The Kentucky Bar is a world-famous bar in Juárez, Mexico that has served drinks to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jim Morrison, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, and Al Capone. Pictures of the many famous people who have frequented the bar in its close to 100-year history, line the walls. Towards the back there is a picture of a smiling Jack Johnson—the first black heavyweight champion and one of the great boxers in history. But the story of Johnson, Juárez, and Mexico goes beyond him simply having a drink at the Kentucky Bar as in 1914, Johnson became a pawn piece in the struggle over Mexico.
On October 20, 1914, a headline in the sporting page of the El Paso Herald read “As the Mexicans are tired of battling, Jack Johnson May Drop Into Juárez and Fight Willard.” By 1914, the Mexican Revolution was nearing its fourth year while Johnson, lived in self-exile, away from the United States after convicted of violating the Mann Act and sentenced to a year in prison. The Mexican Revolution had descended into civil war as former allies became enemies with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata believing their one-time leader and constitutional president Venustiano Carranza had betrayed the revolution’s ideals. As Pancho Villa controlled northern Mexico and in desperate need of generating funds, he came up with a simple solution: he would host the championship fight between Jack Johnson and Jess Willard in Juárez—a border town across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. With the closeness of the U.S. and Johnson’s popularity and recognition on both sides of the border, estimates believed the fight in Juárez could accommodate 100,000 people. But as if boxing politics did not make it hard enough to organize a fight, when these mixed with a nation at war, staging the fight proved impossible.
The problem revolved around getting Johnson, who was in Argentina, to Juárez. The most obvious route was through El Paso but with Johnson as a wanted fugitive in the U.S., he risked immediate incarceration. As for Mexico, Carranza controlled the port entries and since the fight would increase Pancho Villa’s war chest, Carranza threatened to arrest Johnson and return him to the U.S. With the fight scheduled to take place in Juárez on March 6, 1915, Jess Willard arrived in El Paso to train and spar, awaiting Johnson’s arrival in Juárez which, as late as a month before the fight, remained unexplained. The only realistic option was through Villa’s expected attack on Tampico, a port city in Tamaulipas. If Villa’s attack succeeded and he could wrest control of Tampico from Carranza, Johnson could then be moved into Juárez. But as an article in the El Paso Herald explained, that attack had yet to develop and “How Jack Johnson will enter Mexico and arrive in Juárez for his next battle is still unexplained.”
Unable to enter Juárez and unwilling to risk capture at the hands of Carranza’s troops, Johnson and his management moved the fight to Havana, Cuba. As Jess Willard was the latest of the Great White Hopes attempting to take Johnson’s heavyweight title and, in the view of many, restore the proper order of boxing with a white man as champion, Johnson was confident that Willard would agree to the change of venue. On April 5, 1915 in Havana, Willard defeated Johnson who claimed to have thrown the fight, believing that in doing so, U.S. authorities would show leniency and allow his return without imprisonment. In his autobiography, Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out, 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.” It is unknown whether those terms existed or they were just an excuse to explain his loss to Willard. Regardless, Johnson could not return to the U.S. without serving his sentence and even lived in Mexico during 1919. Ironically, Johnson lived there as a special guest of Venustiano Carranza who by that time was the unquestioned leader of Mexico as Villa’s strength and ability to revolt diminished after 1915. It was with Carranza’s assassination that Johnson went from being an invited guest to an unwelcome symbol of the old regime.
As Johnson’s time in revolutionary Mexico ended, the best he could hope for was a return to the U.S. For Johnson, serving his prison sentence was a better choice to the harsh realities that may have come his way as an unwanted guest of 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. On July 20, 1920, about a month after Carranza’s assassination, Johnson turned himself over to U.S. authorities in San Diego, California. After saying his goodbyes and shaking the hands of several Mexican officials, Johnson presented his passport and turned himself over to authorities waiting on his arrival. Cameras and reporters were present for Johnson’s statement: “It sure is good to get back in the United States 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.” Johnson never admitted to being forced out of Mexico. In his eyes, turning himself in to U.S. authorities was his choice, in no way influenced by what occurred in Mexico after the death of Carranza. Johnson served his time at Leavenworth Prison.
Though conditions did not allow for the Johnson – Willard fight in Juárez during 1915, Johnson eventually fought in Juárez on May 30, 1926 against Bob Lawson. Johnson, aged forty-eight at the time of his fight, was past his prime. With his speed and reflexes diminished plus added weight to his midsection, Johnson lost to Lawson. Though scheduled as a twelve-round fight, Johnson could not continue at the start of the eighth round. The Chicago Defender described the loss as, “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 was unable to rise at the beginning of round eight and Lawson was given the fight on a technical knockout.” Footage of Johnson’s fight in Juárez does not seem to exist but one can imagine the sad sight of one of the greatest boxers reduced to nothing more than a fighter whose only marketable asset was his name recognition. Counting his fight in Juárez, Johnson lost seven of the last nine bouts of his career, fighting until he was close to sixty years old. For the last few decades, momentum has built towards Jack Johnson getting a presidential pardon since race was the motivating factor for his arrest and imprisonment. The latest attempt came on July 1st of this year when senators Harry Reid and John McCain asked President Obama to pardon Johnson though it has yet to occur.
Originally published on Thaboxingvoice.com
Picture: Jack Johnson / D.W.A. photo. [Between 1910 and 1915] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.