There are many similarities between Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson. Both of them had outspoken personalities both in and out of the ring. Both of them used taunting in the ring to their advantage and as a form of psychological warfare against their opponents. Both Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson had court cases with the United States Government. In Jack Johnson’s case, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act while he was boxing champion. This conviction was because he was fond of white women, and the government was able to get a conviction on the basis that he crossed state lines with a woman. In the case of Muhammad Ali, he refused to serve in the Vietnam War because he said that it was contrary to his religious beliefs. Ali was stripped of his title and spent 3 years out of boxing. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction however, and Ali returned to boxing.
Both Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali were considered big for their era. Jack Johnson was 6’0 in height and weighed anywhere from 156 lbs in his earliest bouts to as high as 238 lbs in his fight against Jess Willard. Muhammad Ali was 6’3 in height and weighted from 178 in his pro debut to 230 in his bout against Jimmy Young later on in his career. Jack Johnson was called the Galveston Giant, and people marveled at how quick Muhammad Ali was for his size.
Both men were very athletic and quick. Jack Johnson could run 100 yards in 10.8 seconds and it was said by one of his friends, jump 12 feet backwards. Considering that Evander Holyfield 90 years later would run 100 yards in 11.5 seconds at the Superstars Competition, this is very fast indeed. Muhammad Ali’s speed was so fascinating as to seem superhuman. His hands seemed to move like pistons, independent of human will but always following human command. He could throw a 6 punch combination in 2.1 seconds. His jab was timed by Sports Illustrated as being able to hit a balsa board 16.5 inches away in 0.19 seconds. His jab actually reached the board in 0.04 seconds. In comparison, a fastball thrown by a pitcher reaches home plate in 0.4 seconds. Ali is often considered to have two of the fastest hands in heavyweight history.
Their Respective Styles
Both Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson could be considered to have cautious styles, but they were able to switch and adapt to different boxers. In Jack Johnson’s case, he went on the offensive against Denver Ed Martin and went for the knockout early. He achieved a 2nd round knockout using a pressure style that he did not normally use. In the instance of Stanley Ketchel, he stood his ground and used more defense, and Ketchel could not hit him consistently. In Ali’s case, he based his style on how his opponent fought him. Against Liston he used lateral movement and a strong jab to keep Liston off balance and to wear him down. Against Bonavena, he used the left hook while moving backwards, and managed to achieve knockdowns because of it. Both men were very adaptable and rank with Joe Louis in the top echelon of technicians.
Both men relied on their jab as an integral part of their offense. Johnson would jab at his opponents to set up his other punches and keep his opponents far away. He would also double and triple up on his jabs, which would confuse boxers who would expect a jab, right hand combination. Ali’s jab is also one of the best ever. George Foreman commented in his book that he could barely see it, let alone block it. Bob Foster also commented that he could not see Ali’s hands at all. Ali would use different jabs depending on the situation. He would throw jabs like a clip of bullets at his opponents to blind them for the coming right hand. Ali would also throw jabs from waist level, so that it would be hidden from view until it landed. Ali knew how to throw a jab with power, so that an opponent would be stunned and unable to respond.
Both men were proficient at the clinch, and made it an art form. In fact, they were arguably the two best heavyweights at clinching, and this ability helped power them to victory. In Jack Johnson’s case, he would hold his opponents head, while using his free hand to throw uppercuts. He would use the clinch to maneuver opponents so that he could punch on the inside. Ali would use the clinch to break up attacks on the inside, as well as conserve his energy. Against Foreman, he would pull his head down, and Foreman did not have a response. So Foreman would have to use energy to break the clinch which wore him down further.
Both Ali and Johnson’s defense rank among the top of the division. Johnson is considered to have the best defense of all the heavyweights. There would be fights that he was not hit, and opposing fighters struggled to land consistently against him. Jim Jeffries, who twice knocked out the elusive Corbett, was unable to hit Johnson with anything substantive. Johnson embraced a wide plethora of defensive techniques. The parry and block were especially popular. He was adept at blocking jabs with his rear hand, so that he could counter. He also had good head movement. He could duck, slip and lean back. In Johnson’s case, he would lean back while standing still, then come back and counter. Ali’s defense was primarily his legs, but he also used his guard at times. He would circle to the left and to the right, and his speed was such that opponents had a hard time catching up with him. He would also use his guard, as in the Foreman fight. But he did not typically use the hand evasions that Johnson used. Ali would also lean back, but he could lean back while moving, as in the Liston fight, while standing still, as he did with Frazier, or on the ropes, as he did with great success against Foreman. Both were defensive masters, and Nat Fleischer ranked Johnson 1st and Ali 2nd in defensive technique.