A Brief History
On July 4, 1910, heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, an African-American, knocked out former champion Jim Jeffries, a white man, to become the premier boxer in the world. An indication of the state of racial relations in the US at that time were the riots that broke out across the country in response!
Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, a title he earned in 1908. He had grown up in Texas, a former slave state in the deepest South, and faced racial prejudice at every turn, including being denied a championship fight for years. After being jailed for prize fighting in 1901 (fighting for money being against the law) for 23 days, Johnson claimed he learned most of his boxing skills in jail from the man that had knocked him out, Joe Choynski, who became Johnson’s friend and coach.
Johnson reached his peak in the ring in the championship bout with former undefeated heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries. Jeffries had been retired for 6 years and was farming when drafted for the fight. Showing no interest in boxing, Jeffries was swayed by the astronomical (for the time) sum of $120,000. Jeffries was also grossly overweight, and had to lose a whopping 100 pounds in order to fight. Despite these facts, and the firm belief of former champ John L. Sullivan that Johnson would easily win, betting odds favored Jeffries and white people enthusiastically rooted for the “Great White Hope” of their day.
Oddly enough, Johnson refused to fight any “colored” opponents for the first 5 years after winning the title in 1908, enraging potential black opponents and offending African-Americans. When he did finally box another black fighter, Jim Johnson, in 1913, it was the first heavyweight championship fight in history between 2 African-Americans. He lost his title in 1915 to Jess Willard in an epic 26 round bout.
Johnson’s playboy lifestyle disappointed black civil rights advocates and irritated white people. His penchant for white women (all 3 of his wives were white) especially earned the ire of white men, and resulted in trumped up charges under the Mann Act. Convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson fled to Canada and then France, returning to the US in 1920 to serve his sentence.
Johnson fought all the way to the age of 60 in 1938 (an exhibition at age 67 not being a real fight) and died in a car wreck in 1946 at age 68. He had sped off in anger after being refused service at a whites only diner.
A tragic figure, Johnson found great victory and great defeat like his idol, Napoleon Bonaparte, and died rejected like the Emperor. Unlike Napoleon, Johnson had made records, written 2 books, and owned a night club. Like Napoleon, frequent references are made to Johnson in books, songs, films and plays. Muhammad Ali is said to have related to the racial tribulations of Johnson, and of course Johnson is enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite heavyweight boxer? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ali, Muhammad and Sal Fradella. Jack Johnson: They Didn’t Know It Could Be Done. Branden Books, 2016.
Unforgivable Blackness – The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. PBS, 2005. DVD.