Before Mayweather vs. McGregor, there was Ali vs. Inoki

Originally published on

Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor has moved away from the absurd and into the realm of possibility. The proposed matchup remains a money grab, serving no other purpose for either fighter. If the fight happens, Mayweather will demand $100 million and win in his usual way—supreme skill with minimal excitement. While McGregor, despite likely earning a career-high purse, will be thoroughly dominated and try to save dignity by claiming Mayweather refused to engage in actual fighting. The fight is predictable because boxing rules will govern it, not MMA conventions nor even a hybrid of the two—as was the case when Muhammad Ali fought a Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki, in 1976.

Ali vs. Inoki began as a joke. “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter to challenge me?” Ali asked the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association. “I’ll give him $1 million if he wins.”[1] As Ali’s quote spread throughout Japan, the fight became a reality when Japanese businessmen contacted Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad—son of Elijah Muhammad—offering a $6 million payday. The challenger was Antonio Inoki, a popular Japanese professional wrestler whose “training” regimen included throwing himself from moving cars as a way of toughening his body.[2] But despite the legitimacy of the opponent, Ali and his people thought the fight was a set-up.

There are various versions of what was supposed to happen. Bob Arum, Ali’s promoter, claims the plan called for Ali to “pound on Inoki for six or seven rounds. Inoki would be pouring blood. Apparently he was crazy enough that he was actually going to cut himself with a razor blade. Ali would appeal to the referee to stop the fight. And right when he was in the middle of this humanitarian gesture, Inoki would jump him from behind and pin him. Pearl Harbor all over again.”[3] Another version of the “script” had Ali accidentally punching and knocking out the referee. While a concerned Ali checked on the unconscious referee, Inoki would kick Ali in the head just as the referee woke up. The referee would then count out Ali and Inoki would win the fight though Ali would “save face through his noble actions.”[4]

Just as there are various accounts of what should have happened, there are different reasons for those plans ultimately failing. Arum, again, says Ali’s conscience did not allow him to go through with tricking the public and instead, he “refused to go to any of the rehearsals. So all of a sudden, we had a real fight.”[5] Another source states that Inoki was serious about the fight and Ali did not realize it until he arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. There, attempting to sell the fight, Ali yelled towards reporters, “There will be no Pearl Harbor!”[6] Noticeably, both Arum and Ali evoked Pearl Harbor more than thirty-five years after it occurred. We do not know what they meant beside the obvious: Inoki was Japanese. But the stereotype of Japanese and Asians as “cunning and corrupt, treacherous and vindictive, [given] to lechery, dishonesty, xenophobia, [and] cruelty” has been common in the United States since the late 1800s.[7] Pearl Harbor and WWII only intensified the stereotypes with war posters commonly depicting Japanese as a deceitful people, if not sub-humans.[8]

This stereotype would also play into the supposed plan of Inoki attacking Ali when he least expected it. Of course, Ali soon recognized there would be no rehearsals and that the fight was more than an exhibition.[9] This became clear when Ali saw Inoki’s public sparring sessions and saw him practicing roundhouse kicks to the shoulders of his trainer at full-strength and speed. Concerned, Ali’s management placed new restrictions on Inoki, banning him from kicking while standing up. As part of the new rules, Inoki also could not throw Ali, apply lock holds, or use elbow strikes.

Regardless of Ali’s expectations, the fight went on as scheduled and besides the millions he stood to gain, the fight was also about ego. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, says the Inoki fight allowed Ali to show he “was not only the best boxer in the world but also the best fighter.[10] Incidentally, in 1978, two years after Ali fought Inoki for the unofficial title of the best fighter in the world, DC Comics released Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a comic book in which Ali showed he was the best fighter in the universe. The comic’s plot shares similarities with one account of what should have happened in his fight against Inoki with Ali showcasing his fighting superiority and concern for his opponent. In the comic, Ali refused to knock out Superman though he dominated him. Instead, Ali walks away from a battered Superman, who eventually fell on his own. Even, the comic’s ending shows a magnanimous Ali, shaking Superman’s hand and saying, “Superman, WE are the greatest.”[11] Unfortunately for Ali, his fight against Inoki did not end as well—in fact, it was a disaster for both men.

On June 25, 1976—eight months removed from “The Thrilla in Manila”—Ali faced Inoki in Tokyo’s Budokan Stadium. Closed-circuit television broadcast the fight across 134 countries. Bob Arum, Ali’s promoter, claimed the fight would “sell more closed-TV seats than any fight event in history.”[12] Unfortunately for the many who watched the fight, it proved far less exciting than expected. With the restrictions placed on Inoki, one of the few things he could do was lay on his back and kick at Ali. As a result, the 15-round fight deteriorated into “Inoki throwing flying kicks at Ali’s legs and Ali dancing backward.”[13] And although Ali only landed a few solid jabs, Inoki continuously pounded Ali’s legs with kicks that, by the latter rounds, left them badly swollen, bleeding, and bruised. At the end of the fight, Angelo Dundee talked the referee into ruling it a draw so that Ali and Inoki could both keep what little respect remained.[14]

The fight left everyone unsatisfied. The crowd, feeling cheated, threw trash in the ring while Ali apologized and blamed Inoki for the lack of action. “I wouldn’t have done this fight,” Ali explained, “if I’d known he was going to do that. Nobody knew this was going to happen so we had a dead show.”[15] Bob Arum called the match the lowest point of his career.[16] Ferdie Pacheco—Ali’s doctor—agreed. “Fighting Inoki was an incredibly stupid act,” Pacheco said. “To subject a great legendary fighter to a carnival atmosphere like that was wrong…[he] put his entire career in jeopardy for some dollars that he could have made just as easily without risking his reputation and his health.”[17]

After the fight, Pacheco implored Ali to seek medical attention instead of following through with his planned tour through Asia where he was to hold a boxing exhibition in Korea then dedicate a shopping mall in Manila, Philippines. Ali refused the advice, went along with the scheduled plans and by the time he returned to the US, doctors hospitalized him as his leg muscles remained badly damaged.[18] Blood clots developed and damage to Ali’s legs was so extensive, there was talk of a possible amputation.[19]

As for Inoki, he also felt embarrassed and though he did not suffer the same physical damage as Ali, his pain was emotional. Despite the $2 million he earned, he cried in the dressing room after the fight as his hopes of becoming a national hero faded along with his dreams of restoring “prestige to the floundering sport of professional wrestling in Japan.”[20] The only hope for consoling his disappointment was his wish to reconnect with an estranged sister with whom he lost contact, presumably, after the economic hardship of post-war Japan forced them to the coffee fields of Brazil. “I hope all this publicity brings us together again,” Inoki said before the fight.[21] Whether that reconnection ever occurred is unknown.

Ali vs. Inoki was a disaster that should serve as a warning but it will not. Even if Mayweather and McGregor never fight against each other, there will be other bouts proposed, eager to pit a boxer versus a mixed martial artist. With its money-making potential, one of these fights will eventually occur. The promotion leading up to that fight is predictable. Boxing will claim supremacy based on its longer history. Ironically, it may even call itself a civilized sport compared to MMA. Conversely, MMA will portray boxing as dying sport whose relevance continues to fade. They will call themselves the future of combat sports, a mixture of various disciplines from across the globe. And though the fight will attract interest and attention, it will leave most spectators unfulfilled. There is no other conclusion. If absurdity defeated both Ali and Inoki at the same time—how can anyone else stand a chance?


[1] Dexter Thomas, “The Japanese pro wrestler who almost got Muhammad Ali’s leg amputated” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 337.

[4] Andrew Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship” Japan Times, June 7, 2016.

[5] Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 337.

[6] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”

[7] Rhoda J. Yen, “Racial Stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans and Its Effect on Criminal Justice: A Reflection on the Wayne Lo Case” Asian American Law Journal, no. 1, vol. 6, 2000: 6-7.

[8] John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific (New York: Pantheon Book, 1986), 99.

[9] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”

[10] Angelo Dundee, My View from the Corner: A Life in Boxing (New York; McGraw-Hill, 2008), 202.

[11] Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Fight in History – Deluxe Edition (New York: DC Comics, 2010), 72

[12] Josh Gross, Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight that Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2016), 4.

[13] Andrew H. Malcolm, “Ali, Inoki, Fight to Draw in Dull Bout” New York Times, June 26, 1976.

[14] Dundee, My View from the Corner, 203.

[15] Malcolm, “Ali, Inoki, Fight to Draw in Dull Bout.”

[16] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”

[17] Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 337.

[18] Ibid, 338.

[19] Andy Bull, “The forgotten story of … Muhammad Ali v Antonio Inoki” The Guardian, November 11, 2009.  

[20] Mark Kram, “…But Only a Farce in Tokyo” Sports Illustrated, July 5, 1976.

[21] Ibid.


Viva Johnson: Jack Johnson in Revolutionary Mexico 

On an April day in 1919, American boxer Jack Johnson arrived at Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles), a restaurant in Mexico City owned by white American expatriates, the Sanborn brothers. Like many in the U.S. the Sanborn’s believed in segregation and refused to serve Johnson, forcing him to eat elsewhere. As night fell Johnson returned a few hours later accompanied by members of the Mexican military including a few of Venustiano Carranza’s generals and colonels. The waiter took the orders from the party while, again, ignoring Johnson. This time, the service refusal created a commotion escalating into a confrontation between one of the generals and Walter Sanborn.

