The forgotten story of … Jack Johnson’s fight with Oscar Wilde’s poet nephew

When the first black heavyweight world champion took on Oscar Wildes nephew in the ring two very different and compelling figures collided

On 23 April 1916, a boxing match took place in Barcelona, between Jack Johnson and Arthur Cravan. In sporting terms it ran for six unmemorable rounds, was a terrible mismatch, and barely registers as a footnote in Johnsons remarkable career but as a moment when two fascinating cultural trajectories crossed each others paths, it deserves recognition.

Johnson was the former champion of the world and the first black man to win the title. But he was, and is, just as important as a cultural lightning rod whose Unforgivable Blackness (the title of Geoffrey C Wards biography and Ken Burns eponymous documentary) infuriated white America.

Johnson loved pursuing women and racing fast cars with equal recklessness, possessed a ready deadpan wit whose subtleties slipped past many of the cultural guardians of the time, and a smile he had a habit of flashing at the infuriated trainers and fans of the hapless white champions sent out to put him in his place usually as he put them in theirs. When Johnson had beaten the first Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries, in what was considered a referendum on racial supremacy billed as the fight of the century, on 4 July 1910 (and not only beaten him but toyed with him cheerfully), race riots had broken out across America in the aftermath.

Cravan, meanwhile, was a poet, often grouped in with the Dadaists (he would later feature in the book Four Dada Suicides), though his particular individual brand of studied obnoxiousness in the face of societal malaise was much more his own manifesto than representative of any movement. A nephew of Oscar Wilde, born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd to wealthy parents in Lausanne, Cravan could have seen out his life as a prototypical trust fund kid, were it not for a trait, possibly inherited from his uncle, of running his mouth into trouble.

In many ways both Johnson and Cravan shared a certain modernist restlessness lives striving to reach a kind of terminal velocity that might outrun the fate their births had decreed for them. As biographer Ian Carr would later say of Miles Davis, around the time the musician was recording his own tribute to Johnson, both men beat against the limit of their talents Johnson with pugilistic guile and the daring to be himself in his own hostile country; Cravan repeatedly hurling himself into trouble of his own making as if to see what it looked like.

Both would die sudden deaths freighted with symbolism appropriate to the way they had lived their lives: Johnson in a 1946 car crash, after speeding angrily away from a segregated diner outside Franklinton, North Carolina, that had refused him service; Cravan disappearing in a small sailboat in a storm off the Gulf of Mexico, only to resurface in numerous conspiracy theories that he had faked his own death.

But on a cloudy April 1916 afternoon in Barcelona, the day after the city had celebrated the 300th anniversary of Miguel Cervantes death, both men were preoccupied less with what windmill to tilt at next, and more with the impasses at which they both found themselves.

Both were near broke, for a start. The reason Johnson was in Barcelona in the first place led back to him fleeing trumped up US federal charges of transporting (white) women across state lines for immoral purposes, in violation of the recently drafted, staunchly segregationist, Mann Act. In the political atmosphere of the time, if Johnson beating up white men was an affront to white supremacy, his insistence on consorting with white women was intolerable.

Having escaped via Canada, a distracted Johnson had lost his title to the unremarkable but durable Jess Willard in Havana (think Buster Douglas hanging in to knock out Mike Tyson in Tokyo) a year before the Barcelona fight. Now he was in exile in Europe, holding court where he could, scuffling for money with exhibition bouts and deferring the inevitable return to America and the resumption of his prison sentence.

Upon his arrival in Barcelona, Johnson had formed an ill-fated advertising agency based on La Rambla, with the intriguingly contemporary title of The Information Jack Johnson & Co. Clients were few and far between, while local derision was in plentiful supply. Johnson was perhaps the last to realize that his loss to Willard (which he claimed for ever after to be a thrown fight) had markedly diminished his worth, and he had dwindling creditors to turn to. Those who asked for payments would be met with a dismissive Maana! Maana! and a derisive comment at their departing backs to the effect of Imagine asking the champion of the world to pay! But beyond the bravado, Johnson knew his options were running out.

Cravan, meanwhile, was fleeing both conscription and his own reputation. In Paris, he had been the editor of a literary magazine called Maintenant!.Lest that conjure up images of a genteel existence, Cravan had insisted on aggressively hawking the magazine from a greengrocers cart, and each of the five issues published in its brief existence was ripe with the poets entertaining but thoroughly scurrilous insults to the literary establishment. By the time Cravan left Paris it was primarily to avoid conscription into the British army (he famously held multiple passports, but few inclinations to defend any of the countries that printed them), but his departure may also have been hastened by the likes of the aggrieved poet Guillaume Apollinaire looking to fight him in a duel, after one ribald insult too far.

