Savant Sundays – Jack Johnson: Delving into the heavyweight icon

15 Min Read

The world was a much different place at the turn of the 20th century. The industrial revolution was in full swing. The inception of the video camera was making waves. Racial tensions were resurfacing as the Jim Crow era took effect and set precedent for an ugly apex after a period of “relative” calm.

As for sports, well — sports were evolving at a rapid pace. Jack Johnson was a megalithic figure in the early 1900s and 1910s. His boxing did much of the talking, and so did his patented smile.

When examining one of the pioneers of boxing in the post-bare knuckle era, we start with the physical attributes that made Johnson so formidable. For his era, Johnson was as exceptionally built as they come. “The Galveston Giant” was exactly that in more ways than one. He stood a respectable 6’1”; was a tall fighter, but not as imposing as the likes of a Jess Willard, who would stare fighters down the way President Lyndon Johnson would stare down political friends and foes, to assert his prowess.

His 74-inch reach was in exact accordance with his height. Johnson weighed in the 210s to 220s on fight nights, with wide shoulders and some of the most exceptional posture you’ll ever see. He looked dense and immovable, like Evander Holyfield.

To call him “muscular” would be an understatement, and Johnson was both buff and cut. One could easily tell that he put much time into his physical conditioning and strength training.

Pertaining to his fighting style, he was an orthodox fighter with a unique body stance. One could draw parallels to his style outside of the ring, and perception from others. A revelatory quote from “Unforgivable: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” spells out how,

“Most whites (and some Negroes as well) saw him as a perpetual threat – profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace, and a danger to the natural order of things.”

“He was in the great American tradition of self-invented men, too, and no one admired his handiwork more than he did. All his life, whites and blacks alike would ask him, ‘Just who do you think you are?’ The answer of course was always ‘Jack Johnson’ – and that would prove to be more than enough for turn-of-the-twentieth-century America to handle.”

This manifested in his way of fighting. He was very lofty in the ring, especially against smaller opponents. The fight game back then called for more clinching, and when in close, Johnson would almost always smile to the crowd, or himself, while patiently toying with his opponents. It almost seemed as if he was trying to let fights go on for longer just to give the audience their money’s worth.

Unfortunately for fight fans, he lived and competed in an era where archival footage is sparsely found nowadays. In our assessment of one Mr. Johnson, we have combed through nearly all of the surviving footage of the great boxer that’s available freely to the masses. While chopped up, and some incomplete, the footage gives us enough of a feel for his tendencies, strengths, and style.

Jack Johnson vs Stanley Ketchel

Johnson came out great with his jab. His movement was traditional, fighting out of the orthodox stance. In all honesty, up against the likes of Johnson, Ketchel looked inept in comparison, and left himself wide open for major blows to all areas of his dome and body.

In round eight, Johnson, the bigger fighter, loved to lean on his back foot and lean his body back to avoid jabs and other punches. He was great at making his opponents miss. He didn’t display light feet or a keenness to dance around the ring. He was very secure in his positioning, manhandling Ketchel around the ring when clinched, letting all spectators know how fully in control of the fight he really was.

By the latter rounds (by today’s standards), Johnson showed great proficiency in jabbing to the body. Then a surprise happened. In round 12, in miraculous fashion, Ketchel was able to drop Johnson. But unfortunately for him it meant nothing, as Johnson had an “enough of these games” moment and exploded off of the eight count to let fly a series of punches that left Ketchel sprawled out on the canvas.

Jack Johnson vs Tommy Burns

In rounds one and five, Johnson showed different positioning, keeping his right hand bent at a perfect 90 degree angle, and his jab hand down at his thigh, similar to Floyd Mayweather, or Roy Jones Jr when he was feeling haughty.

Johnson displayed aggression early in close, with uppercuts and short hooks, and a continued display of a fundamental and highly effective jab.

By round eight, something could be ascertained about Johnson, who had a habit of almost tripping over himself when lunging to throw power shots. This was the second time in two fights where he would lunge like a Shawn Porter, but lose his footing. For a fighter whose posture was so chiropractically sound, he would revert from that to an undisciplined stance and attack from time to time. Nothing too major.

As soon as the 11th round started, Johnson unloaded on Burns with hooks starting low and reaching up high, ending the fight in convincing fashion.

Jack Johnson vs Jim Jeffries

Jack’s potential weakness was defending against short shots in close and off of tangle-ups. In that time, referees would let fighters duke it out with fewer breaks, and other fighters like Jeffries took it to Johnson when he grasped him. Johnson landed an overhand right to close out the fourth in grand fashion. He was sneaky deceptive in getting off his overhand shots, a maneuver he would utilize on many occasion.

