke through the guard of the champion on three occasions, raking his foe with sharp uppercuts. Le Figaro wrote “…by the 7th round, Johnson’s broken face read defeat.” If not for the great defense of “Li’l Artha,” his young challenger might have knocked him out. It was only Jack’s superior boxing ability and supreme skill that enabled him to see the finish.
At the final bell ending the 10th round, Jack staggered to the ropes, clutching his left arm and saying he’d broken it. When the angry and disbelieving crowd demanded to know just when this alleged injury occurred, they received the reply that it was in the 3rd frame. The referee declared the fight a draw, allowing the champion to retain his title. The New York Times said, “It was the general impression among the spectators that the injury had been sustained in the last minute of the fight, when Jim Johnson rushed Jack to the ropes and the two went to the floor, with Jack’s arms closed about Jim’s waist. Both men jumped up quickly, but Jack was plainly exhausted and he fell against the ropes as the gong sounded. Then, he tottered to his corner, holding his left arm and declaring it was broken.”
The paper added that the fistic monarch’s foe had “battered him all around the ring” and would have taken him out if the bout had proceeded much longer. It must be said that Jack Johnson showed courage and fortitude in enduring the pain to the end. Strangely, another great black heavyweight, the “Brown Panther” Harry Wills would, in 1917, lose on a TKO (Technical Knockout) due to a broken left wrist in a fight with Jim Johnson. This occurred in round two, when he stopped a right uppercut with his elbow. The scheduled duration of fights around the world varied, often being 20, 25 or even 45 rounds. Jack’s next defense of his crown (in 1914) would be 20 rounds. If the 10-rounder on this day had been slated for 15 or more, it is a virtual certainty that the name of “Battling Jim” would have entered the ledger as the 2nd African-American world heavyweight champion.
“Battling” Jim Johnson’s life was taken in 1918, along with millions of others, in the great Spanish Flu epidemic. He contracted the lethal illness and was admitted to a hospital while waiting for a fight with Sam Langford to be rescheduled. A few days after being removed from hospital, Jim died of pneumonia. He was only 31. As for Jack, he died exactly as it was claimed he’d predicted, in a high-speed car crash, near Raleigh, North Carolina. While the legend, fame, and notoriety of the “Galveston Giant” will persevere, the other Johnson missed a date with fistic immortality by little more than a hairsbreadth.
1 Le Figaro (Paris, France); New York Times, December 20, 1913. Thanks to Matt Donnellon and Chris Pontious for a translation of the December 19 and 20, 1913 editions of Le Figaro (taken from Cyber Boxing Zone and Eastside Boxing Forums).
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