Cravans plan was to see out the war in America, helping support himself through boxing as he put it Id rather break American jaws than face German bayonets. After leaving Paris, hed made it as far as neutral territory in Barcelona, but lacked the funds for the voyage to America. His parentally funded apartment in Paris was gone, his poetry was decidedly uncommercial, but there was, he reasoned, money in boxing.

A poster advertising the fight between Arthur Cravan and Jack Johnson. Photograph: Public Domain

The problem was that despite his billing against Johnson as European Champion, Cravans claim to that title makes the modern day world of multiple belts and governing bodies look like a golden era.

When hed lived in Paris, Cravan had hung out with a loose circuit of bohemians, criminals and sports at the Bal Bullier ballroom, which was where hed first come across Johnson, passing through town with his wife Lucille. Whether the sighting had directly inspired him or not, around this time Cravan started taking lessons with a boxer named Fernand Cuny.

Eventually, Cravan entered a competition for rookie boxers and when nobody else showed up, he became, by acclamation, the light-heavyweight champion of France, without ever throwing a punch. By the time hed got to Barcelona he had parlayed that title into becoming European Champion (much of Europe being busy elsewhere in the spring of 1916) and commenced making a living as a boxing instructor at the citys Marine Club.

Cravan was still struggling to make the kind of money that would get him to America, however. So when he heard that a local promoter was looking for challengers to face Johnson, he volunteered.

As reckless as that was, Cravan was banking on the fight being fixed and in playing his part to uphold a spectacle without being hurt. The fight in Barcelona legally had to be billed as an exhibition the local chief of police, Bravo Portillo, would actually appear in the ring before the bout began to remind the competitors to limit their attacks but there was a tacit understanding among the crowd that they would be seeing a real contest. Superseding that convention though, there was an understanding among the fighters that, while this would be a contest, the priority was to get paid, and that meant making the fight look good for the cameras.

For a fight to truly make money, the film rights were paramount and the fight in Barcelona was to be filmed by the team of Ricard de Baos and his brother/camera operator Ramn. Ideally they would need at least six rounds of good boxing, preferably nearer 10, to make a saleable film. In that spirit, Cravan hoped to be more of a collaborator than an opponent.

Jack Johnson in action in 1910. Photograph: PA

Johnson was more than comfortable with this arrangement a showman in and out of the ring, he was used to carrying inferior opponents for the purposes of entertainment, before dropping them when it came time to truly fight. One of his more famous fights had seen him fight his friend, the great middleweight Stanley Ketchel, only for Ketchel, who sensed an unguarded moment and a chance to steal Johnsons thunder, to throw a huge punch that knocked Johnson to the ground. An aggrieved Johnson left the ring with two of Ketchels teeth embedded in his glove, after fashioning a quick and climactic response to this deviation from the script.

Ketchel though, was a great boxer. Cravan was a chancer and carrying him would require considerable effort. Still Johnson and Ricard hoped to concoct and sell something like a fight.

The venue was the newly built Plaza de Baos Monumental a bullring which still stands near La Sagrada Familia. Its open air, light-filled form supposedly lent itself well to Ricards planned shoot, and he duly positioned six cameras around the ring and the arena, but the elements had other plans.

The undercard started in the heat of the afternoon, with one of Johnsons entourage, the aptly named Kid Johnson, taking on Gus Rhodes. But barely two indolent rounds into that fight, Ramn came rushing up to Ricard to tell him that cloud cover was closing in. If Johnson and Cravan didnt get to the ring immediately there would not be enough light to shoot.

Word was swiftly dispatched to ringside and to the dressing rooms, and a fight duly broke out in the ring, as Rhodes and Kid Johnson swapped spirited blows in an exchange that would conveniently leave Johnson unable to continue at the end of round four.

Skipping the next two fights on the undercard, and indeed the arrival of many of the crowd, Johnson and Cravan were hurried to the ring. Cravan, in white shorts and a white bathrobe, was visibly trembling as he was led to the ring by his brother Otho, and had to be helped onto a stool to have his gloves placed on him. Perhaps the reality of his scam was just hitting him, or perhaps hed taken seriously a throwaway remark from Johnson that he intended to beat him up.

Johnson, in his customary black shorts and a natty striped bathrobe, relaxed in the other corner, grinning his customary grin, even as he glanced anxiously between Ricard and a still largely empty arena.

After Bravos warning the Chilean referee, Tony Berton, called the fighters together, with Cravan still shaking. The bell rang, and it swiftly became apparent that the weather was the least of Ricards problems. What was unfolding in front of him was a disaster. Cravan, frozen, simply would not fight. He covered up his head and appeared to be huddling into a bemused Johnson for protection, as the champion tried to push him off into punching range.

