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.