"I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood 1880-1915" by Louis Moore

"I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood 1880-1915" by Louis Moore

2017, The University of Illinois Press

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Joe Gans, "The Old Master"

Louis Moore’s I Fight for a Living: The Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915 expands upon Theresa Runstedler’s scholarly tome Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Color Line. As Moore’s title suggests, I Fight for a Living delves into the careers of numerous 19th century black fighters during the overlap of the antiquated London Prize and modern Queensberry Rules. Great fighters in their own right, these men also helped set the precedent for the first black world heavyweight champion (Johnson), whose taunting of the white public and press over both his title and his penchant for the verboten horrors of miscegenation was troubling to whites not only stateside, but in Europe and Australia.

Moore’s thesis is threefold. His first assertion is that the ring provided black men with a surrogate to the drudges of back-breaking menial labor, leveling the playing field as the only means of employ where blacks could earn as much as their white opponents. Boxing also opened doorways for blacks to join, in the parlance of the day, “the sporting culture,” wherein economic savvy and independence were as intrinsic to manhood (signified by fine dress, sophisticated deportment, and care of one’s family) as combat. The air of respectability attracted a middle-class white audience that (despite boxing's illegality in several states), brought the thrill of mixing with the lower classes and an air of the illicit. Finally, as pugilistic success advanced blacks’ equal footing with whites within the sport, it fell to the press as the main outlet for assuaging the wave of so-called negrophobia that took hold during the Great Migration, when Southern blacks moved en masse to cities north of the Mason-Dixon line.

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Joe Jeanette: The archetypal fetishization of the black body

Most black fighters were “meal-ticket men.” Of his nascent career as a participant in the abhorrent “battles royal,” Jack Johnson just said, “I was hungry. My greatest ambition as the fight began was to eat.” While many white fighters refused to take it up with blacks (most famously the Irish “Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan, along with Jim Jeffries , who caved under pressure as a “White Hope”), white spectators were willing to shell out more cash for interracial bouts. All the while, displays of manhood from black ring giants struck the fear of emasculation into the hearts of a white public, as well as concerns that the permissiveness of such bouts were a tacit acknowledgement of racial equality. In the case of fighters like Sullivan and Jeffries, this was less the product of principle than the humiliation a loss would bring.

As the Victorian era came to a close in the late nineteenth century, a new fixation on - or reconfiguration of - the body emerged. Amid fears and embarrassment over the effeteness that had overtaken the Victorian white elite, panic of a race under threat grew concomitant with the influx of nonwhites into cities, most of whom in far better physical condition due to the back-breaking labor to which they were confined. The scholar Ronald L. Jackson wrote, “…race is about bodies that have been assigned social meanings,” as the fears surrounding black dominance in the ring combined with the horrors of miscegenation confirm. These were in no way allayed by Johnson’s willful abnegation of reigning in his concupiscence with white women. As Runstedtler writes, “it was not a stretch to argue that if black men beat white men in the ring they would feel entitled to ravish white women in the bedroom.” Black bodies became bellwethers by which fitness - the most important element that played into this new notion of manhood - were measured. A passage from Morley Callaghan’s 1951 novel The Loved and The Lost describes a white woman’s fetishization of a young black man’s naked body and her “aware[ness] for the first time that beauty could be painful in a strange way,” and that a white women’s “gentle innocence was attracted perversely to violence, like a temperament seeking its opposite.”


Peter Jackson, the consummate sport.

Boxing had become the primary lens through which these biopolitical sentiments were viewed, but sanctioned segregation in the US (including inside the ring) hardly made this easy. The “white man’s burden” - a term coined by Rudyard Kipling to define the responsibility of the white race to “civilize” blacks - sounded a wake-up call to whites, particularly as regards physical fitness. If whites were going to maintain their position of authority and supremacy, care of the body was a new social responsibility.

Moore employs a litany of well-known black fighters to successfully illustrate his points. When discussing the Australian Peter Jackson, he demonstrates the ways in which the fighter came to epitomize both brains and brawn. He was popular with the press, who lauded the fighter as a specimen of “perfect black manhood.” What they really liked about him was his modesty, a tenuous position for a rising champion who fought in interracial bouts. The press was fickle - no fighter stood on firm ground in their eyes. When his 61-round bout with the white "Gentleman" Jim Corbett in 1891 ended in a no contest, one writer lamented the audacity of Jackson’s assumption that he could be both a prizefighter and a cultured gentleman. If he was so busy hobnobbing, when was he training? If he was a fighter, why was he strutting around town in a top hat and cane? The irony - not to mention hypocrisy - of the statement is not lost on the reader, especially when considering Jackson’s famously spiffy opponent.