The generals informed Sanborn that in Mexico, everyone received service regardless of color as “Mexico was not a white man’s country.” Further, in Mexico “there are no color differences, everyone is equal.”[1] The generals drew their guns, threatened Sanborn who continued to refuse service to Johnson. Before police arrived to quell tensions, a crowd gathered outside the restaurant who in recognizing Johnson and realizing what was occurring, chanted, “Viva Johnson, viva Mexico!”[2] Sanborn relented to public pressure, shook Johnson’s hand and served him ice cream. There are various accounts of this story some portraying Johnson in an aggressive manner but each acknowledging Sanborn’s refusal to serve Johnson.[3] Mexico City newspaper, El Universal and a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating Mexican affairs covered the confrontation which became known as the Sanborn incident.[4]

Significant in the Sanborn incident were the chants of “Viva Johnson, viva Mexico!” This was a remarkable change of events considering four years earlier, Johnson could not arrive in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua for a scheduled fight against Jess Willard. Pancho Villa, who controlled Mexico’s northern territory, intended to fund the fight as a way of generating money for his ongoing revolution against Carranza. With its closeness to the U.S. and Johnson’s popularity on both sides of the border, estimates believed the fight in Ciudad Juárez could attract and accommodate 100,000 people.[5] But since the fight would help Villa’s war chest, Carranza threatened to arrest and return Johnson to the U.S., from where he fled in 1913 after a Mann Act conviction.[6] With Carranza controlling Mexico’s ports and Johnson’s inability to travel to Ciudad Juárez through the U.S., the fight took place in Havana, Cuba.[7]

During the time in which Johnson’s fight was to take place, control of Mexico hung in the balance. In December 1914, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa arrived in Mexico City at the head of their Southern and Northern military divisions, respectively. An iconic photograph showing Villa and Zapata sitting side by side in the presidential chair, captured the momentous occasion showing a jovial Villa while a somber Zapata simply posed for the photograph. For many, the event marked the height of the Mexican Revolution as its two most recognizable and charismatic leaders occupied the capital. But soon afterwards Villa and Zapata left the capital with Carranza’s troops at their heels. Álvaro Obregón led Carranza’s troops and specifically engaged Villa in various battles throughout his retreat north. After his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Celaya, Villa’s influence on the Mexican Revolution would never be as impactful as during his and Zapata’s brief occupation of Mexico City. As for Zapata, his assassination (orchestrated by Carranza) was the front page story of the same issue of El Universal that covered the Sanborn incident. By 1919 the Mexican Revolution was into its ninth year and as Carranza became Mexico’s constitutional president he consolidated control of the country while the rebels lost their influence.

As the revolution’s violence subsided a sense of peace followed. Further, Carranza and Johnson now considered each other friends, explaining why Mexican generals and colonels came to Johnson’s defense at La Casa de Azulejos.[8] “Frequently we met each other in private,” Johnson wrote on his meetings with Carranza. “At which times we engaged in conversations which ranged over many subjects…He was greatly interested in world politics and in the future relations between his country and the U.S. He questioned me…and drew from me my views on international politics.”[9] Although Johnson admitted he was not a political authority, for Carranza to even meet and talk about politics shows their level of friendship and mutual respect. With Mexico’s political climate and violence stabilized the Sanborn brothers felt comfortable expanding their pharmaceutical business, opening their restaurant in downtown Mexico City. Ultimately the sense of peace was a façade as violence continued, culminating with Carranza’s assassination.

So where does Jack Johnson fit into all of this? The idea of Mexico as a color-blind country and a place where a black man could find refuge from his home country that persecuted him because of his race, sounds great—even heartwarming. But it is much more complicated than that. Through Jack Johnson’s life in revolutionary Mexico we can examine the attitudes towards race in both Mexico and the U.S. We discover that as Jack Johnson attempted to make a life in Mexico, their revolution shaped his level of societal acceptance within the country. As the revolution evolved, the political relationship between Mexico and the U.S. further influenced Johnson’s perception within both governments. And as if marrying white women during the Jim Crow era had not caused enough trouble for Johnson, his time and actions in Mexico added to his already troubling reputation in the U.S.[10]

Any serious discussion of Jack Johnson is impossible without speaking of race. Not only was he the first black boxing heavyweight champion but all of his legal troubles and controversies stem largely from being a black man who refused to obey the era’s laws. During Johnson’s time, boxing remained segregated as white men held the world titles while black men could only reach the height of being named Negro champion. Boxing in Texas, Johnson’s home state, remained segregated until 1954 when the Court of Civil Appeals overturned a ban on mixed-race matches.[11] The segregation was partly due to the myth of black inferiority which, as related to boxing, portrayed blacks as cowardly and susceptible to body blows due to their supposedly weak mid-section. In 1906, American boxer Jim Jeffries was the heavyweight champion and like many, saw blacks as inferior. Jeffries refused to fight anyone who was not white, believing it an insult to the sport. After defeating all white opponents Jeffries retired to his farm, satisfied that no contender could challenge his boxing supremacy.

By 1908 the title belonged to Noah Brusso who fought as Tommy Burns.[12] Unlike Jeffries, Burns did not draw a color line and after years of pleading, Johnson finally received a title fight. Not that Burns was eager to fight Johnson. Burns demanded $30,000 to fight Johnson, confident no one would come up with it. It was not until Australian promoter, Hugh “Huge Deal” McIntosh, met his asking price that he fought Johnson, who received $5,000. Fighting in Sidney, Australia Johnson easily defeated Burns. The brutal beating forced police to stop the fight, ordering the cameras to stop recording and as a result no actual footage of Burns being knocked out exists—seconds before he is about to hit the canvas, the reel just stops.[13] American author and journalist Jack London attended the fight, likening it Armenian massacre. London wrote of Burns’s inability to hit Johnson as, “a dew-drop had more chance than he with the giant Ethiopian.”[14]

Johnson’s hometown of Galveston, Texas planned a parade to honor Johnson as the new heavyweight champion. However, upon discovering Johnson planned to attend the festivities with his white wife, officials cancelled all celebrations claiming they did not want to offend those who disapproved of Johnson’s marriage.[15] In another incident that occurred in Galveston during his early boxing career, police jailed Johnson and his opponent for twenty-one days. Though the arrest stemmed from boxing’s illegality within the state, the time Johnson spent incarcerated was long based on the offense. Compounding the time behind bars was Johnson’s $5,000 bond, a sum higher than what murder cases required.[16] After his arrest Johnson stated, “After this event, Galveston had no great charm for me and I again set out for new fields.”[17]

After the fight against Burns, there was an immediate outcry for a white boxer to defeat Johnson. Theoretically this boxer—the “Great White Hope”—would reclaim the title for the white race and reset the supposed proper order of racial hierarchy with the white man on top.[18] Jack London was one of the leading voices and believed the “Great White Hope” was none other than Jim Jeffries. “One thing now remains,” London wrote, “Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you!”[19] Jeffries did un-retire in 1910 to face Johnson in “The Battle of the Century”—a fight that Johnson, again, easily won. After the fight several blacks died in riots and lynchings across the U.S.

Noting the momentous event of Johnson’s victory and what it meant to their race, some in the black community believed those deaths, although tragic, were a suitable price to pay. The Chicago Defender wrote, “It was a good deal better for Johnson to win and a few Negroes to have been killed in body for it, than for Johnson to have lost and all Negroes to have been killed in spirit by the preachments of inferiority from the combined white press.”[20] Writing on the same event, decades after Johnson’s win and pointing out the dark absurdities of such lynchings, sportswriter Finis Farr sarcastically wrote, “That night six people were killed and scores wounded in serious rioting which broke out in both the North and the South. All this could have been avoided if Jack Johnson had not lived so high, or beaten Burns and Jeffries so badly, or even if he had shown the simple forethought to be born with a white skin.”[21]

In the end the court system defeated Johnson when none of the “Great White Hopes” could. In 1913 a second attempt from federal investigators to convict Johnson under the Mann Act proved successful. The Mann Act made illegal the interstate transportation of, “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”[22] In their first try (1912) to convict Johnson, federal investigators argued Johnson brought Lucille Cameron from Pittsburgh to Chicago as a prostitute, ignoring that Cameron was Johnson’s girlfriend. Though Cameron did not cooperate with authorities, her mother did. She considered her daughter insane as according to her logic, what else could explain her daughter’s want for a black man? Cameron’s refusal to cooperate coupled with her and Johnson’s marriage, led to the charges of abduction being dropped.[23]

Embarrassed by their failure, federal investigators dug deeper into Johnson’s past attempting to uncover evidence of his wrongdoings. Belle Schreiber, Johnson’s disgruntled ex-lover, provided the testimony allowing federal investigators to convict. According to Schreiber’s testimony, Johnson wired her $75 to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago along with a promise of another $1500 upon arrival. The prosecution argued Johnson gave money to Schreiber to open a brothel. Since Schreiber worked as a prostitute and she and Johnson had a prior relationship, his sexual intentions were clear upon her arrival to Chicago—making it interstate transportation for prostitution.[24]

After an hour and a half of deliberation an all-white jury found Johnson guilty. Judge George Albert Carpenter sentenced Johnson to a year and a day in prison, stating his reasoning: “This defendant is one of the best-known men of his race, and his example has been far reaching, and the court is bound to consider the position he occupied among his people. In view of these facts, this is a case that calls for more than a fine.”[25] Although Johnson’s lawyers appealed and the judge reversed some chargers, by the time of re-sentencing Johnson had already fled the country. Recalling his decision to flee, Johnson wrote, “Had I been guilty of the charge which hung over me, I would have taken my medicine and said no more about it, but I was stung by the injustice of the whole proceedings and hurt to the quick to think that the prejudices of my fellowman and of my own countrymen, at that, could be so warped and so cruel.”[26] Johnson also saw the Mann Act as applied retroactively with the law not in existence during his time with Schreiber.[27]

Contrasting the view of the U.S. as a discriminatory country was Mexico—a country that some, including Johnson, saw as a place where a black man could escape racism and make a new life for themselves. This belief in Mexican reinvention is best exemplified through the story of George Goldsby. As the story goes, Goldsby was a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army. After finding himself in unspecified trouble around Texas, Goldsby fled to northern Mexico. Once there, he lived as a bandit before joining the Mexican military. With his military background and his natural leadership skills, Goldsby quickly moved up the ranks. Residents from his hometown of Vinita, Oklahoma remembered Goldsby, who was half black, as a man who could pass for Mexican. To further assimilate into Mexican society Goldsby changed his name to Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Yes, Pancho Villa—arguably the greatest general in Mexican history.[28]

Whether the story is true or not is beside the point. For our purposes the value of this story lies in the belief that a black man could escape from the U.S. and remake their life in Mexico, where not only would he be accepted but thrive. If believed, even anecdotally, that Goldsby could move to Mexico, become a military general on the verge of controlling the entire country, why could Jack Johnson not move to Mexico and simply be himself? Among the sources to publish Goldsby’s story was The Chicago Defender which was the nation’s most influential black newspaper.[29] With a readership of 500,000 per week, publishing these types of stories enhanced the notion that Mexico was a country where a black man could go to reinvent himself.

