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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 23 June 2007
Jack Johnson was one of the most charismatic figures of twentieth century America. In 1909, at a time when the colour bar ran marrow-deep through every aspect of America's national identity, he achieved a feat that remains incredible to this day - he became the first black man to win the world heavyweight title. Clever, articulate and blessed with possibly the best boxing skills the division had ever seen, he lived his live the way he wanted to; and not within the parameters set for him by racist convention. He consorted with white women, drove fast cars and revelled in the fact that the title of world champion - preserve of white America (even our own Bob Fitsimmons - statistically Britain's first heavyweight champion had to become an American citizen before being allowed to relieve Jim Corbett of the crown) was worn around the waist of a black man. In doing so he inspired hatred and admiration in equal measure, even black America was divided; some rejoiced in his success, others felt his behaviour was detrimental to America's fragile race relations. Geoffrey Ward's book is an exhaustively researched portrait of Johnson. Eventually hounded into exile and later imprisoned on inflated charges, his rise and fall is covered with great detail and sensitivity. This is an excellent book for sports fans and social historians alike. Highly recommended
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 11 September 2008
The finest sports books are those that venture beyond the sport or sportsmen that are being written about, and to say Geoffrey C Ward does that would be something of an understatement, exploring the racism that ran rampant throughout not just the US, but the rest of the world, at the turn of the last century.

When the great heavyweights are discussed, to this day Johnson's name tends to be omitted as people talk of Louis, Ali and Tyson. But while those three were undeniably incredible fighters, they didn't have to go through half of what Jack Johnson endured in his struggle to prove he was the best heavyweight of the early 20th century. The jaw-dropping racism both within the US and within the sport of boxing makes an uncomfortable setting, but as Graeme Kent says in his book along a similar theme - Great White Hopes (a very good follow-up read to this book) - in so far as letting black people compete, boxing was way ahead of most other sports, a thought to make the reader shudder.

Johnson's winning and retaining of the world title is detailed with such precision by Ward - attention to detail rivalled only by David Frith's excellent Bodyline Autopsy - that you can't help but feel you've actually watched his fights, particularly the famous Reno bout against Jim Jeffries, which is recreated blow by blow. As Johnson becomes more famous (not to mention richer) his behaviour becomes more and more offensive to those who wish to see a white man regain the heavyweight belt. It is in describing Johnson at this time where Ward excels. He never asks the reader to excuse Johnson's often unpleasant behavior, but he does put this behaviour into context, skilfully demonstrating that Johnson was more sinned against than sinner.

For one reason or another, boxing seems to be blessed with several excellent writers - from Nat Fleischer through AJ Leibling to Donald McRae - and I can pay Ward no greater compliment to say that he can more than hold his own in such exhalted company with this outstanding book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 2 December 2007
Before reading this I had never heard of Jack Johnson. As far as I was concerned the era of black heavyweights began with Joe Louis. Johnson was what might be called "a character"; in the modern era this would be endearing but in the 1910's this was dangerous for any black person. Any vaguely arrogant comment by Johnson was magnified and misrepresented whereas his white opponents and their managers could get away with using language even Goebells would have balked it. When push came to shove though, Johnson was head and shoulders above any other fighter at the time and was therefore avoided by his white opponents who argued the case that mixed race bouts should not be allowed (the real reason being that they would probably lose). Johnson sowed the seeds of his own destruction, however. A spendthrift (he famously spent the prize money from one of his bouts in under 48 hours) and a proclivity for white women of ill-repute unleashed a tidal-wave of racist victimisation which led to jail and his own impoverishment.
It is difficult to think of a modern day sports icon with a story like this, only the self-destructive Tyson and Gascoigne come close. Get this book and immerse yourself in the life of a true American legend.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 October 2009
Most people have heard of Joe Lewis, Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson however the very first black heavyweight champion of the world isn't that well known. Putting it simply Jack Johnson was born 100 years too early. His lifestyle nowadays would be something akin to a famous rapper and quite frankly most of his antics put in a modern context are fairly tame compared to many modern celebrities.