The crowd, whod been led to expect a credible European challenge to Johnson were first bemused, then restless. Johnson was equally bemused, but then took to openly laughing at his opponent. This in itself was not unusual Jeffries had been cheerfully trash-talked to his fate, and the man Johnson beat to win the title, Tommy Burns, had lost his title being chastised like a schoolboy (Poor, poor, Tommy. Who taught you to hit? Your mother?). When the history of braggadocio comes to be written, Johnson will have his own chapter. But as Cravan was all too aware, Johnson had the skills to back up his words, and even the great mans open mockery could not pull him out of his shell.

Finally, Johnson had had enough. After carrying Cravan for six rounds he glanced at Ricard to see if he had enough film, and with Ricard gesturing helplessly that what he had was useless, Johnson threw a big punch that flattened Cravan. As the ring cleared, the crowd jeered and a few chairs were thrown, before Bravos heavy police presence moved in to quell the trouble. And as Johnson and Cravan slipped out of the building, the remaining undercard played out to a resentful but largely quiet crowd.

Johnson and Cravan would cross paths again, briefly. When the USA entered the war a year later, Cravan helped make arrangements to get Johnson to the US consulate in Madrid, where the fugitive boxer somehow persuaded the then US consul to pay his expenses to monitor German boat movements through the notionally neutral Spanish ports, using his touring variety show as cover.

Cravan did eventually make it to New York, where in typical fashion he instantly alienated a significant part of the local intellectual life. Falling in with the artist Marcel Duchamps circle, he was invited to deliver a lecture at a salon soon after his arrival in the city. The supposed subject was humor, or entropy depending on who you ask, but it barely mattered, since Cravan turned up drunk, got drunker, stripped naked and offered to fight everyone there startled aesthetes being more his speed than true heavyweight champions.

From there Cravan charmed then married the modernist poet Mina Loy, and while honeymooning with a pregnant Loy in Salina Cruz, Mexico, in November 1918, he disappeared in their sailboat and was presumed drowned.

Cravans story doesnt end there though he became a minor romantic idol of various avant-garde movements for his life-as-art antics, and even a pioneer of the Elvis-sightings trope when rumors circulated that he had faked his own death, just as he had once claimed his uncle, Oscar Wilde had done (Cravans first public appearance in the US was actually in a New York Times article devoted to this claim, first published in Maintenant!). There was even speculation that the reclusive writer B Traven, author of The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was actually Cravan. Like many of the claims and anecdotes that attached themselves to Cravan, it was long on front and short on substance.

Johnson meanwhile, eventually surrendered to US authorities and served his sentence a motion for him to be pardoned passed through Congress in December 2015, and is awaiting review by President Obama. There was to be no post-prison redemption for Johnson in the ring though the racist boxing scene had closed up again since his days as an unstoppable iconoclast, and the more subdued popular presence of Joe Louis would soon come to represent the acceptable face of the successful black boxer, much to Johnsons irritation.

Johnson spent much of the rest of his life in popular obscurity and despite the circumstances of his violent death, for a black man who had unapologetically provoked all he had in white America, that in itself was a triumph of sorts.

And his story, too, was not done. In many ways it was only after his death that Johnson would come to be truly appreciated for who and what he was. Fittingly it was often geniuses of black culture who understood only too well the significance of Johnsons own particular genius for both his craft and for performing a kind of avant-garde version of black personhood that daringly used white supremacy as its backdrop rather than its limit.

There is Miles Daviss propulsive/forlorn A Tribute to Jack Johnsonand Daviss marveling at Johnson in the sleeve notes (Johnson portrayed Freedom it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion) ; there is the recurring image, both bathetic and heroic, of King Jack Johnson in Jean-Michel Basquiats work; James Earl Jones noble portrayal of Johnson in Howard Sacklers play, The Great White Hope; and of course theres the way Muhammad Ali adapted then refined Johnsons position as provocateur-in-chief. Alis second, Drew Bundini Brown, used to yell, Ghost in the house! Ghost in the house! Jack Johnsons here! Ghost in the house! from the corner before key Ali fights, and Ali himself was acutely aware of the sporting legacy and cultural blueprint set down by Johnson.

Partly through these tributes and insights, partly through the imperatives of the times, one hundred years on from that fight in Barcelona, Jack Johnson has been celebrated and re-examined as a man ahead of his time and a trailblazer for black lives too urgent to wait politely for white society to accommodate around them.

As Arthur Cravan put it in one of his more printable quotes, Every great artist has the sense of provocation. Johnson was the kind of artist Cravan could only dream of being.

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