Johnson was not just ready to live out the rest of his life in Mexico but he actively encouraged other blacks to do the same. Obviously, the transition to Mexico would be easier for Johnson who as a wanted man in the U.S., had nothing to lose by going to Mexico. Beyond being free in Mexico, Johnson was financially prosperous with newspaper accounts stating, “Johnson is well fixed financially, has a signed contract with a Mexican syndicate, and we don’t believe he has this country to think about under the existing conditions, and perhaps the wrongs done to him here.”[30] Apart from operating a few nightclubs, Johnson owned a land company that advertised in black newspapers throughout the U.S. The advertisements read, “COLORED PEOPLE: You who are lynched, tortured, mobbed, persecuted and discriminated against in the boasted ‘Land of Liberty,’ The U.S.; OWN A HOME IN MEXICO: Where one man is as good as another, and it is not your nationality that counts but simply you.”[31] The advertisements added, “best of all there is [no] ‘race prejudice’ in Mexico and in fact, severe punishment is meted out to those who discriminate against because of his color or race. Neither is there censorship, espionage or conscription.”[32] But despite what Johnson thought or wanted to portray, the idea of Mexico having no racial prejudice was hardly true.

Because of his Mann Act conviction Johnson was already under U.S. surveillance which only intensified once he advertised what was essentially a call for blacks to escape their oppression by moving to Mexico. U.S. military intelligence also reported that Johnson spoke to large Mexican crowds assuring them that if or when the U.S. attacked Mexico, blacks would stand in solidarity and fight against the U.S.[33] “If you want us Mexico,” Johnson said, “we are ready to become your citizens and willing to do all that we can to make you a great power among the nations…we are ready to dwell among you and make you rich as we have made the southern white man rich”[34] But despite what he may have thought, Johnson was a controversial figure even among blacks for many of the same reasons whites vilified him—his lifestyle that included multiple marriages to white women.[35] In fact, Joe Louis who became heavyweight boxing champion in 1937 and promoted as the antithesis to Johnson, said, “when I got to be champ half the letters I got had some word about Jack Johnson. A lot was from old colored people in the South. They thought he disgraced the Negro.”[36]

Historian Randy Roberts argues that Johnson “exerted as much influence on his time as Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois did.”[37] Coincidentally, Washington also complained about Johnson’s actions believing his brashness was counter-productive to the cause of black equality. Especially disconcerting to Washington was his belief that Johnson was the exact opposite of what a black man should act. Johnson was arrogant, free-spending, and defiant of white laws and customs.[38] Black newspapers were not always sympathetic to Johnson either with a columnist for Indianapolis’ Freeman writing of Johnson’s Mann Act arrest, “The cold hand of the law is reaching out for Mr. Johnson…and it looks to take the leading role in his future conduct. Why shouldn’t it, when the lives, liberty and happiness of over nine million Negroes are being antagonized and jeopardized by his folly.”[39] At the heart of these criticisms was the concern that while Johnson lived his life as he saw fit, other blacks suffered the consequences of his actions.

For U.S. officials whether blacks viewed Johnson in a positive or negative light was not their concern as reports from their spies continued to state his influence within Mexico. It certainly did not ease their nerves to read reports of twenty or so black men traveling to Mexico City to meet with Johnson and several of Carranza’s generals.[40] Other reports stated, “Jack Johnson, of pugilistic fame, has been spreading social equality propaganda among the Negroes in Mexico and has been endeavouring [sic] to incite colored element in this country.”[41] Another informant claimed to have infiltrated Johnson’s inner circle, spending a week with him and his family just to keep a close watch.[42] Others reports pegged Johnson as a “race man” and a socialist sympathizer who attempted to incite race rebellions. According to the U.S. State Department’s Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans Papers, a person who knew Johnson stated, “I have become a friend of Jack Johnson, and can positively assert that he has sent money and written articles to aid the Negroes in their struggle in the U.S. He makes collections amongst Negroes and their sympathizers…He tried to go to the Antilles, especially Cuba, to foment a rebellion among the Negroes.” The source also stated that although Johnson did not consider himself a socialist he did call himself a “DEFENDER OF HIS RACE.”[43]

As previously noted, the politics of Mexico changed from 1915 to 1919. These changes affected their dealings with the U.S. Reports of Johnson’s antics took on a greater urgency as the U.S. could no longer count on Carranza to arrest Johnson. Certainly, Johnson’s time in Mexico and his relationship with both governments was not the sole reason for the deteriorating diplomacy between the U.S. and Mexico but it added to an already tense political climate. Compounding the Mexican Revolution’s unpredictability, the U.S. also had to worry about World War I. As such, multiple events added to the political uncertainty between the two countries.

With the Mexican Revolution’s outcome and its financial interests at stake, the U.S. had to choose a side to back. Initially, Woodrow Wilson supported Pancho Villa believing he could stabilize Mexico. Carranza influenced this decision as he refused to make concessions to Wilson, destroying U.S. owned property and even taxing American businessmen.[44] The relationship between Wilson and Villa soured when the former’s support reluctantly shifted to Carranza after Villa suffered a crippling defeat in the aforementioned Battle of Celaya and other battles.[45] Angered by the U.S. support of Carranza, in 1916 Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico and killed sixteen Americans.[46]

Subsequently, U.S. General John J. Pershing led the Punitive Expedition into Mexico attempting to capture Villa. Pershing’s troops faced local rancor and an unknown terrain adding to their mission’s difficulty. As Carranza would benefit from Villa’s capture, his troops at first helped Pershing though he remained cautious, believing the U.S. could use the pursuit of Villa as an excuse to make war against Mexico. As time passed and Villa remained free, it became harder for Carranza to support Pershing with public opinion turning towards Villa and against the U.S. military being in Mexico. This change of public opinion affected Carranza’s troops with some helping Villa and his troops.[47] Even though it was a revolutionary war, Carranza’s troops were in an odd predicament of attempting to capture their fellow countrymen for the benefit of what many saw as a foreign invader. Frank McLynn captured the inner struggle faced by some of Carranza’s troops, writing, “In the village of Matachic there was a revolt by the garrison who demanded to be allowed to join Villa and defend Mexico’s sacred soil against the yanquis.”[48]

As Pershing moved deeper into Mexico and his troops grew upwards of 7,000, experts in Washington saw war as inevitable.[49] Preliminary war plans included a naval blockade of all Mexican ports along with military occupation of several states in Northern Mexico. Helping enforce these plans would be 250,000 troops.[50] Attempting to avert war, U.S. and Mexican representatives met in search of an agreement. An initial proposal stated U.S. troops would stay in Mexico so long as their presence was necessary. Carranza objected, claiming the proposal offered no exact timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal, potentially making their stay indefinite.[51] Negotiations concluded and on February 5, 1917, Pershing and his troops left Mexico. Upon hearing the news, Villa allegedly said, “Adios gringos, Que les vaya bién!”[52] U.S. troops never captured Pancho Villa.

World War I caused further strain in U.S., Mexico relations. Coincidentally, an unnamed source in a military attaché report claimed throughout World War I, Johnson remained Pro-German. His reasoning was simple: “The Germans treat me as a man and my wife as a lady.”[53] Johnson claimed to have intelligence of German submarines off the coast of Spain. When asked by the unnamed source why he did not use the information to leverage a deal on his Mann Act conviction, Johnson said, “Oh, to hell with them, I would not believe any promise they would have made me.”[54] The truthfulness of Johnson’s claim is unknown.

In another World War I related incident, in early 1917, British officials deciphered a telegram sent from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to Mexico’s minister to Germany. The Zimmerman Telegram stated Germany’s intent to begin “unrestricted submarine warfare” and hoped the U.S. would continue its neutral standing. However, if the U.S. abandoned its neutrality and entered the war, Germany offered Mexico the return of its land—lost through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—so long as Mexico joined Germany’s war effort.[55] Figuring the British were attempting to bring them into their fight against Germany, the U.S. initially saw the telegram as a fake. Zimmerman erased all doubts when he confirmed its authenticity.[56]

Though Mexico never acted on Germany’s offer, the Zimmerman Telegram reawakened the U.S.’s lingering fears of Mexico attempting to regain the territory it lost during their war in 1846. Some see the Plan de San Diego as partly motivating the Zimmerman Telegram. The plan, “called for a general armed uprising on February 20, 1915, to proclaim independence in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California.”[57] The uprising would be fought by an army made up of blacks, Japanese and Mexican-Americans who would slay all Anglo men over the age of sixteen. Plans also stated that after the five states’ independence, they would consider annexation back to Mexico.[58] Around the same time, racial violence erupted in south Texas as Mexicans, called Sediciosos, caused havoc by stealing livestock, destroying bridges and railroad tracks and killing Anglo farmers.[59] With the Sedicioso attacks coinciding with the Plan de San Diego’s discovery, they appeared related though no historical records can prove it.[60]

As World War I continued with the U.S. as Britain and France’s main oil supplier, concern grew over Mexico who had the largest known oil reserves. In 1918 Carranza increased taxes on oil companies which, when combined with the increasing demands, caused oil prices to triple within eight months. Attempting to stabilize prices, the U.S. State Department suggested occupying the Mexican oil fields with the help of 6,000 troops. In the end, Woodrow Wilson decided against it, taking the advice of Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels who saw such actions unjustified.[61]

This was the political atmosphere into which Johnson arrived in the early days of April 1919. He quickly embraced the chaotic times as “the revolutionary atmosphere of Mexico worked on him like a tonic.”[62] Undoubtedly, the warm welcome Johnson received made his acclimation to Mexico easier as a crowd of thousands gathered for his arrival at the train station. Music blared as the people chanted in unison, “Viva Johnson!” Swept away by such emotion, even children shouted their approval—“Bravo Jack!”[63] Mexico bordering the U.S. also influenced Johnson’s decision to move there from Spain, stating, “I accepted the opportunity to go to Mexico City, with deep satisfaction, because it would bring me nearer home and might be an important step in ultimately ending my exile one way or another.”[64] Though Johnson felt the pressure of living in exile, one could not tell by looking at his professional career that, outside of boxing, bloomed.