However in the 1900's being an independently minded black man who slept with and married white women pretty much made him the most hated black man in the world. It is perhaps the horrifying level of racism that stops Jack Johnson's story being better known. To put it bluntly if you're white and reading this book you will end up feeling very guilty indeed as the papers write endless column inches on how evil he is and the US courts show that they are by no means colour blind either.

The irony however is for Johnson he never saw his fights as black versus white but merely the fact that as the best boxer of his generation he had a right to have a shot for the title. He was a remarkable man completely out of step with his time, obviously an awesome boxer but also eloquent with a passion for reading, history and music- he was in many ways a more rounded personality than Ali.

It doesn't quite get the full marks for me as while the book is very well researched at times the writer is determined to show you all of his research which bogs down too many stories with a flood of facts and foot notes. A willingness to relinquish some of the data to allow the story to breath a little more would have improved the book.

Overall though read this with a certain slack jawed amazement it's a story that demands as wide an audience as possible.

If you liked this there's more historical debate and fun at @HistoryGems on Facebook and Twitter
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 July 2009
This is an amazing read about an amazing man - the notorious, wild living boxing champion Jack Johnson.

Jack Johnson's life is action packed to say the least - talk about 'seizing the day' and living life to the full - Jack really went for it. What makes the story particularly incredible is that his achievements were via the bloody and murky world of turn of the twentieth century prize fighting and that he was black. The adversity, hostility, ignorance and prejudice faced by black americans during this period is staggering.

The book is split into two parts - The Rise and The Fall.

The Rise:
As a man determined to live his life to the full and be his 'own man' and bow down to nobody, Jack is shown to be an incredible character and an inspiration for those who wish to live their lives and be true to themselves. He tackles rascism with courage and amazingly humour. His audacity is quite amazing - the nerve of the man to wind up 'white society' is jaw dropping. What a man! In my view a true hero - and though he didn't seem to declare himself a civil rights revolutionary I think in his own way he is one of the greatest. Jack Johnson stands for all the down trodden people regardless of race and what made him particularly fantastic was that he was big and tough enough to hammer the bullies!

Part Two:
We start to see that Jack's personal character begins to look somewhat suspect - his womanising and thirst for money tend to dominate and the pressures of holding the greatest sporting title starts to take its toll.
Whereas in Part One we see the heroic rise of an inspirational man - in Part Two we see the great man descend into some questionable behaviour as various mud starts to stick.

Ultimately though, throughout the book I found myself rooted for Jack Johnson - he stayed true to himself and was persecuted to the point where one is amazed he kept his sanity and bearing -at times he certainly wobbled. Though no saint and certainly capable of crude and often selfish behaviour I found him a fascinating, lovable rogue who took on the world and whose spirit shone bright. An inspirational man who lived an incredible life.

Without doubt the best boxing biography I have ever read (and I have read quite a few) - definitely one for the boxing fans. But also it is one of the best biographies I have read on any person. The amount of detail is incredible - I would have difficulty putting that amount of detail if I had to write my own memoir! Simply astonishing - but utterly credible and undeniably authentically researched.

Please don't pass this book by if you don't like boxing - it is an amazing historical and biographical protrait in its own right. Superbly crafted and put together by the author.The dilligent effort required to produce this masterpiece requires the highest praise - the story is fast paced, believable, impeccably researched (I even enjoyed reading the footnotes - the author knowing exactly what to keep in the main text to keep the story flowing and what to add to bring extra fascinating information to the subject).

In summary, it is an awesome,brilliant work - if you are a boxing fan, like stories of the underdog facing the most hostile adversity,enjoy historical writing based on the early twentieth century then this is for you. Importantly it opened my eyes to the horrors and prejudices of racism and I felt continually moved and often outraged and ashamed to read of the experiences of Jack Johnson and his fellow black americans.

A wonderful book fully deserving every one of its five stars!Mr ward has written a masterpiece and I look forward to reading his other works.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 June 2007
Boxing certainly isn't short of great literature but this book still ranks as one of the best books about the sport. The book has been painstakingly researched, but the plethora of facts doesn't obscure the excellent easy-to-read writing. This book is not just for fight fans - it is also a compelling record of late 19th/early 20th century US social history and of the appalling racism of that period.

