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.