"Ou sont les negres d'antan?" ("Where are the blacks of yesteryear?")

Ernest Hemingway

HEMINGWAY'S LAMENT, modified from Villon,

was for the breed of black boxers--Jack Johnson, Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey, and others--forced to fight in Europe from 1900 to 1915 because of the color bar in America. Overshadowing all of them was Jack Johnson.

Roberts begins this biography--the best yet on its subject and one of the finest in the entire sports genre--by writing that the biggest things in Jack Johnson's life were boxing, fast cars, and white women. He doesn't list them in priority order, though his title "Papa Jack" ("the best lover and talker and boxer in the world") reflects a bias toward Johnson's sex life.

But Johnson's real life was boxing, only garnished with women and punctuated and ended by fast cars. The son of an ex-slave born in Galveston, he breathed and loved boxing, its craft and guile and decisiveness, and merely used the women and the cars to consume dollars won and the excess energy unused in rings he so completely dominated. For Johnson was the greatest heavy of the glove era. He toyed with Jim Jeffries, Bob Fitzsimmons, Frank Moran, and the rest of the big 'uns. Jack Dempsey, who wouldn't fight blacks and seldom complimented black or white, said the farther back you went the tougher they were--and Johnson was the toughest of the old timers. "He was all elbows and arms, the greatest catcher of punches who ever lived. He could uppercut moving backward and could cut to the body off a jaw feint and hook off a jab better than any heavyweight who ever lived." Nat Fleischer, Ace Hudkins, Uncle Joe Woodman, Damon Runyon and a host of other boxing aficionados would agree.

Roberts, a historian, is superb on Johnson the fighter-- he apprenticed on the tradecraft in a previous book, Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler (1979)--though he underrates him as a puncher. Johnson could take you out with one punch when his dudgeon was disturbed. Stan Ketchel, the best middleweight of all time, a slugger the fancy called "an Indian uprising," deviated from the script in an accommodation match and decked Johnson, only to be knocked unconscious for a half hour by the enraged black bouncing up from the canvas. True, his KO rate (40 percent) didn't approach Sullivan's (71 percent), but Johnson was a black who would never have been tolerated--as Joe Louis was a generation later when the color bar was crumbling--had he knocked out every white he met. So he carried many of them, in the process honing his defensive skills to the point where for fun he could stand on a handkerchief and you couldn't touch his head with your shot.

And I would argue with Roberts' belief that Jess Willard beat Johnson in 1915. This was the ultimate accommodation, the price that Johnson had to pay to reenter the United States, from which he'd fled on a morals charge in 1913. Two proofs: (1) an unconscious fighter does not take the count while shielding his eyes from the hot Havana sun, and (2) Willard, the most gauche heavy before Carnera, could never, even in dreams, have coped with Johnson, not with his suspect courage--against Joe Cox, he actually hid behind the referee Ma la Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.

Still, the boxing side of the man is wonderfully done in vivid prose (in the only slow round against Fitzsimmons, Roberts writes that "Johnson watched Fitzsimmons watch him"). He catches the growing vexation as Jack London rants, and scouts are sent throughout the world--one, presumably for a yellow hope, even went to China--for a white hope to give the black his comeuppance. But "Li'l Artha," a name truer to Johnson the boxer than "Papa Jack," cuts them down like wheat and off-hours further spites them by cavorting with their women-folk. Never mind that most of them were prostitutes and that the tales of his sexual prowess were outrageous outsize (one reporter who claimed to have counted nine women going into his apartment in an eight-hour period, once asked him about his recipe for staying in there, and Johnson replied, "Fried eels and distant thoughts"), the whites didn't like it. He didn't help his case by marrying two of them and trying to move into the white slice of life. In 1913 the Feds fabricated a morals charge against him, and he was sentenced to a year in the jug which he beat by decamping to Europe.

His European period, interrupted by World War I, was a downer--one of his fights there was with the Dadaist, Arthur Craven, who was known to deliver lectures in a jockstrap--and he was glad enough to return via Willard and Havana in 1915 to serve his year in jail. After that it was all downhill, working carnivals for peanuts. In company with three others, I saw him at his nadir in a Los Angeles sideshow for 25 cents in 1943, big, smiling, still powerful; Li'l Artha, not Papa Jack. Two years later he was dead in a car crash outside Raleigh, North Carolina. Someday a writer may come along who'll dig deeper and do better on the complex, fascinating man who with his fists helped bring down the color barrier in this country. Until then, Roberts' book will stand as a small model of biographic art.