Boxer's French musings become new memoir

Jack Johnson's 1908 championship, 1910 defeat of Jeffreies touched off race riots

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2007

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. - Jack Johnson, addicted to attention and craving a colorful legacy, loved to chronicle his rise from a restless Texas teen to the world's first black heavyweight boxing champion.

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Now, nearly a century after his most famous bout - the 1910 defeat of "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries - and decades after his death, Johnson has more tales to tell.

His largely unknown 1911 musings to a French sports magazine, including candid observations on racism likely never intended for American readers, have been translated to English in their entirety for the first time. The result, "My Life & Battles," is 127-page book by and about the man considered by many to be one of history's most important athletes.

"To get new material and new stories from Jack Johnson is significant not just in sports, but sociologically as a look into that whole era," said Bert Sugar, a boxing historian and author of dozens of books on the sport.

Johnson's 1908 championship and his 1910 defeat of Jeffries touched off race riots among downtrodden black Americans who considered him a hero and white separatist Americans who deemed him a threat.

"He really was a figure of great hatred and paranoia among many white Americans, and when he won the 1910 fight, it was considered on all sides to be a really monumental event," said Mount Holyoke College professor Christopher Rivers, who translated and published the 1911 memoirs.

Rivers, a boxing enthusiast who teaches French, first noted references to the French articles in Geoffrey Ward's 2004 biography, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."

At Rivers' request, Ward sent him copies of all the French-language magazine articles. Rivers translated them and blended them with excerpts already used in Johnson's 1914 "Mes Combats" ("My Fights"), of which Harvard University's Widener Library owns the only known complete copy.

The result: Rivers was able to translate and publish the memoirs in their entirety, a rare glimpse into the life of a legend whose extravagant stories are his only descendants.

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