Modern American boxing writing began with coverage of Jack Johnson’s defense of his heavyweight title against Jim Jeffries in 1910, or so George Kimball asserts in At the Fights, the Library of America anthology he edited with John Schulian. In the single selection concerning that bout, novelist Jack London says Johnson “played and fought a white man in a white man’s country, before a white man’s crowd.” Thus, from its beginning 101 years ago, boxing writing has never been exclusively about sports. Like many others in the rapidly constructed arena in Reno, Nevada, where Johnson and Jeffries fought, London thought the contest expressed something about racial politics, although as Kimball and Schulian point out in a head note, London’s most infamous line about a Johnson bout – “Naturally, I wanted to see the white man win” – occurs in an earlier article, one on Johnson’s ascension to the championship via victory over Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, in 1908. In still another piece, London urged Jeffries to return from retirement and retrieve the title for “the White Man.”
Johnson’s success did reveal something about racial identity, though not in the way London wanted. Though he preferred not to view himself as a representative of a race or a cause, Johnson did topple the myths of racial superiority harbored by the likes of London.
Kimball and I both spoke at events commemorating the centennial of Johnson-Jeffries and both contributed to the literature about it. In his collection Manly Art, Kimball includes an article about efforts to pardon Johnson for a bogus 1913 “white slavery” conviction. My Reno talk about the resonant symbolism of Johnson beating Jeffries on the Fourth of July, subsequently appeared in fall 2010 edition of The Nevada Review, and on their website the editors of that journal direct readers to some related works. Further, I write about At the Fights and Manly Art (as well as Johnson-Jeffries) in the May/June 2011 issue of The American Interest.