27.02.07 – By Sam Gregory: Having the distinction of being the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson was one of the most intriguing boxers of any era. Born Jack Arthur Johnson on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas, it was a time in this country when black athletes were forbidden to compete with white athletes. Johnson dared to break through color barriers and did it decades before Jackie Robinson set foot on a baseball field.
Known as the “Galveston Giant”, Johnson was the son of a former slave; he grew up in a town in Texas where it wasn’t legal for blacks to walk on the same side of the street as white people. With all odds stacked against him, Johnson turned boxing pro in 1897 embarking on a career that would leave behind a legacy unparalleled by most athletes of any color.
Records at the time were sketchy at best, so quotes from fighters and/or people that were there and what were considered recorded fights didn’t always coincide. This was due largely to the fact that boxing at the time was still a few decades away from becoming a legal sport so even some of the greatest fights of the era weren’t formally recorded.
In Johnson’s first professional fight he scored a forth round knockout over another black heavyweight by the name of Jim Rocks in 1897. Johnson recorded several wins over the next few years before losing his first fight to west coast champion Joe Choynski. Since boxing was illegal at the time, police raided the fight and the two men were jailed together. While in jail, Choynski helped Johnson hone his skills as a fighter and taught him ring tactics. After being released from jail, Johnson fought several more fights until winning a twenty-round decision over Denver Ed Martin in 1903 for the black heavyweight championship of the world. Johnson went on to defend that title four times in the following two years.
In the early 1900’s Jack Johnson earned a reputation for being one of the toughest and strongest heavyweights in the sport. He stood six feet one-quarter inch, and tipped the scales at 210 pounds. He was considered a “tantalizing performer” with great ‘ring science’ as it was called in those days, ring generalship would be the term used today. It’s also been said that Johnson was a master of the art of feinting. Many experts today consider feinting to be a lost art.
He also possessed a stiff jab and was considered one of the hardest pound for pound punchers of any era. His boxing skills were so good it was said he had a perfect stance. By this time in his career he was considered to be at the top of the boxing game, for any man black or white.
At this time in history, Canadian Tommy Burns was universally recognized as the heavyweight champion of the world, having cleared the field of all heavyweights, Burns took on all challengers from all parts of the world with success.
Johnson contested Burns to have the right to the heavyweight crown and put out a challenge to fight Burns at any time any where. Knowing of the black heavyweight’s skill in the ring Burns seemed to avoid the challenge. Johnson followed burns literally all over the world to settle the matter of supremacy. Often times Johnson sat ringside at Burns’ fights heckling the champion attempting to anger him into a fight. Johnson followed the champion to Australia where Burns finally agreed to a fight in 1908.
Had it not been for a guarantee of $30,000 for Burns to take the fight, it might have never taken place. On Boxing Day, December 26, 1908 at Rushcutter’s Bay in Sydney, the two fought for fourteen rounds before the police broke up the fight with Johnson clearly dominating the entire event.
At the time $30,000 was considered a huge sum of money for a prize fighter, it was the largest amount ever paid to any fighter up to that point in time; it was also the start of an era in which boxers would begin collecting millions for their efforts in the ring.
Thanks in part to promoting legion Tex Richard, that fight helped pave the way for such pugilistic greats as Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and Joe Louis to generate millions in the boxing ring.
Following his victory in Australia, the now legendary black heavyweight fought Victor McLaglen, the movie actor; Philadelphia Jack O’Brien and Al Kaufman, winning each of the fights easily, not to mention a second round knockout of light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons. Than came the historic battle with middleweight world champion Stanley Ketchel. Before the fight, a deal was made whereby there would be no knockdown in the fight. Ketchel, seeing an opening, landed a powerful shot to Johnson’s jaw dropping the heavyweight in the twelfth round. Johnson, clearly angry about the incident quickly jumped up and landed a powerful left uppercut to the jaw of Ketchel knocking him down for the count.
Following that fight promoters began scouting the world for a Caucasian to de-thrown Johnson, whose escapades and marriages to white woman had turned the public in this country against him. It wasn’t long after that Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act. (Johnson was charged with crossing the state line with a white woman in his car). A quick conviction landed Johnson in Leavenworth Prison for a one year stretch. Upon release from prison Johnson decided to call Europe home and later South America; while promoters continued searching for a Caucasian fighter to keep the man they referred to as “a wily Negro” from being heavyweight champion of the world. Before going overseas, Johnson had one last important fight in the States. Former champion James J. Jeffries had been talked out of retirement for a fight with Johnson to win back the heavyweight title for the Caucasian race. The fight was put together by non-other than the infamous promoter Tex Rickard, where Rickard was also to serve as referee, to be held in Reno, Nevada on the 4th of July, 1910.
Johnson retained the title by knocking out Jeffries, who lost over 100 lbs in preparation for the fight, in round 15. The reign of Jack Johnson lasted from 1908 until April 5, 1915. At the age of 37, Johnson lost the title to Jess Willard in 26 rounds in Havana, Cuba. Johnson later returned to the U.S. after turning himself in to the authorities at the Mexican border. Johnson served his time in prison when upon his release he continued fighting in exhibition bouts until as late as 1945. Those dates of course, where according to statistics keep at the time. The fact is, according to boxing historians, enthusiast’s, and fans in general, Jack Johnson is considered one of the greatest heavyweights of any era.
He died tragically in a car accident June 10, 1946. Jack Johnson was inducted into the boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.