Through his connections with the Mexican government, Johnson taught self-defense to high-ranking military officials.[65] Besides taking part in strongman and bullfighting exhibitions, there were plans to make Johnson a movie star. Johnson would play the role of Mexican adventurer, Pedro Cronolio. The movie, based on the olden days of the Mexican border, was a love story that included the search for gold and the eventual, “sudden rise to the highest position of human attainment in the Mexican government.”[66]

Though the movie was probably not made, it shows the lengths to which Johnson had become a part of Mexican society. But despite his seemingly easy integration into Mexican culture, Johnson held an ambiguous place within their society, acting more as a symbol on two fronts. First, Johnson was a link to U.S. commercial culture as he helped spread boxing’s popularity from the border regions of Mexico, where the sport was much more popular, to the interior of the country. Second, Johnson was a symbol of anti-Americanism, therefore developing a greater following among Mexican fans.[67] Further, some of these Mexicans fans saw Johnson as a victim of “perverted American Justice,” treating him like a brother fighting against the same oppression they faced.[68] However perceived, Johnson had a certain amount of favor in Mexico and its people as he moved “about the broad boulevards of the capital in a late-model automobile, he was as much a fixture in the city as the Spanish colonial architecture that gave the capital its distinctiveness.”[69]

Even apart from his marriages to white women within a society that deemed such actions unacceptable, Johnson lived a reckless life. Known for drinking, womanizing, driving fast cars and getting into street fights while in the U.S., Johnson did not change his style while in Mexico. Knowing he had greater leeway than just about any other person in Mexico, Johnson continually found himself in problems though his connections with the government kept him from being charged. But as he had been in the U.S., Johnson remained the center of attention, carousing with cientificos, military men and important members of Mexico’s mining industry.[70]

Even outside of Mexico City, Johnson’s celebrity was immense. An example of his popularity came during his travels to Sonora when Yaqui Indians stopped the train he was riding. According to Johnson, Yaqui Indians used the revolution as an excuse to pillage railroads.[71] Fortunately, Johnson defused the situation by explaining who he was. Though the Yaquis were at first hesitant to believe him, they eventually realized he was, in fact, Jack Johnson, and released the train. Johnson recalls the experience,

At first they doubted that I was actually Jack Johnson. I had no idea, however, that they had ever heard of me, for I did not expect that these savages had much knowledge of what was going on in the world. I was surprised to find out that they did know who I was, and for a moment, when they were convinced of my identity, it appeared that they were going to stage a wild demonstration in my honor. They manifested more interest and excitement over my appearance than they had in the promise of loot. Leaders of the band were profuse in their apologies for molesting the train, declaring that had they known I was aboard, they would not have thought of stopping the engine. What loot they had taken they restored to the passengers and told us that we might go on. I mingled freely with the Yaquis and when our train pulled out they were in a most friendly mood. I later was heaped with thanks by the passengers who had good reason to believe that had the Indians carried out their original intentions, they might not have lived to relate their experiences.[72]

Despite his popularity Johnson’s good times in Mexico waned with Carranza’s assassination. In June 1919 Obregón announced his candidacy for president, expecting Carranza’s support since, as his top general, Obregón defeated Carranza’s military opposition. But Carranza, at least publicly, believed a civilian should succeed him as president and not a military man like Obregón.[73] Privately, Carranza attempted to stay in power, naming Ignacio Bonilla his successor who would essentially act as his puppet.

As president, Carranza made many enemies whom Obregón won over. During brief campaign stops, Obregón pointed out his revolutionary successes telling audiences he had overcome, “rain, wind, Orozco, Huerta, Villa and Zapata”—an obvious inference that Carranza would not stand in his way.[74] To a cheering crowd Obregón vowed, “Before the bearded old man can rig the election, I will rise against him.”[75] Sensing support turning against him, Carranza fled the capital in May of 1920. Under his troop’s protection, whom he believed loyal, Carranza planned to move deep into the mountains of Tlaxcalantongo and re-organize. As it turned out, the troops’s loyalty did not lie with Carranza and his plans to fight Obregón never came to fruition. A subordinate officer killed Carranza as he yelled, “Viva Obregón!”[76]

In the midst of the chaos, Johnson left Mexico City after Carranza informed him of potential violence. “Making his plans for a fast getaway,” wrote Johnson’s biographer Finis Farr, “Carranza was thoughtful enough to send warning to Johnson that the outgoing President’s friends would be dangerously unpopular with Obregón and his followers.”[77] Johnson did not mention Carranza’s warning in his autobiography but stated that as violence increased in Mexico City, he fled for Baja California. With plans of increasing tourism through boxing promotions, Baja California’s governor Esteban Cantú encouraged Johnson’s relocation.[78] Johnson did put on several fights, as he stated, “as soon as I reached Tia Juana [sic], I found that several bouts had been arranged for me. The sportsmen, tourists and others apprised of my coming awaited me anxiously and gave me quite a welcome.”[79] More than likely, these fights were against low-level opponents that did not require serious training. This was not necessarily Johnson’s fault as boxing was a relatively new sport in Mexico. “It was difficult for me to find opponents,” Johnson noted on the difficulty in finding opposition, “and there were long stretches of time during which I was idle.”[80] Even if opponents were available, it is unclear how committed Johnson remained to competing at a high-level. Besides, being close to forty years old, living the good life in Mexico and operating a successful night club in Tijuana was not the lifestyle conducive to being in shape to even fight a decently skilled boxer. Although Johnson spoke of fighting Jack Dempsey, who after defeating Jess Willard became the heavyweight champ, no fights against serious contenders ever materialized.[81]

Understandably, Johnson’s thoughts fluctuated between remaining in Mexico and returning to the U.S. With his legal troubles looming, Johnson spoke of returning to the U.S. but only under the right conditions—presumably, if authorities reduced his prison sentence. But with all he said and did while in Mexico, U.S. authorities refused to even consider leniency, continuing to demand Johnson’s unconditional surrender. With no deal in place Johnson remained in Mexico, making money from his various business ventures outside of boxing. Carranza’s death, which drastically altered the Mexican government, changed Johnson’s plans. Trying to keep his own position, Governor Cantú, who backed Johnson’s relocation to Baja California, reneged on his support. Increasingly without allies, Johnson found his nightclub shuttered and unable to box anywhere in the country.[82]

Trying to add further distance between himself and Johnson while attempting to gain favor from both Mexican and U.S. governments, Cantú informed U.S. agents that Johnson was no longer welcomed and would be happily turned over to proper authorities at their request. Cantú claimed to have caught Johnson dealing in illegal transactions and therefore, his deportation was necessary.[83] It is unclear what illegal dealings Johnson took part in, if any. More than likely, Cantú wanted to get rid of Johnson who as a friend of the deposed and assassinated president, had become politically toxic. U.S. authorities thought it suspicious that Cantú would suddenly turn on Johnson and declined his offer.

As Johnson’s time in Mexico drew to an end, the best he could hope for was a negotiated return to the U.S. A year in a U.S. prison was a better choice than the harsh realities that may have come Johnson’s way as an unwanted guest in Mexico. Assassinating a standing president was not out of the norm in the revolution’s violence so it was likely that Johnson felt his fame had reached its limits of protection. Johnson reached out to U.S. authorities asking that in return for his surrender, they treat him with dignity, meaning no handcuffs and having a black officer transport him to Chicago. Authorities refused to negotiate—besides giving their word to treat Johnson respectfully, there were no other assurances.[84]

On July 20, 1920, roughly a month after Carranza’s assassination, Johnson turned himself over to U.S. authorities in San Diego, California. After saying his goodbyes and shaking hands with several Mexican officials, Johnson presented his passport and turned himself over to authorities. Cameras and reporters were present for Johnson’s statement: “It sure is good to get back in the U.S. again. I am returning voluntarily, for the Mexican Government had issued no deportation order against me, as was reported some weeks ago, and I could have remained in Tiajuana[sic] as long as I was willing to obey the laws of Lower California. But for a long time I have wanted to return and get my troubles adjusted.”[85]

Johnson never admitted to being forced out of Mexico. Despite all that transpired between the U.S. and Johnson, he felt a sense of relief in reuniting with loved ones. “No man, unless he has been through the experience,” Johnson explained, “can realize the relief it brings when he returns to his country after being in exile for five years.”[86] As for the anti-U.S. statements he repeatedly made while in Mexico, Johnson simply stated, “You know I have changed my allegiance a number of times, but I am still an American.”[87]

Johnson served his sentence in Kansas’ Leavenworth Prison where he continued to box. His bouts, which attracted many spectators, took place in a ring especially built inside the prison. Jack Johnson recalled one event as, “the seating capacity as entirely exhausted…prison bands were out in force and played march tunes as the spectators took their seats…several special guests were present and that among them were well known sportsmen and newspaper writers.”[88] After his prison sentence, Johnson continued living life as he wished. He remained married to a white woman, kept drinking, and driving fast. Johnson worked as a vaudevillian actor, putting on boxing exhibitions and performing comedy along with members of an acting troop, of which he was the only black member. Johnson also resumed his boxing career even fighting in Ciudad Juárez in 1926. However, this was no longer the same Jack Johnson nor the same tumultuous Mexico of the revolution.

By 1926 the revolution’s overt violence that boiled over during Johnson’s time, reduced to a simmer. After Carranza’s assassination, Obregón became president on December 1, 1920 and served his full term, a rarity in the violent times of Mexican politics—violence to which he greatly contributed. Before his term expired, Obregón likely ordered his old rival Pancho Villa killed, fearing he would un-retire and lead another uprising.[89] Before his assassination, Villa and Obregón worked out an agreement that in exchange for Villa laying down his weapons, he could retire to a hacienda in the outskirts of Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua. In exchange, the government gave Villa and his men amnesty, paid for his hacienda and the salaries of his many bodyguards.[90]

On July 20, 1923, driving through the streets of Hidalgo del Parral, Villa’s car stopped at an intersection. The streets were empty except for a man selling candy who yelled, “Viva Villa!”—a seemingly innocuous, admiring phrase that Villa must have heard tens of thousands of times. The phrase was the signal to open fire as gunmen emerged from surrounding buildings and shot at Villa’s car.[91] Pancho Villa, the “Centaur of the North,” as they called him, was dead. As for Obregón, he too would meet a violent death. When the 1928 presidential election arrived, Obregón ran for and won a second term. Before he assumed office an assassin, disguised as an artist hired to paint his portrait, killed him—shooting Obregón five times in the face.[92]

Obregón was forty-eight at the time of his death, the same age Johnson was when he fought in Ciudad Juárez. Facing Bob Lawson, Johnson was clearly past his prime. Though there is no video of Johnson’s fight in Ciudad Juárez, one can imagine the sad sight of one of the greatest boxers reduced to nothing more than a club fighter with name recognition. Though scheduled for twelve rounds, Johnson could not continue at the start of the eighth. The Chicago Defender wrote of the loss, “Just as the gong sounded ending round seven Johnson hit the floor with a crash. Lawson having connected with the former champ’s body via a heavy blow. Johnson could not rise at the beginning of round eight and Lawson was given the fight on a technical knockout.”[93] Johnson fought until he was close to sixty years old and counting his fight in Ciudad Juárez, he lost seven of the last nine fights.

