Last on His Feet: Jack Johnson and the Battle of the Century

Liveright: Norton. Feb. 2023. 336p. ISBN 9781631495588. $29.99. BIOG
Creators Matejka (Somebody Else Sold the World) and Daoudi (Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution) present an immersive character-study of one of the most controversial figures in sports history, Jack Johnson. Born in 1878 to parents who were once enslaved, Johnson made his debut as a professional boxer in 1898; just 10 years later, he became the world’s first African American heavyweight champion. Johnson’s quick ascent and defiantly proud, larger-than-life public persona so threatened the white establishment that in 1910, Jim Jefferies, the former undefeated heavyweight champion, agreed to come out of retirement to face Johnson in a match that racists across the country hoped would restore white athletes’ place atop the racial hierarchy. While this hefty tome is ostensibly focused on the ensuing 15-round “Fight of the Century,” Matejka and Daoudi craft a narrative that bobs and weaves up and down the timeline of Johnson’s life to create a portrait of a complicated champion whose legacy has been shaped by those with a vested interest in underplaying his accomplishments for far too long.
VERDICT Lyrical narration and powerfully evocative black-and-white illustration combine for an uncommonly propulsive, completely immersive biography.
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