The history of black boxing: How Len Johnson and Jack Johnson broke down barriers

From Lee Johnson and Dick Turpin breaking barriers to Jack Johnson becoming the first black heavyweight champion, in part one Planet Sport celebrates the history of black boxing.

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They all won the famous Lonsdale belt - otherwise known as the British title. However, it could have been so different for the quartet had they fought in the early 20th Century.

Len Johnson, who won 92 fights from 127 bouts, was never given the chance to challenge for the title because of one reason. His skin colour. The decision would be one which had huge ramifications for Johnson, who fled to Australia to win the Empire title - now known as the Commonwealth title in 1926.

Following a brief stint as a professional wrestler, Johnson lost interest in combat sport because of the prejudice he had experienced and retired from the sport.

Roles after boxing included being a member of the Civil Defence heavy Rescue Squad during World War 2, a local civil rights activist, a trade unionist and the co-founder of the New International Society, which campaigned against racism around the world.

Between 1947 and 1962, Johnson joined the Communist Party and represented them as a candidate on six occasions. During his time as a civil rights activist, he helped organise the Pan-African Conference and went on to co-form the 'New International Society' which provided a platform for black political demonstrations in Manchester against racism in the UK and around the world. More than 10,000 people attended a rally organised alongside singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.

Like Johnson, Ritchie "Kid" Tanner was also limited to what they could accomplish because of being black. Regarded as one of Merseyside's best to have laced a pair of gloves, Tanner - born in Guyana - never contended for a world title despite notching up 86 wins and being ranked in the world's top five at featherweight.

When were fighters of colour allowed to fight for the British title?

Dick Turpin

Rule 24 of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofc) - backed the UK prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith - permitted any fighter from winning the title unless they were born to white parents in 1911.

Britain was the only country alongside South Africa to have the ruling in place, something which continued for almost 40 years until the BBBofC amended the rule in 1947 to allow black fighters to contend for the title.

One year later, Dick Turpin - elder brother of Randolph Turpin, who beat Sugar Ray Robinson to become middleweight world champion in 1951 - defeated Vince Hawkins to become the first fighter of colour to win the strap.

The question is, why did it take so long for black fighters to have a chance to win a title when Dick and Randolph's father, Lionel, had arrived in the UK to fight and defend the livelihood of British people during World War One?

Dick's achievement of becoming the first black British champion is something to be cherished. It broke barriers not only in boxing but in society, or we thought it had. Johnson's work as a civil right's activist had a huge contribution towards Dick becoming champion but he as well as many other black fighters were robbed of a decorated career.

Jack Johnson's battle to the top

Black fighters were having problems across the Atlantic in the 20th Century too.

Jack Johnson was unable to contend for the lineal heavyweight championship until 1908 despite being the best fighter in the sport at the time.

Instead, Johnson would defend the 'World Colored' title on numerous occasions before eventually refusing to obey the ruling of being unable to challenge for the lineal heavyweight championship.

The titleholder at the time was James J. Jefferies, who had refused to present the opportunity to Johnson because of the title being too prestigious for black fighters.

Tommy Burns was crowned the new lineal champion after Jeffries had prematurely retired from fighting in the ring. For two years, Johnson followed the Canadian around the world in hope of securing his shot at the title. Johnson got his wish in 1908 when a wealthy promoter offered Burns $30,000 to accept the challenge of Johnson in Sydney, Australia.

The history-making fight, which saw the first white man take on the first black man for the heavyweight title was witnessed in front of 20,000 people at the Sydney Stadium. Johnson dominated proceedings with the fight being stopped by the police in the 14th round to prevent the world from witnessing Burns being knocked out.

Jack Johnson boxing

Often seen sporting a golden hat and crocodile shoes, Johnson's persona outside the ring was just as extraordinary as his skills inside the ring. The pure hatred from white supremacists only seemed to encourage Johnson's antics of not giving a damn and there was nothing anybody could do about it - or was there?

Viewed as the 'Great White Hope', society demanded Jeffries' return to the ring in order for the belt to 'return to the rightful ethnic group'. "The Fight of the Century", which took place in 1910, saw Johnson punch the former champion through the ropes. Jeffries' corner alongside some of the press working at the event, helped to pick him up and get him back into the ring before Johnson inflicted more fury to the man who had previously never been knocked down in his career.

The fight was over in the 15th round and Johnson retained his title. Tex Rickard and John Gleeson promoted the event and reportedly profited around $120,000 from the event.

Jubilation turned into chaos

In New Orleans, the police were forced to intervene after witnessing a group of white people brutally attacking a black man for shouting "Hurrah for Johnson". Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, Virginia, formed a gang of 1,000 white men to chase black people off the streets after they had heard them cheering on Johnson.

Similar situations occurred across other states but the most notable attack was in Houston, where a black man named Charles Williams had both of his ears slashed with knives for celebrating the victory. Forced to flee the country after a racially motivated conviction in 1912, Johnson made two title defences in France and then Cuba, where he would relinquish the title to Jess Willard.

After seven years of fighting in parts of Europe, South America and Mexico, Johnson would return to America and serve a 12-month prison sentence.

Johnson - who Muhammad Ali admitted to being his inspiration growing up - was released in 1921 but would die in a tragic car accident 25 years later. He was the inaugural inductee of the Ring's Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and got inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993.

Johnson was finally pardoned by president Donald Trump in 2018 - 105 years after his original conviction.

Donald Trump pardons Jack Johnson 2018

Part two of celebrating the history of black boxing will be out next week.

Read more: Jack Johnson - Heavyweight's first black champion who paved the way for generations

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