Jack Johnson’s life ended in an accident which oddly encompassed his life’s racial troubles. The event occurred close to thirty years after the Sanborn incident in which Johnson’s military friends come to his defense over the refusal of service. In Jim Crow south, government took a different stance when deciding whether blacks would be served, and if so, where they could eat. In 1946, Johnson and an associate named Fred Scott stopped at a diner near Raleigh, North Carolina. “They told us we could eat in the back or not at all,” Scott remembers. “We were hungry and the food had already been served so we ate.”[94]

Johnson’s anger increased with each mile he drove away from the diner. Already a notoriously fast driver, Johnson’s anger caused him to rapidly pick up speed. Near Franklinton, North Carolina, Johnson lost control of his car, ramming into a telephone pole. Though rushed to the closest black hospital, Johnson did not survive. Jack “The Galveston Giant” Johnson died aged sixty-eight. His funeral took place in Chicago with thousands in attendance and thousands more waiting outside the church to pay their respects.[95] Johnson lived a remarkable life that even he found incredible: “How incongruous to think that I, a little Galveston colored boy should ever become an acquaintance of kings and rulers of the old world…What a vast stretch of the imagination to picture myself a fugitive from my own country, yet sought and acclaimed by thousands in nearly every nation of the world!”[96] Johnson’s high acclaim among boxing enthusiasts does not simply stem from being the first black heavyweight champion as his talent and skill were remarkable. Nat Fleischer, boxing historian and founder of Ring Magazine, stated, “After years devoted to the study of heavyweight fighters, I have no hesitation in naming Jack Johnson as the greatest of them all.”[97]

Jack Johnson’s time in revolutionary Mexico showed the differences in how U.S. and Mexico viewed race. Ultimately what occurred within each country and between them, influenced their racial attitudes—at least as they related to Johnson. Depending on Mexico’s political circumstance, Johnson was either a welcomed guest of the government or as someone who overstayed the welcome given to him by the earlier, corrupt government. The U.S. saw Johnson as either someone who refused to conform to societal standards or as a disloyal citizen who actively recruited others to follow his dissent. Therefore, his standing in the U.S. never fluctuated between two extremes as it did in Mexico.

In recent years there has been a push by politicians and the some in the public for Johnson to receive a presidential pardon from his Mann Act conviction.[98] There is no explanation why the pardon has not been granted or if it ever will. Even today, in what some believe is a post-racial society, Johnson remains a controversial figure. Only recently has his hometown of Galveston attempted to embrace the memory of Johnson, likely the most famous person born in that city. It was not until 2012 that Johnson had a park and statue dedicated to his memory. An earlier statue of Johnson became unrecognizable after being damaged by bullet holes and severe weather. Michael Hoinski of Texas Monthly writes of the park’s importance, “Jack Johnson Park exists not just as a truce with Johnson, but also as a way to empower Galveston to face its past as a slave market and its present as a tourist destination.”[99] Granting a presidential pardon to Johnson could work in the same way, forcing the U.S. to face its discriminatory past that is never as neatly tucked away in history as some would like to believe. A discrimination that always seems to show itself no matter how post-racial one may think the society we now live in is.


[1] Theresa Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 226.

[2] Ibid., 226.

[3] For a slightly different account of the incident see Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (New York: Free Press, 1983), 211.

[4]  U.S. Congress. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Investigation of Mexican Affairs. (Washington D.C.: Washington Government Printing Office, 1920), 1113 – 1114.

[5] Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, 201.

[6] “Bar Jack Johnson: Carranza Men Anxious to Stop Fight for Villa’s Profit in Mexico” New York Times, January 14, 1915.

[7] Willard defeated Johnson who claimed to have thrown the fight, believing that in doing so, authorities would show leniency and allow his return to the U.S. without facing imprisonment. Johnson stated, “Preceding the Willard fight it was hinted to me in terms which I could not mistake, that if I permitted Willard to win, which would give him the title, much of the prejudice against me would be wiped out.” The perceived hints did not materialize and Johnson continued living in exile. See Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out (Chicago: National Sports Publishing Company, 1927), 101.

[8] Regarding his friendship with Carranza, Johnson stated, “Carranza tendered me his friendship and made every effort to make my stay in the Mexican Republic a pleasant and comfortable one, even going so far as to provide me with escorts of soldiers when I had occasion to travel in sections of the country infested by bandits or revolutionists.” See Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 111.

[9] Ibid., 112-113.

[10] Gerald Horne wrote of Johnson: “He had committed two major transgressions for a black man – consorting with Euro-American women and allying with foreign powers.” See Gerald Horne, Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920. (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 37.

[11] Francine Sanders Romero, “‘There Are Only White Champions’: The Rise and Demise of Segregated Boxing in Texas,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 108, No. 1 (Jul., 2004): 26-41.

[12] It was not uncommon for boxers from this time to fight under aliases. It is unclear why they did so but one can assume that the varying legality of boxing from place to place had something to do with it. Today, the only reason a fighter would fight under a different name is to escape state regulations on how often a boxer can fight due to health concerns. See Geoffrey Gray, “Boxing; Boxers Who Are Losers; Promoters Who Love Them” New York Times, May 10, 2004.

[13] Ken Burns, Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Florentine Films Inc., DVD. PBS Home Video, 2004.

[14] Finis Farr, “Black Hamlet of the Heavyweights” Sport Illustrated, June 15, 1959.

[15] Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. (New York: Free Press, 1983), 71.

[16] Randy Roberts, “Galveston’s Jack Johnson: Flourishing in the Dark.” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Jul., 1983): 37-56.

[17] Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 43.

[18] Howard Sackler based his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, “The Great White Hope” on Johnson’s life with the lead character named Jack Jefferson. In 1970 the play was adapted a movie by the same name with James Earl Jones playing the lead role.

[19] Farr, “Black Hamlet of the Heavyweights.”

[20] Quoted from the Chicago Defender via Denise C. Morgan, “Jack Johnson Versus the American Racial Hierarchy.” Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, ed. Annette Gordon-Reed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 82.

[21] Farr, “Black Hamlet of the Heavyweights.”

[22] SIXTY-FIRST ‘CONGRESS. SESS.’ II. CHs. 393-395. 1910.

[23] Gordon-Reed, Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, 89.

[24] Ibid., 92.

[25] Farr, “Black Hamlet of the Heavyweights.”

[26] Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 83-84.

[27] Ibid., 83.

[28] “General Villa is George Goldsby, Lived in Vinita.” The Chicago Defender, March 14, 1914, 2.

[29] Other newspaper accounts of Goldsby as Villa were the New York Age and the Indianapolis Freeman. See Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, 312.

[30] “Jack Johnson Idolized in Mexico,” The Chicago Defender, May 10, 1919. 11.

[31] Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, 227. For a slightly different variation of same ad see Roberts, Papa Jack, 212.

[32] Horne, Black and Brown, 2.

[33] Roberts, Papa Jack, 212.; Horne, Black and Brown, 35.

[34] Horne, Black and Brown, 28.

[35] Denise C. Morgan, “Jack Johnson: Reluctant Hero of the Black Community,” Akron Law Review 32, (Jan., 1999): 529-791.

[36] Patrick Myler, Ring of Hate, Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling: The Fight of the Century (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005), 21.

[37] Roberts, “Galveston’s Jack Johnson: Flourishing in the Dark,” 37.

[38] Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 145.

[39] Ibid., 181.

[40] Gerald Horne and Margaret Stevens, “Eureka! The Mexican Revolution in African American Context, 1910-1920.” War Along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and Tejano Communities, ed. Arnoldo De León (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012), 303.

[41] Horne, Black and Brown, 32.

[42] Ibid., 30.

[43] Ibid., 29.

[44] Stuart Easterling, The Mexican Revolution: A Short History 1910-1920 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 78

[45] One of the battles that occurred after Celaya was the Battle of León. It was there that Álvaro Obregón lost his right arm after a shell exploded. Believing that he was on the verge of dying, Obregón attempted to kill himself, but his revolver did not shoot—twice. His assistant had cleaned his weapon earlier and forgot to reload it. See Ibid., 124.

[46] Punitive Expedition in Mexico, 1916-1917. U.S. Department of State Archive.

[47] Frank McLynn, Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002), 326.

[48] Ibid., 326.

[49] Ibid., 325.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Punitive Expedition in Mexico, 1916-1917. U.S. Department of State Archive.

[52] Clarence C. Clendenen, “The Punitive Expedition of 1916: A Re-Evaluation,” Arizona and the West, (Winter, 1961): 319.

[53] Horne, Black and Brown, 30.

[54] Ibid., 30.

[55] National Archives and Records Administration, Zimmerman Telegram – Decoded Message. Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, 1756 – 1979.

[56] Horne, Black and Brown, 156.; Arnoldo De León, War Along the Border, 293.

[57] Charles H. Harris III and Louis R. Sadler, “The Plan of San Diego and the Mexican-U.S. War Crisis of 1916: A Reexamination,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, (Aug., 1978): 381.

[58] Ibid., 382.

[59] Benjamin Johnson, “The Plan de San Diego Uprising and the Making of the Modern Texas-Mexican Borderlands.” Continental Crossroads: Remapping U.S.-Mexico Borderlands History, ed. Samuel Truett and Elliott Young (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 273.

[60] Authorities discovered the Plan de San Diego with the arrest of Basilio Ramos Jr. who carried a copy of the plan.

[61] David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 361.

[62] Horne, Black and Brown, 25.

[63] Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, 224.

[64] Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 111.

[65] “Jack Johnson Rolling High: Now Physical Instructor of Mexican Generals, with High Prestige” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1919.

[66] Horne, Black and Brown, 31.

[67] Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, 224.

[68] Roberts, Papa Jack, 211.

[69] Horne, Black and Brown, 25.

[70] Ibid., 32.

[71] Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 115.

[72] Ibid., 115-116.

[73] McLynn, Villa and Zapata, 380.

[74] Ibid., 381.

[75] Ibid., 380

[76] “Obregón Announces ‘Cowardly Murder’ of Deposed Leader.” El Paso Herald, May 22, 1920.