When discussing “The Old Master” Joe Gans, also a “sport” when it came to pecuniary profligacy, Moore provides a glimpse into the dark corners of the boxing’s early days of corruption as Chicago’s leading black gambler John “Mushmouth” Johnson had Gans take a swim in his bout against Terry McGovern. The financial incentives, however, were altruistic as regards black sports and betters. With so many blacks in on the fix and placing their bets accordingly made Gans - for the moment - a kind of Robin Hood of the ring.

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"I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood" © University of Illinois Press, 2017

Many black fighters traveled abroad to secure bouts due to legal restrictions and the inability to secure bouts with white fighters who either ducked or refused to fight them. While men like Jackson and Gans gained the financial security they sought, they were never on par with whites when it came to their paydays (even the most successful black fighters of the day - almost to a man - fell into poverty after retiring from the ring.) By the century’s turn, Jack Johnson emerged as the most formidable and possibly unbeatable figure in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century. The Record’s sportswriter wrote that “Johnson was the man who caused the drawing of the color line.” Moore’s coverage of Johnson’s predecessors, however, proves the line was drawn decades earlier. By the time Johnson met (and defeated) Frank Moran in Paris in 1913, he had made $327,000 within five years. “A hundred a week [roughly the equivalent of $2,500 in 2018] won’t near last a first-class boxing man,” he remarked. With his threads, custom-built cars, and amused insouciance in the face of disposing opponents with risible ease, Johnson epitomized the sporting type. Despite his claim to take all comers regardless of race, the white Canadian Tommy Burns dodged Johnson like the clap, ignoring his many challenges and demanding outrageous purses to weasel out of a match, finally taking flight to Australia by way of Europe with Johnson in hot pursuit. When he finally caught up to him, the white boy had run out of excuses. Johnson was willing to fight for a relatively paltry £1,000 purse to Burns’ £6,000 to demonstrate that the match was not financially driven, but rather a means of silencing (and further taunting and outraging) the white establishment at large. Johnson humiliated Burns in front of a crowd of fifteen thousand whites at Sydney Stadium in Australia with barbs like, “Ah, poor little Tamhy… They said you were a champion.” The fight was finally stopped in the 14th round to save Burns further humiliation. This alone was enough to rile the white establishment, but Johnson's penchant for "white poontang" was beyond the pale, causing his flight to Europe to avoid arrest under bogus allegations of violating the Mann Act. Soon Johnson was demanding $30,000 purses to take call comers regardless of race - the unintended fly in the ointment being that few black fighters could afford to put up this kind of money. This led to Johnson’s shutting out many black fighters: "Jack forgot about his old friends after he became champion," lamented Joe Jeannette, adding that Johnson "drew the color line against his own people.”

The backlash Johnson brought to bear upon his own race is underscored in a statement from Booker T. Washington, who claimed, “In misrepresenting the colored people of this country, he harms himself the least.” As a champion for financial advancement and independence among African Americans, W.E.B. Du Bois saw Johnson as the scapegoat upon whom most American racism was brought to bare.


Jack Johnson, the original "rebel sojourner."

No matter how skilled and scientific a black fighter, it fell to the press to influence public sentiment in the realm of boxing, particularly in that they were the only outlet for (next day) blow-by-blow accounts. White fighters were regularly described as a "civilized," "manly," and "scientific," while words like “shrewd,” “deceptive,” “brutish,” and “savage” were applied to blacks  - especially when they won (though the scribes couldn't hide their schadenfreude when a black fighter was felled). Darwinian theory was twisted to a paint African-American fighters as a kind of missing link between modern man and his simian ancestors who, according to bogus medical theories of the day, possessed thicker skulls and a higher threshold for pain. The illustrations of the Sambo-styled boxers with banana size lips, the moon eyes of the happy-go-lucky simp, and the ever-present fried chicken or slice of watermelon drove home the point of how blacks were viewed not only as another race, but practically a different species altogether. Ironically, newspapers focused their attention on black fighters more than any other subject, for despite grave concerns and the outlawing of mixed-race bouts in most states, the white public came to prefer interracial bouts to same-race fights.


Jack Johnson portrayed as a chicken-loving Sambo in a 1910 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle.

Moore’s book uses several towering (and some slightly lesser-known) fighters to exemplify his theses, citing a great deal of the day’s print medium to confirm his three bullet points. Immensely readable with a linear, non-meandering narrative, it belongs on the shelf alongside bare-knucklers like Elliot Gorn’s The Manly Art, Tony Gee’s Up to Scratch, Christopher Klein’s biography of John L. Sullivan, Strong Boy, as well as Geoffrey C. Ward’s Jack Johnson: Unforgivable Blackness, and of course Runstedler’s Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner. I Fight for a Living is essential reading for anyone interested in "the shadow of the black fist" of racism that loomed over the ring well into the twentieth century, and the African-American fight for equal footing amidst the inception of modern boxing.

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Joe Jeanette vs. Sam McVey, April 17th, 1909. Jeanette knocked McVey down 27 times over 49 rounds.