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The rise of Jack Johnson


By John J. Raspanti

Of all the books written on legendary former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, none have been able to give the boxing fan an account of Johnson’s early fights from varying points of view.
Until now.
Adam Pollack’s seventh book, In the Ring with Jack Johnson, Part 1: The Rise is a not only a richly detailed narrative of Johnson’s early career, but a history lesson of the times.
Pollack is also able to peek inside the psyche of Johnson—revealing an ambitious and dedicated athlete who paid his dues despite some extraordinary odds against him.
Much has been written about Johnson’s reign as the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. But accounts of his rise to the top of the mountain have been sketchy and less detailed.

Author Pollack fills in the gaps of Johnson’s early life with an abundance of skill.
The book is loaded with detailed and varying accounts of Johnson’s fights. It’s fascinating to read different versions on the same match. After winning the heavyweight championship from Tommy Burns in 1908, Johnson would quickly become the most hated man in the country.
A few years before, as he climbed up the heavyweight rankings, he was looked at more as a curiosity—and hardly a threat to the title. A lot of the criticism directed at Johnson was driven by extreme racism.
This reviewer was left shaking his head at the kind of vile hatred thrown at Johnson, mostly because of the color of his skin. Pollock expertly balances Johnson’s rise by also discussing boxing’s color line.
Making appearances throughout the book are some of the most famous names in boxing history, including John L. Sullivan (who first drew the color line), James J. Corbett, Peter Jackson, Bob Fitzsimmons, and the man who in 1910 would define Johnson’s legacy, James J. Jeffries.
A good biography is a success when the reader can imagine the subject as a living and breathing human being. If an author is unable to bring the person he or she is writing about alive, they often end up resembling a statue—still untouchable and hard to understand.
Pollack’s book succeeds in this. He not only captures the hideous nature of our past, but he breathes life into one of the greatest boxers, flaws and all, who ever lived.
Johnson’s resilience in the face of open hostility borders on the unbelievable.
His rise is an engrossing read.

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