[77] Finis Farr, Black Champion. (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1969), 176.

[78] Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 114.

[79] Ibid., 120.

[80] Ibid., 114.

[81] Attesting to Johnson’s popularity in Mexico, there were preliminary talks of a bout between him and Jack Dempsey. The fight would be part of Mexico’s centennial celebration of independence. Because of his popularity a New York Times article stated that most sportsmen in Mexico believed that Johnson would win–despite being Dempsey’s elder by close to twenty years. The two never fought but the odds of Johnson beating Dempsey in their respective stages of their careers was highly improbable. See “Mexico Wants big Bout: Officials Seek Dempsey-Johnson Fight While Centennial Is On.” New York Times, August 5, 1921.

[82] Roberts, Papa Jack, 213.

[83] Ibid., 213-214.

[84] Ibid., 214.

[85]“Seize Jack Johnson at Mexican Border.” New York Times, July 21, 1920. 13.

[86] Roberts, Papa Jack, 215.

[87] Ibid., 215.

[88] Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 131.

[89]Easterling, The Mexican Revolution, 140.

[90] Ibid., 137-138.

[91] McLynn, Villa and Zapata, 393.

[92] Ibid., 398.

[93] “Lawson Knocks Out Jack Johnson.” The Chicago Defender. June 5, 1926. 11.

[94] Burns, Unforgivable Blackness. DVD.

[95] Ward, Unforgivable Blackness, 448.

[96] Johnson, In the Ring and Out, 25.

[97] Farr, “Black Hamlet of the Heavyweights.”

[98] Barbara Antoniazzi. (Un-Forgivable Blackness and the Oval Office. Jack Johnson and Henry Louis Gates at the Postracial White House. Race, Gender & Class. Vol. 17 No. ¾, Race, Gender & Class 2010 Conference. 9-18.

[99] Michael Hoinski. “Galveston Moves One Step Closer to Embracing Jack Johnson.” Texas Monthly, July 2, 2012.

Originally published on IBRO, International Boxing Research Organization.

Sparring in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt, Race, and Boxing

Originally published on

Boxing has long been a sport for the lower-classes which, for most of its early history was illegal and practiced in secrecy to avoid arrests. However in the late 1800s there was a change in who practiced boxing. This shift came from a variety of reasons including a movement away from the Victorian Age virtues and an increasing concern that white American men were becoming increasingly effeminate due to a perceived over-civilization. Adding to boxing’s new-found societal acceptance was the drastic changes that came in 1889 from the Marquess de Queensbury rules replacing the London Prize Ring Rules. The new rules disallowed hugging and wrestling, placed three-minute limits on rounds, added a ten-second count after each knock down, and most importantly, called for gloved fists. Essentially, the new rules brought an end to boxing’s days of bareknuckle fights.

As the upper-classes increasingly took part in the sport, a few athletic clubs hired ex-bareknuckle boxers to show their elite members the intricacies of the sweet science. One of these instructors was “The Professor” Mike Donovan, who gained his nickname for his technical mastery of the sport. The New York Athletic Club hired Donovan to teach the same sport to upper-class clientele that in earlier generations considered it too barbaric and offensive to their moral sensibilities. These same people now praised boxing’s virtues, seeing it as a way of instilling self-confidence and courage. In boxing’s ascent towards social acceptance, it was not as if it was without its critics. But rather, for the first time in decades, boxing’s positives outweighed its negatives. And although “the ends of prize fighting might be corrupt…the means were divine, for hard training brought boxers to physical and mental perfection.”[1]

Speaking to boxing’s popularity, acceptance, and fear that the upper-classes were going soft, elite universities instituted boxing programs. Theodore Roosevelt was one of these boxing student-athletes as part of Harvard’s boxing club. “I did a good deal of boxing and wrestling in Harvard,” Roosevelt recalled in his autobiography, “but never attained to the first rank in either, even at my own weight.”[2] Regardless of his level of competency, Roosevelt boxed even after Harvard, becoming a close friend and pupil of Mike Donovan. At one point, Roosevelt even sparred inside the White House. And instead of sparring only as a way to stay physically active, Roosevelt took the sessions seriously, at one point being punched so hard that his left eye’s retina detached, losing sight in that eye.[3] Government authorities kept the injury a secret for more than a decade. Upon finding out of Roosevelt’s blindness The Richmond Times-Dispatch dedicated an entire page to the story. They wrote, “The American public has just been startled by the discovery that its most strenuous citizen, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, had long lost the sight of his left eye.” After losing the use of his left eye, Roosevelt stopped boxing. In a letter to Pierre de Coubertin—French educator and known as the father of the modern Olympic games—Roosevelt explained why he spent less time boxing: “I do but little boxing because it seems rather absurd for a President to appear with a black eye or a swollen nose or a cut lip.”[4]

Yet, boxing’s newfound acceptance—even being practiced in the White House—would not last. Criticism resumed, gaining momentum after Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion. Despite his connections to the sport, Roosevelt became an important voice against boxing. In 1910, after Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries, the latest of the so-called “Great White Hopes,” Roosevelt stated, “The last contest provoked a very unfortunate display of race antagonism. I sincerely trust that public sentiment will be so aroused, and will make itself felt so effectively, as to guarantee that this is the last prize fight to take place in the United States.”[5] Although prize fighting continued, Roosevelt was right about one thing—the fight produced “race antagonism,” as he mildly put it. A more apt description would be race riots, resulting in the death of six black people and many others injured as violence erupted across the country after Johnson beat Jeffries.

In making his declaration against boxing, Roosevelt conveniently forgot that a year earlier he welcomed the lightweight boxing champion Oscar “The Battling Nelson” Nielsen—who was white—into the White House as his guest, even sending him away with an autographed photo.[6] But with Johnson as champion, the problem with boxing suddenly became a racial one. W.E.B. Du Bois, a contemporary of Johnson and one of the most influential black voices stated, “Boxing has fallen into disfavor…The cause is clear: Jack Johnson…Neither he nor his race invented prize fighting or particularly like it. Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is black…Wherefore we conclude that at present prize fighting is very, very immoral … until Mr. Johnson retires or permits himself to be ‘knocked out.’[7]

Du Bois’s words proved prophetic as a year after Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, Roosevelt returned to advocating for boxing, writing a letter to Robert Fitzsimmons, his friend and former heavyweight champion, encouraging him on his attempt to popularize boxing in Argentina.[8] Roosevelt even offered to help of his son, Kermit, who would introduce Fitzsimmons to “Argentines of the right kind, men interested in sports and physical exercises.”[9] Once Johnson lost the title, and the supposed proper order of things was reset with a white champion, boxing could once again, help the “right kind” of people overcome their masculine insecurities.

In the early parts of the 20th century, boxing—and other “manly” sports, like college football—helped calm the fears that for white men, “oversentimentality, oversoftness, … washiness and mushiness” were grave dangers.[10] At a time of increased foreign encounters, both at home and abroad, this softness and hesitancy prevented the country from fulfilling its self-appointed role atop the racial hierarchy that included the burden of civilizing the barbarous. This was the white man’s burden, epitomized by Rudyard Kipling’s poem by the same name. Indeed, as the two were friends, Kipling sent Roosevelt a copy of “The White Man’s Burden” after he wrote it in 1898. Kipling’s intent was to “encourage the American government to take over the Philippines…and rule it with the same energy, honor, and beneficence that, he believed, characterized British rule over the nonwhite populations of India and Africa.”[11] The poem described the subduing of the “Half-devil and half child” and bringing forth “the savage wars of peace.” And like Rudyard, Roosevelt believed such a task could not be carried out if “the best ye breed” came from an effeminate nation.[12] As Roosevelt wrote, “A nation that cannot fight is not worth its salt, no matter how cultivated and refined it may be.”[13] Logically, a nation’s inability to defend itself put its existence at stake.

And still, under Roosevelt, the county had to find a balance between being over-civilized while still maintaining enough civility to distinguish itself from the savage nations being guided towards progress. For a time—so long as a white man was champion—people like Roosevelt advocated boxing as that balance.


[1] Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prizefighting in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 199.

[2] Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt.

[3] “How Colonel Roosevelt Lost his Eye,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 4, 1917.

[4]  Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Pierre de Coubertin. June 15, 1903 Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.

[5] Theodore Roosevelt, “The Recent Prize Fight,” The Outlook, July 16, 1910.

[6] “Battling Nelson at White House.” New-York Tribune, January 15, 1909.

[7] W.E.B. Du Bois “The Prize Fighter.” The Crisis 8, No. 4 August, 1914. Whole No. 46, P. 181.

[8] Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Robert Fitzsimmons. August 16, 1915. Theodore Roosevelt Collection. MS Am 1541 (257). Harvard College Library. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.

[9] Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt. August 7, 1915 Theodore Roosevelt Collection. MS Am 1541 (257). Harvard College Library. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.

[10] Theodore Roosevelt, Letters and Speeches (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2004), 183.

[11] Patrick Brantlinger, “Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” and Its Afterlives” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 50 No. 2 (2007): 172.

[12] Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden,” The Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling: The Five Nations (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 78.

[13] Theodore Roosevelt, Letters and Speeches (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2004), 183.



“Everyone knows it was age:” Joe Louis and his Final Fight, Fifty-Five Years Ago

At times, the hurt from boxing can come from failed hopes. October 26, 1951 proved this when many hoped that Joe Louis’s height, weight, and reach advantage would be enough to defeat Rocky Marciano. With a win, Louis would have become heavyweight world champion and the first to recapture the title which he relinquished as part of his retirement two years earlier. But since boxing retirements rarely last, Louis went back to work against a younger opponent. Louis’s many fans hoped his experience and class would be enough to defeat Marciano whose perfect record and high knock-out percentage came against “Humpty Dumpty opponents.”[1] But as hope does, it ignored that Marciano was in the prime of his career with Louis ten years his senior at age thirty-seven.