The trials, tribulations and hounding of Jack Johnson set the standard for those that followed. As I read the book I saw the stories Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali et al. Was Jack Johnson his own worst enemy? Like Muhammad Ali 50 years later his central "crime" was that he wasn't what white America wanted him to be. The book tells how when, during his persecution during the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali saw a play about Jack he saw himself. Before I read this book I thought Muhammad Ali my greatest Heavyweight champ. Now I am not so sure.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 July 2013
Having just read Roger Khan's biography of Jack Dempsey and "Tunney" by Jack Cavanaugh, two tremendously well written books, I was really looking forward to reading about Jack Johnson, and was sorely disappointed.
This biography reads like one long newspaper account of Johnson's life. There are too many overlong footnotes (almost one on every page), which detract from the flow of the writing, get too bogged down in detail, and in many cases could easily have been worked into the story.
On the plus side, the book brings out the racism, hatred and attitude of early 20th century America towards a great boxer. A man as fallible as any other and extreme in his excesses. The subject is fascinating, the book should have been much better.
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on 2 February 2009
I picked this book up by chance as I was browsing a local bookstore. I'm very glad I did. Johnson led an incredibly interesting, though difficult, life in the early 20th century. What interested me most was the apparent similarity between his ring style and Muhammad Ali's. Johnson would boast, ridicule and play with his opponents, just like Ali. He spoke and dressed outlandishly, and was persecuted (and prosecuted) by the authorities, like Ali too. Like Ali, he was an outspoken blackman with an attitude which often brought him into conflict with the white status quo. His relationships with white women only served to challenge the established order further. He was a hero to many poor African-Americans 50 years before Ali and over 20 years before Joe Louis, yet he is half-forgotten today.

Geoffrey Ward has written a major page-turner here. He takes the reader through the lows, highs and lows of Johnson's personal and professional life in a pacey and entertaining manner. The book is especially good on Johnson's early life and his rise to power. His iconic fight with Jim Jeffries is brilliantly re-told. After a series of mishaps and mistakes Johnson's career ended sadly - towards the end he was a rather desperate figure, fighting and often losing low paid bouts against local fighters, living from hand-to-mouth off his name and at one point trying to gain access to Joe Johnson's training camp to give the young pretender some words of advice and give his own life a renewed sense of purpose. His life reminded me at times of another great African-American pioneer, Malcolm X. Both experienced incredible highs and lows and led fascinating lives in the toughest circumstances for a Black American. Both were social, economic and racial outsiders unwilling to accept society's pre-assigned place for them and ready to speak out volubly. Both were mourned by large crowds, though Johnson is certainly the forgotten man of the two today.

Johnson deserves greater recognition in the pantheon of pioneering and important African-Americans. This book deserves to be read. Well worth the money!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 April 2012
This book is an ideal read for anyone interested in not just the story behind the world's first black heavyweight boxing champion but also the founding era of the sport itself.
It unfolds the complicated life of Johnson and provides an impartial analysis of his life.
Not only is the book an accurate record of his fights but also charts his extraordinary private life from the women he knew to the shadier characters surrounding the sport at the time.
The book flows well and captivates the reader.
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on 13 January 2014
Boxing has many great books written about it, and this is up there with the best. Jack Johnson isn't as well known as some later black American heavyweights - Joe Louis , Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson chief among them - but he had to overcome great difficulties to become the first black American heavyweight World Champion. The colour bar that he broke through was substantial - the overt racism and threats that he faced was staggering, but he continued to plug away, despite many of his white opponents simply refusing to fight against a black man. The reader is left feeling frustrated and saddened when the Jim Crow society is described.

Johnson won the title in 1908 and successfully defended it against Jim Jeffries, the champion who had ducked Johnson's challenges most in the past, in 1910. To overcome the hostile opposition, Johnson needed arrogance and supreme self-belief. However, that was ultimately his undoing, and Ward does not duck from describing how Johnson failed to keep his life on the straight and narrow. His womanising with whites led to fierce criticism, ultimately from both whites and blacks, and caused constant harassment that led to a prison term. This is a great biography of a real trailblazer in boxing.
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