This may come as a shock to Muhammad Ali, but he can no longer count on strutting off into history as The Greatest. Second-greatest, maybe. Ali was getting by nicely with that act, as both a boxer and autobiographer—his life story was published last year—and he might have pulled it off except for a new book. Or, really, an old book. Proteus in England and Two Continents Publishing Group in the U.S. have reissued an autobiography called Jack Johnson—In the Ring and Out ($10.95), and in terms of outrageous exploits and just plain ain't-I-wonderfulness, the old heavyweight champion wins an easy decision over the current one.
Aside from the parallel to Ali, however, it is hard to figure why Jack Johnson is back now, or who is going to care. The book first came out in 1927 and has been sitting in publishing's attic since not long after that: one does not recall any clamor for a new edition, which is understandable. The writing is old-time gossamer, the flowing style of ancient sports journals. Baroque sentences float through Johnson's book like Ali's famed butterflies. "I have rubbed elbows with the aristocrats of European capitals; mingled with the frivolous in noted cafes and restaurants on the Continent; I have disported on the French and Italian Rivieras...." If Johnson boxed the way he wrote, it is no wonder that nobody ever laid a glove on him, so to speak.
It is disappointing that in this autobiography Johnson writes so little about his 127 recorded fights, many of which boxing historians regard as certified classics. After setting up the reader for his July 4, 1910 fight with ex-champion Jim Jeffries, Johnson disposes of it by saying, "Jeffries at no time made the going very difficult for me, and in the fifteenth round I knocked him out." There is a longer and slightly more colorful account of the notorious 1915 title fight with Jess Willard in Havana, in which Johnson did or did not take a dive in the 26th round (Johnson says he did, and for considerable money; most observers thought he was truly knocked out).
However, that is minor criticism for a book of this scope. What makes it a classic of its kind, and what relegates Muhammad Ali to second-greatest, is the stunning sweep of Johnson's extracurricular activities. In addition to being the world's hardest puncher, Johnson also presents himself as the world's greatest lover, boulevardier, adventurer, entertainer and man-about-the-world. Among the things he did, or says he did:
January 30, 1978
•He owned the Cabaret de Champion in Chicago, which featured a collection of the champ's own Rembrandts, as well as silver cuspidors decorated in gold.
•He intercepted secret messages from Czar Nicholas of Russia to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in 1914, messages that concerned attacks and defenses and plans for Germany and Russia to rule the world.
•He took a few bullfighting lessons from Joselito and Belmonte in Spain and in 1916, in spangled pants and cape, thrilled all Barcelona as a matador. "I found that the huge bull, though much slower than a boxer, nevertheless was equipped with many clever tricks, and that I could not sidestep him as I could the fist of a boxer. At any rate I was the victor."
•He was a spy for the U.S. during his semi-voluntary exile in Spain, investigating German submarines off the coast while taking "numerous risks."
•He saved an entire train from murderous robbers in Sonora, Mexico by telling the desperadoes who he was. The bandits then "staged a wild demonstration in my honor" and contritely gave back all the loot to the passengers.
•He survived revolutions in such countries as Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay and Cuba.
•He stopped the attack of a lion on a movie set by shouting, "Get out!" just as the lion leaped toward him. The abashed lion turned and ran and hid in a nearby wood for several hours.
•He raced an automobile against Barney Oldfield (and lost).
•He survived five car crashes in which the vehicles overturned, each crash demolishing the car.
•He chased a kangaroo across the Australian outback until "the poor kangaroo finally gave up and toppled over dead."
•He ran a jackrabbit to exhaustion on a half-mile enclosed track.
•He fought and defeated Pat Lester in 1926, when Lester was considered a "logical contender" for Jack Dempsey's title. Lester was 24 at the time, Johnson 48.
•He participated in a three-handed, high-stakes poker game on a train ride to San Francisco, where he was to train for his fight with Jeffries, in which the pot was raised 15 or 20 times. When the betting ended, one player turned over four jacks. Another had four kings. Johnson had four aces.
One final thing. Johnson, a big, marvelously built man, affected a shaved head and had several teeth capped in gold. He doesn't come right out and say it, but the implication is there: he was also the handsomest fighter that ever was.