Marciano dashed all hopes of a Louis victory and the hurt that followed came in various forms. For Louis it was both physical and emotional, battered while feeling his once-great talent reduced to “blunt reflexes and only mechanical motions.”[2] The loss marked not only the end of his professional career but Louis also wondered aloud whether his post-career of traveling the country, performing boxing exhibitions was also in jeopardy, saying of the planned tour, “I don’t know now. I don’t know whether the party will want me anymore.”[3] For his fans, the pain was emotional seeing Louis pummeled in the 8th round and falling to the ring apron, a foot away from completely falling out of the ring. As he hit the floor for a second time in the round Louis’s defeat was clear with the referee not bothering to count him out. Ironically, the one who appears to have taken Louis’s loss the hardest was Rocky Marciano who in beating Louis, defeated his boyhood idol. “I’m glad I won,” Marciano said after the fight, “but sorry I had to do it to him.”[4] This regret extended into Louis’s dressing room where Marciano showed up crying, telling Louis, “I’m sorry, Joe.” Louis responded, “What’s the use of crying…The better man won. That’s all…I’m not too disappointed. I only hope everyone feels the same way I do about it.”[5] But not everyone felt the same way as apart from Marciano, the great Sugar Ray Robinson arrived in the locker room to comfort Louis only to begin crying. Standing by Robinson was another boxing legend Ezzard Charles, who a year earlier had beat Louis. He too also had trouble keeping his composure. Reporters asked questions with lumps in their throats and their voices breaking.[6] Even The New York Times stated, “record books will say it was Marciano who beat Joe, but everyone knows it was age.”[7]

Joe Louis was a sporting hero to many, including white America—an incredible achievement for a black man in the 1950s. Two fights that aroused the country’s patriotism helped forge Louis’s acceptance and legacy. The first came in 1935 with his victory over Primo Carnera, a giant Italian who after becoming champion in 1933 received a telegram from Benito Mussolini that read, “My congratulations, Fascist Italy and its sports-loving people are proud that a Blackshirt has become boxing champion of the world.”[8] More important than the bout against Carnera was Louis’s second fight against Max Schmeling in 1938. Schmeling was a Nazi-backed German and Hitler’s favorite boxer who, so long as he was champion, epitomized the Nazi’s notion of Aryan supremacy. The United States celebrated both fights as symbolic triumphs of democracy over fascism. Like Carnera and Schmeling before him, Louis’s respective government used him as a propaganda piece with the military printing posters of him during his service in World War II with the words: “Pvt. Joe Louis says, ‘We’re going to do our part…and we’ll win because we’re on God’s side.” In fact, the poster was rare as most featuring black men, portrayed them in acts of sacrifice and racial harmony. But with Louis as a national hero, posters could present him aggressively, in “ways that no other black man could” with little fear of angering white southerners.[9]

As much as white America rejoiced in Louis’s accomplishment, the black community took even greater pride—clear by the massive celebrations across the country, especially in Harlem. Even Malcolm X in his autobiography wrote, “every time Joe Louis won a fight against a white opponent, big front-page pictures in the Negro newspapers…showed a sea of Harlem Negroes cheering and waving and the Brown Bomber waving back at them.”[10] And no Harlem celebration topped the one after Louis beat Schmeling with The New York Daily News simply stating, “There was never a Harlem like the Harlem of last night. Take a dozen Christmases, a score of New Year’s Eves, a bushel of July 4th’s and maybe—yes maybe—you get a faint glimpse of the idea.”[11]

All of this history added to the hurt of seeing Marciano defeat Louis. Making matters worse, the fight should have never occurred. Louis did not want to fight, having already retired twice only to realize that boxing was his only way out of massive debt. In fact, before returning to box, Louis toured Canada, the United States, and South America as part of the circus that paid him $1,000 a day.[12] That was not enough to get Louis out of financial problems. Bad advice and failed investments caused his economic woes that when mixed with nearly four years away from boxing during the war, resulted in Louis taking loans from his managers. Financial matters worsened with Louis owing taxes to the IRS. As a result, Louis fought on after he had any wish to, continually borrowing against future loans to keep the IRS at bay. While Louis’s fights still drew near record-breaking crowds, all the money went to his managers and the IRS. Desperate to get out of debt, Louis risked his health against boxers like Rocky Marciano, a fight that would symbolize a boxing era’s transition. For his efforts, Louis received $300,000 that went towards his debts. Understanding the boxing business, Louis must have known “he was being set up for a fall, but he could not afford to turn down a big money fight.”[13]

After the fight Louis retired but still in need of money, tried his hand at wrestling and referring for a paycheck that the IRS picked up before he even saw.[14] Louis paid back taxes until the early 1960s when his wife—an attorney—negotiated with the IRS to only have his current earnings taxed. By that time Louis was in bad physical and mental shape. The physical damage came from boxing past his prime, being unable to protect himself due to his slowed reflexes. But Louis had few options besides at making serious money as IRS penalties and interests mounted daily that at their worse, they “cost Joe Louis at least $250 to get up each morning.”[15] Mentally, Louis became paranoid believing the IRS and the mafia were out to get him. Addiction to cocaine and alcohol made his physical and mental problems worse. Increasingly paranoid, in 1970 Louis spent three months in a psychiatric facility. Once out of the hospital Louis became a greeter at Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas.[16] Louis, whose “body had atrophied, his fortune had disappeared, and his fame had dwindled,” died on April 12, 1981 of a massive heart attack.[17] Max Schmeling, who after World War II became a wealthy Coca-Cola executive, helped pay for Louis’s funeral.


[1] Jack Hand, “Youthful Power Stops Former Champ,” The Montreal Gazette, October 27, 1951.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chris Mead, Joe Louis: Black Champion in White America (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 259.

[6] Randy Roberts, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 247.

[7] Joseph C. Nichols, “Marciano Knocks Out Louis in Eighth Round of Heavy weight Fight in Garden” The New York Times, October 27, 1951.

[8] Patrick Myler, Ring of Hate: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling, the Fight of the Century. eBook.

[9] Lewis Erenberg, The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis Vs. Schmeling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 186.

[10] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1965), 73.

[11] Emmett Berg, “Fight of the Century,” Humanities 25 no. 4 (July/August, 2004).

[12] “Joe Louis Quits Ring for Boxing,” Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1950.

[13] Mead, Joe Louis: Black Champion in White America, 258.

[14] Ted Thackery Jr., “Joe Louis, Boxing Great, Dies at 66: ‘Brown Bomber’ Won 68 Bouts, Hearts of Millions With Dignity,” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1981.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Erenberg, The Greatest Fight of Our Generation, 211.

[17] Ibid., 222.

Originally published on

Photo: “Joe Louis holding a whip and standing next to three circus lions that are seated on a tiered platform.” University of North Texas, UNT Digital Library, Rescuing Texas History.

Death and Boxing


In the twelfth round of their 1962 fight, Emile Griffith forced Benny Paret into the ropes with a right cross that stunned and sent him stumbling back to the corner of the ring. The fight was practically over with Paret struggling to even protect himself. Yet Griffith followed that punch with, by my count, twenty-six more, uncontested punches before the slow-acting referee, Ruby Goldstein, finally moved in to stop the fight. As Griffith celebrated his victory, Paret still with his back against the ropes, slowly slid into a seated position with his legs crumbling beneath his body. His head tilted towards his left shoulder, his right arm hanging from the second rope, Paret’s trainer and a doctor arrived within seconds. They quickly unfolded his legs and laid him on his back—a more dignified position, fitting for a former world champion.

As other officials gathered around Paret, the ring announcer went about his job, calling out over the microphone, “The time: two minutes and nine seconds of the twelfth round. The winner by a knockdown and once again welterweight champion of the world, Emile Griffith.” At that point, no one knew how serious Paret’s injuries were with the television commentator concerned but stating he looked more exhausted than anything else. Although Paret moved his legs, he could not walk and doctors and trainers carried him out on a stretcher. After the fight and still unaware of the seriousness of Paret’s condition, Griffith said, “When I saw Paret hurt, I want him to be on the ground before the fight was stopped. I wanted to keep punching. I was still eager to put him down.”[1]

Immediately taken to the hospital, doctors diagnosed Paret with a cerebral laceration and drilled holes into his skull to relieve pressure from swelling. When Griffith learned of the injury’s seriousness, he “wept inconsolably.”[2] Ten days after the fight, aged twenty-five, Paret died. Griffith did not intend to kill Paret though there was a deep animosity between them, formed out of their three fights against each other. Griffith’s dislike of Paret stemmed from being called a maricón by Paret. In fact, during their weigh-in before their third fight, Paret moved behind Griffith, grabbed his buttocks, thrusted his pelvis towards him and said, “Hey maricón, I’m going to get you and your husband.”[3] “He called me maricón,” said Griffith. “Maricón in English means faggot.”[4] And while it is unclear how much the slur had to do with the tragic result, the point is that Paret used the term, knowing how hurtful it was to Griffith who struggled with his sexuality.

Griffith remained haunted by the death of his opponent, waking up from nightmares during the middle of the night to see Paret standing at the foot of his bed.[5] When he did not wake up to find Paret’s ghost, Griffith dreamed of greeting Paret on the street, shaking his hand only to find it cold as ice. Other times, he dreamt of sitting at a boxing event next to Paret, watching two boxers attempting to kill one another with every punch they threw.[6] Understandably, Griffith became afraid—not just of nightmares but also of sleep and extended moments of silence. He was also afraid of opening yet another hate-filled letter from Latinos convinced that Griffith killed Paret, a Cuban, on purpose.[7] “I didn’t want to kill no one,” Griffith said, “But things happen.”[8]

A few days ago, “things happened again just as they did forty-four years ago. On Friday night Scottish boxer Mike Towell died—unable to recover from injuries he sustained during the previous night’s bout. There was no background of name-calling or attacks on another’s masculinity to distinguish this boxing death from others. As it should, the following days will have renewed calls to ban boxing as there has been after every boxing death. Ultimately, little will change aside from maybe a few slight rule changes that help ease the boxing fan’s and official’s conscience. No deep pondering of what our level of complicity is in all of this, no serious movement to organize a boxer’s union that might help protect boxers, and certainly no boycott of future fights. Instead, we will say some romantic bullshit like, “Mike Towell died like a true warrior, boxing until the very end.”

A few months from now, nothing will change and even worse, most people—myself included—will have forgotten Mike Towell’s name. It will just be a name on the long list of meaningless, boxing-related deaths.

Towell left a partner and a son, you can help raise money for them through an online fundraiser set up by Ricky Hatton.



[1] Gilbert Rogin, “The Deadly Insult” Sports Illustrated, April 2, 1962.

[2] “Paret in Surgery After Knockout” New York Times, March 25, 1962.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard Goldstein, “Emile Griffith, Boxer who Unleashed a Fatal Barrage, Dies at 75” New York Times, July 23, 2013.

[5] Lance Pugmire, “Emile Griffith dies at 75; champion boxer struggled with his sexuality” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2013.

