David Adam

Augusta man managed boxer who dethroned Jack Johnson

Books Johnson Memoir
Boxers Jess Willard, top, and Jack Johnson, appear in a heavyweight championship bout, in Havana, Cuba, April 5, 1915. Willard knocked out Johnson in the 26th round to win the bout and title from Johnson. | AP Photo, File
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 10, 2018 8:45 am Updated: Jul. 11, 2018 7:11 am

Jack Johnson will forever be remembered as the first black heavyweight boxing champion, holding the title from 1908 to 1915.

He also became part of the history of racism in America.

Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, which was enacted in 1910 and prohibited the transportation for immoral purposes of women and girls. He was charged with transported a white woman across state lines. The woman, Belle Schreiber, worked as a prostitute and was one of the heavyweight champion's many lovers.

Tom Jones | Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

He was sentenced to a year in prison, but he fled the country and fought boxing matches abroad for seven years until 1920 when he served a 10-month sentence at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan.

Johnson's past was brought to light recently when President Trump signed an order in May pardoning the former champion.

One person who played a small part in Johnson's past was Tom E. Jones, who was born in Augusta, Ill., and trained the man who ended Johnson's reign as champion.

Local author Brent Engel wrote extensively about Jones in his 2017 book, "A Few More Augusta Stories."

Engel noted that Jones started his boxing career as the manager of middleweight Billy Papke, known as the Illinois Thunderbolt. He was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001. Jones also trained Ad Wolgast, a lightweight who defended the world championship four times in the early 1900s. Wolgast fought an exhibition in October 1912 in Quincy.

However, Jones became best known for being the manager of Jess Willard, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound cowboy from Kansas. He started fighting in 1911, and Jones signed him in 1913.

Willard was dubbed "The Great White Hope," and boxing promoters had been looking for someone to dethrone Johnson.

Willard dodged controversy twice in 1913, first for being awarded a victory over "Gunboat" Smith when several observers at ringside thought he lost. He later knocked out John Young, who died hours later because of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by Young's head hitting the mat. He was charged with second-degree murder a week later, but a jury acquitted Willard in January 1914.

Jones then spent eight months after the trial trying to set up a match between Willard and Johnson. The fighters finally agreed to meet on March 17, 1915 in Juarez, Mexico, but Johnson later asked (and Willard agreed) to have the fight moved to April 5 at a racetrack in Havana, Cuba.

Johnson, a big favorite, and Willard fought in 105-degree heat. The Los Angeles Herald reported that Johnson, who was older and a bit out of shape, started to tire in the 22nd round. Johnson asked his wife, who was sitting at ringside, to leave at the end of the 24th round. Willard landed a sweeping right in the next round, and Johnson went down for the count.

Willard was the new champion.

Johnson later claimed he took a dive in exchange for $50,000. Jones told the Quincy Daily Journal in March 1919 that "what Johnson says is absolutely the worst kind of bosh."

United Press writer Barry Faris attended the fight and gave Jones credit.

"It cost him $34,000 during the last three years alone, seeing and believing in Willard's ability when the champion was in the rough," Faris wrote. "Jones grabbed him and, tediously and patiently, stuck by Willard until he developed."

Faris also wrote that Jones was "the experienced hand which guided Willard and fashioned him into the skilled offensive and defensive fighter which utterly amazed many spectators (at Havana). Jones was also the mastermind who planned and directed the whole course of battle, with Willard minutely following instructions and never being in danger at any stage of the fighting."

Johnson never fought again for the title, though he boxed until he was 67 years old. He died in 1946 when he was killed in a car accident.

Willard split with Jones in 1917 and defended his title just once in four years before losing to Jack Dempsey in 1919.

Jones went on to manage several other fighters, including Sailor Bozarth from Quincy. He died of pneumonia in San Diego in 1944.