In round 13, he was tagged with a left hook upstairs but retaliated with a shot of his own. By the 45-minute mark, Johnson used footwork and speed to get his opponent against the ropes before throwing three quick left hooks that dropped Jeffries for the first time in his career. After Jeffries got up, Johnson dropped him a second time with a barrage, effectively ending the “Fight of the Century.”

Jeffries was one of the best opponents Johnson ever faced, and with the racial implications at stake in this fight, Johnson was facing near-insurmountable pressure, as well as vitriol from fans around the nation. His ability to keep his composure and fight his fight amidst such negativity must be highlighted.

It doesn’t get mentioned enough just how daunting it is to have real, unfiltered hate thrown at you when attempting to perform at anything. Your average person can’t even get up in front of their high school graduating class to perform a school play without wetting their pants. Johnson’s display of athleticism, coordination, and confidence were on front street, and quite frankly, that made him more of a fighter than he’s given credit for by select pundits.

Jack Johnson vs Jim Flynn

Johnson started the fight by stretching his jab arm out to establish distance. He showed great quickness with the jab after the stretched out arm. His transition was picture perfect. Johnson pushed off quite frequently when in close, to move Flynn away (and probably make him feel small). He showed great patience in clenches, showing great assuredness.

Another point of order is that Johnson didn’t throw straight rights as often as other fighters. He relied heavily on uppercuts, mainly, followed by hooks and jabs.

Flynn was trying his very best to take it to Johnson, to no avail. Jack’s tendency was to clench by wrapping his gloves around his opponents triceps, and instead of hunching over like a Roberto Duran, would stand upright, with his chin slightly up. He was able to get off masterful uppercuts, and correspondingly, defend masterfully against them as well.

Another noticing was that, against Flynn, as well as many of his other fights under scope, Johnson’s stance would close tremendously when in close. His feet would typically be less than shoulder width apart.

Fireman as he was called, was actually able to score points to Johnson’s abdomen in round five, and Jack looked like he didn’t even care. He was playing so many games with Fireman he took both his gloves and clapped behind his head with a cocky smile when Flynn buried his forehead into Johnson’s chest, looking to do damage but failing.

In the sixth round, Flynn got so frustrated he jumped up as if he were going to headbutt Johnson before the referee intervened. Later in the fight, Johnson’s antics continued, belittling Flynn by placing his outstretched glove on his forehead like a big brother preventing his little brother from swinging at him, knowing Flynn’s wingspan was too short to connect. The fight got called in the ninth after another headbutt prompted the referee and Johnson’s corner to object.

Jack Johnson vs Frank Moran

Now the fight against Moran put Johnson to the test. He was, like against Jeffries, fighting an opponent who was closer in size to himself than that of Flynn or Ketchel. Immediately, we saw great footwork from both fighters, but especially Johnson. Moran was favoring feints, which did not do much to throw Johnson off.

Johnson continued to keep his hands low, even in a fight like this against a more formidable foe. Vicious uppercuts were the story of round five from the Texan. Moran did let off a flurry early in the round that Johnson was able to partially quell. Moran also hit him with a string of short underhanded shots to the belly that racked up a ton of points. Johnson did nothing to stop him from racking up numbers on the cards in that regard.

Moran, having the height, weight, and reach to match Johnson, was aggressive, forcing Jack to take him more seriously than others. Johnson was always quicker to the punch, though, landing jabs continuously and in calculated fashion.


Jack Johnson was a great fighter, and in his era, dominated the playing field. However, it must be said that many of his opponents looked like super-middleweights masquerading as heavyweights. Of course, this is only what we have footage for, but there were holes in Johnson’s fighting repertoire that cannot be ignored.

Firstly, he didn’t throw to the body enough. His posture and tactics made him a true headhunter. But when watching his opponents, almost all of them left their body exposed when in close, and while he’d catch them sometimes with uppercuts, he could have scored an infinite amount of points if he were more aggressive.

He certainly didn’t have that Jack Dempsey or Mike Tyson gene of “get ‘em in, get ‘em out.” In 93 career fights, Johnson only had seven knockouts inside of three rounds. That number could have been astronomically higher if he didn’t play with his food.

Further, Johnson clinched very often. When watching his fights, the amount of times he’d grapple with his opponents becomes an eyesore. He would literally walk them around the ring, showboating to the crowd.

Back on the positive side, his speed was otherworldly, and his aggression, when turned on, was a frightening sight. He had an exemplary jab, and his barrages were — while sometimes slightly off-balanced — virtually indefensible.

Pitted against other great heavyweights in different eras, his win-loss era might have been a mixed bag. More aggressive fighters with longer reach would have bothered Johnson. More defensive pugilists and exceptional punchers would have been great matchups to see against the famed “Galveston Giant.”

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