[6] Gary Smith, “The Shadow Boxer” Sports Illustrated, April 18, 2005.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Goldstein, “Emile Griffith, Boxer who Unleashed a Fatal Barrage, Dies at 75” New York Times.

Originally published on

Photo: Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive/Getty.

The Night Mexico’s Little Thumb Almost Became the Big Toe of God

It was Joe Frazier’s first title defense and though undefeated in twenty fights, there was an uncertainty over what sort of champion he was. A large part of this had to do with questions over his legitimacy as champion since boxing commissioners forced Muhammad Ali into boxing exile and stripped him of the title that now belonged to Frazier. But this is not about Frazier, this is about his opponent during his first defense: Manuel “Pulgarcito” Ramos, the rare Mexican heavyweight to try the improbable—become heavyweight world champion. Ramos understood the opportunity in front of him, saying before the fight, “I am fighting for all Latin America, not for Mexico alone.”[1] Ramos added, “I am going to try to knock Frazier out in the early rounds. I know I can knock him out if I get a chance.”[2] If Ramos, could in fact, knock out Frazier, he would become to only Latin American crowned as heavyweight champ, as the previous two attempts—Luis Firpo against Jack Dempsey and Arturo Godoy against Joe Louis—ended  with losses.

Before the fight, Mexican newspaper, Esto, either confidently or naively, maybe both, stated, “A new champion will be born and he will be Mexican!”[3] Mexican boxing fans also shared in the hope and excitement with 500 fellow countrymen making the trip to New York City to support Ramos. Some of his fans wore “straw sombreros with “Ramos” and their idol’s nickname, ‘Pulgarcito’ stitched on the brims.”[4]

“Pulgarcito” translates to small thumb, an ironic nickname for the 6’4”, 208 pound Ramos. The fight took place on June 24, 1968 in Madison Square Garden, more than 2,500 miles away from Ramos’s hometown of Hermosillo, Sonora. With this fight, Ramos became the first Mexican boxer to fight in the latest version of the historic venue. The fight began with a hectic pace and defense appeared optional. About forty-five seconds into the fight, after Frazier backed his opponent into the ropes, Ramos threw a perfectly placed right that almost floored Frazier. “Frazier was rocked!” screamed the announcer, “Frazier was wobbled by a right hand.” Frazier said of that punch, “It’s the first time I’ve ever been shook. I’ve been done before, but I’ve never been hit that good—on the button.”[5]

After that punch, Frazier instinctively back-peddled into the ropes, his aggression gone. The crowd’s excitement grew with Ramos, at least for a few seconds, stalking Frazier whose fall appeared imminent. But just as it seemed like Mexico was about to have a heavyweight world champ, Ramos threw a left-leaning shovel hook that with his right not even at shoulder level, left himself open to Frazier’s vicious left counter that erased all momentum. Just like that, even though the fight continued for another round, Ramos lost any realistic chance of beating Frazier.

With about a minute left in the first round the faint chants of “Mexico! Mexico!” tried to motivate Ramos. But not even twenty seconds later, Frazier’s unrelenting attacks staggered Ramos who only survived because of the bell. Early into the second round, Frazier dropped Ramos who managed enough courage to get up only to continue the beating he was taking. With less than ten seconds left in the round, Frazier dropped Ramos one last time. As the referee counted, Ramos interrupted him, waving his arms across his body, showing his surrender. After the fight, Ramos said he felt ashamed.[6] Year later Ramos stated that after landing the right that almost knocked down Frazier and won him the title, he felt scared and therefore, unable to finish Frazier.[7] And though his corner yelled for him to not stop fighting, the bout was effectively over right when Frazier was at his most vulnerable.

Frazier fought five more times before facing and defeating Muhammad Ali in their first of three fights. Before that 1971 fight, Norman Mailer wrote, “The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility he is. It is like being the big toe of God. You have nothing to measure yourself by.”

After their fight, Ramos fought twenty-seven more times, losing twenty-two of them including the last fifteen—a disappointing end for the only Mexican heavyweight to fight for a title. However, on June 24, 1968, Manuel “Pulgarcito” Ramos came as close as any Mexican boxer has ever come to becoming “the big toe of God.” But for whatever reason, when Ramos was close to being world champion, he pulled back and quit. Maybe, as he mentioned, closing in on accomplishing the improbable scared him. Or maybe he was the only sane person in the arena.


[1] Dave Anderson, “Frazier Heavy Favorite to beat Ramos Tomorrow Night: Mexican.” New York Times, June 23, 1968.

[2] “Ramos Overcomes Bad L.A. Start, Seeks Title.” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1968.

[3] Marco Antonio Maldonado and Rubén Amador Zamara, Historia del Box Mexicano: Cosecha de Campeones: 1961-1999 (Mexico City, Mexico, 2000), 36.

[4] Dave Anderson, “Champion Drops Mexican Twice.” New York Times, June 25, 1968.

[5] Neil Amdur, “Ramos’s Profile Too Good a Target” New York Times, June 25, 1968.

[6] Anderson, “Champion Drops Mexican Twice.”

[7] Tomás Kemp, “’Pulgarcito’ Ramos venció a dos ex campeones mundiales.” La Prensa, Diciembre 3, 2009.

Originally published on

“We Will Call him Cassius Clay”

It has been three months since Muhammad Ali died and while most things written about him, focused on his impact as one of the most important sports figures of the last half-century, few made more than a passing reference to his membership in the Nation of Islam (N.O.I.). Most mentioned his incredible upset over Sonny Liston in their first fight in 1964 but that fight’s significance is greater than Ali—Cassius Clay, at that time—becoming heavyweight champion for the first time. After the fight Clay confirmed rumors, acknowledging he was a member of the N.O.I. and would go by the name Cassius X. That name did not last long, replaced by Muhammad Ali, a name that Elijah Muhammad, leader of the N.O.I., bestowed upon him, stating on his radio broadcast, “This Clay name has no divine meaning. I hope he will accept being called by a better name. Muhammad Ali is what I will give him for as long as he believes in Allah and follows me.”[1]

According to Cassius Clay Sr. and countering the narrative he joined the N.O.I. as a way of avoiding military induction, since winning the gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics Ali regularly attended N.O.I. meetings. Ali states as much, saying he first heard of the group during a 1959 Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago, N.O.I.’s headquarters. Regardless of when he became a member, Ali refusing military induction coupled with his N.O.I. membership resulted in him being stripped of his title and banned from boxing for over three years.

The N.O.I.—specifically Elijah Muhammad—were content if Ali never fought again believing his cause was greater than boxing. In fact, Elijah Muhammad detested boxing since in his view, it usually pitted two black men against one another in a show of brutality, all done for white entertainment. Instead of boxing, Elijah Muhammad envisioned Ali using his fame to make a world-wide impact, spreading the N.O.I.’s beliefs. With his freedom and career contested in courts, Ali’s attorney fees could not be covered by the money he earned lecturing across various colleges. Facing economic problems Ali wanted to continue boxing, telling Howard Cosell in a national interview, he would return if the money was right.

Ali’s willingness to resume his boxing career angered Elijah Muhammad who saw him as compromising his religious beliefs for money and by extension, white entertainment. As a result, the N.O.I. suspended Muhammad Ali for a year. Their newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, publishing a statement on Ali’s suspension: “Mr. Muhammad Ali has sporting blood. Mr. Muhammad Ali desires to do that which the Holy Qur’an teaches him against. Mr. Muhammad Ali wants a place in this sporting world. He loves it. Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay. We take the name of Allah away from him until he proves himself worthy of that name.”[2]

That statement, issued on April 4, 1969, came about two years and two months after Ali fought Ernie Terrell—his second to last fight before his banishment from boxing. Boxing fans remember the bout for Ali pummeling Terrell in a fight where the already savage sport turned cruel. Some crowd members even called for the fight’s end with Terrell taking a beating that resulted in a severely damaged eye. Over fifteen rounds Ali pounded Terrell for refusing to call him by his Muslim name as leading up to their fight, Terrell continuously called him Cassius Clay. According to Ali, Terrell’s insistence on calling him Clay made the fight personal as that was his slave name and vowed to punish him over the entirety of the scheduled rounds since a knockout was too good for him.

During the middle rounds Ali, knowing he could not lose, increased his taunts and attacks on Terrell. Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated wrote that Ali “taunted Terrell throughout the eighth round by coming well within the range of his now useless left hand and yelling ‘What’s my name! What’s my name!’…Each time the question was followed by a tattoo of lefts and rights to Terrell’s head. At the end of the eighth as the bleeding and beaten Terrell plodded hopelessly after him, Clay stopped, glanced at the clock and yelled ‘Uncle Tom.’”[3]

Ali’s name and beliefs were important to him as showed by his fight against Terrell and his political stand that cost him the prime years of his career. Therefore, it is not surprising that the N.O.I.’s suspension devastated Ali who not only had to stay away but also had his name revoked back to Cassius Clay. Ali eventually returned to the N.O.I., remained a member until Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975. Leadership of the N.O.I. fell to Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace D. Muhammad, whom Ali credits in one of his many autobiographies with his conversion to Sunni Muslim. “After Elijah Muhammad’s death,” Ali writes, “his son, Wallace D. Muhammad, took over the Nation and brought me, along with many of his father’s followers to mainstream Sunni Muslim.”[4]

Ali’s legacy is much more complex than the feel-good eulogies that appeared after his death. It was not simply a matter of Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam, being banned from boxing only for all to realize that a grave injustice had occurred and all welcomed Ali back with open arms so he could become a global icon of peace. And it certainly is not correct to say that part of his legacy involves him somehow transcending race, implying he had overcome being black to meet a level of acceptance that allowed for his near-universal praise. To say he transcended race ignores the very thing that made him Muhammad Ali. He was not Christian, he was not Cassius Clay, and he was not a coward for refusing military induction. What he was, was unapologetically black as was every other member of the N.O.I. To remember him in any other fashion, without understanding this as his core, misses the point of who he was.


[1] Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1991), 102.

[2] Ibid., 194.

[3] Tex Maule, “Cruel Ali with All the Skills,” Sports Illustrated, February 13, 1967.

[4] Muhammad Ali, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 85.

Originally published on

Photo: Wolfson, Stanley, photographer. [Elijah Muhammad addresses followers including Cassius Clay / World Telegram & Sun photo by Stanley Wolfson]. 1964. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.