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

Once only allowed to fight for the 'Colored title', Johnson overcame multiple hurdles to become the first black heavyweight world champion.

Above all other sports, boxing possesses a unique ability to produce the planet's most remarkable and memorable sporting personalities.

From Muhammad Ali to Tyson Fury today, the sport's history is littered with boxing champions who shook up the world with more than just the throwing of their fists.

One such fighting giant, and one of the first of those legendary personalities that would emerge in the sport, was the notorious Jack Johnson.

Heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915, Johnson was the first African American to hold the heavyweight title and is considered the best of the big guys from the early part of the 20th century.

While his skills and achievements were undoubtedly considerable, it was his life outside of the ring that ensured his status as one of boxing's most memorable figures.

While racism has rarely seemed more pertinent in society than it is in 2021, a step back in time to the era of Johnson's reign as champion reveals even worse levels of injustice endured by America.

An unpopular champion

The abolishment of slavery in 1865 notwithstanding, racism remained a constant in American life - and still continues today for that matter.

Having become the sport's first black heavyweight champion at the height of the repressive Jim Crow laws in defeating Tommy Burns in 1908, Johnson would become a figure of hatred and disdain for a country that still considered the black race vastly inferior.

In taking the heavyweight crown, Johnson had brought shame and humiliation to white America.

Indeed, a century later, it is nigh on impossible to truly convey the sense of shock and disapproval that greeted Johnson's victory.

Even supposedly more liberal newspapers like the New York Times were shameless in their disparagement of the new champion.

Quite simply, racism remained rampant in the US and black people were not supposed to be superior to whites in any sphere, let alone as heavyweight champion of the world.

While much of the gleam has been lost from the heavyweight title throughout the years, it is important to understand just how much prestige and status was afforded to the holder of the title in generations gone by.

For the public, it was simply unacceptable for an African American to achieve such a position and as such. His reign as champion was never supposed to last as long as it did.

The search for a 'Great White Hope'

Most fans and writers believed Johnson would quickly lose his crown and soon after his fine win over previous title-holder Burns, the white American press would begin a race to find a fighter more befitting of the title.

Well, in their eyes, at least. The search for a 'Great White Hope' - someone who could dethrone the derided and unappealing champion - had began.

However, "The Texan" hadn't read the script, making quick work of his first four title defences, including a dominant victory over world middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel.

Despite making the huge jump in weight, Ketchel managed to floor Johnson, but the champion quickly responded by delivering a vicious KO that left the stricken challenger requiring some painful dental work.

The search for another "White Hope" was running low on contenders, but former champion James J Jeffries, who had retired undefeated in 1904, was seen as someone who could wrestle the crown back into the hands of white America.

Jeffries had avoided Johnson as a challenger during his own reign yet was still considered the best candidate to face Johnson. Ending his six-year exile from outside of the ring, at 36, Jeffries was no longer the same fighter and got stopped inside 15 rounds.

Jack Johnson defeated James J Jeffries, who was regarded as the 'Great White Hope', by knockout in the 15th round
Jack Johnson defeated James J Jeffries, who was regarded as the 'Great White Hope', by knockout in the 15th round

Jubilation turns into chaotic violence

The victory would enrage white supporters who had pinned their hopes on Jeffries ending Johnson's run as champion and on that night, 26 African-Americans would lose their lives at the hands of lynch mobs across six different states, including New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

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, a gang of 1,000 white men in Clarksburg, Virginia, chased 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.

While holding the title would certainly have been sufficient for Johnson to become a figure of hatred for much of the country, it was his lifestyle and refusal to accept the deluge of scorn and racism that rained down on him which added to his notorious personality.

Known as a fun-loving, larger than life character, Johnson would both date and marry white women - a concept considered shameful and highly irregular at the time.

His status as champion and refusal to live according to society's expectations of a black man ensured his position as the country's most loathed African American at the time, something he seemed to thrive off.

Charismatic and controversial

Articulate, intelligent and highly ambitious, Johnson would never consider his skin colour a detriment in his pursuit of success and happiness.

Suffering appalling discrimination and death threats as well as a long-running persecution by the US government, Johnson would stand tall in the face of adversity.

Boasting wealth, good looks and powerful status as the world heavyweight champion, Johnson was known to race cars down public streets and, when stopped by white policemen, would offer them a fist full of dollars telling them, in his own indomitable style, 'keep the change'.

Unashamed and brazen, Johnson was an individual who tore up the rule book. Now considered a trailblazer and pioneer, "The Texan" followed his own script, refusing to allow the racism that stalked him to alter either his ego or personality.

Both in and outside the ring, Johnson was never far from controversy. He was known to mock and taunt his white opponents (albeit in the face of merciless hostility from a baying audience).

He made his own deals without any white management and derided and largely refused to fight black opponents during his reign as champion.

Ultimately though, it was Johnson's refusal to toe the line that would lead to his downfall.

Having infuriated white America, Johnson would become the target of numerous criminal investigations and was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury for a shaky prostitution case.

Sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson would instead flee the US, first to Canada and then to Europe, where he would defend the title on two occasions, including a successful defence in the first-ever all-black heavyweight championship bout against 'Battling' Jim Johnson.

"The Galveston Giant" would continue to reign supreme at the top of the division until 1915 before relinquishing his title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba, who knocked him out in the 26th round.

While Johnson would later claim this fight to be fixed and that he had taken a dive, footage of the bout that would surface in the years to come suggested otherwise.

Willard remarked some years later, "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there."

In exile following his conviction, Johnson would return to the US in 1919 to serve one year in prison for violating the Mann Act against 'transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes' from his relationship with Lucille Cameron.

More 100 years on, Johnson would receive a posthumous pardon from President Trump in 2018.

Jack Johnson's racially tainted criminal conviction in 1913 was pardoned by President Trump in 2018 alongside Deontay Wilder and Lennox Lewis
Jack Johnson's racially tainted criminal conviction in 1913 was pardoned by President Trump in 2018 alongside Deontay Wilder and Lennox Lewis

Following on from serving his sentence, Johnson continued to fight for another 15 years before retiring with a 54-11-7 record. He was never given the opportunity to become a two-time heavyweight champion.

An extraordinary individual

During his six-year reign as champion, Johnson's victories brought immense pride to millions of African Americans but simultaneously sparked race riots in which many were injured and killed.

Despite being an undeniably skilled and brilliant boxer, Johnson chose to represent his people only in example.

Unable to express solidarity with his fellow African Americans, Johnson would avoid any attempts of making himself a figurehead for his people and offered little to help other black fighters.

Certainly, his individualism made him a genuinely memorable human being and one of the greatest characters ever to lace up the gloves, but Johnson could not be compared to other black athletes like Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick today who, in their own different ways, went to extraordinary lengths to fight for racial equality.

It is perhaps understandable that in those days, the valour required to go further would perhaps have resulted in too much of a personal sacrifice for a man who embraced the wealth and opportunity his reign as heavyweight champion afforded him.

The likes of Ali, Joe Frazier and Anthony Joshua have all spoken about their admiration for Johnson though, who paved the way for black fighters to compete in boxing's biggest fights.

Ultimately though, Johnson was an extraordinary man who lived in exceptional times. The first black heavyweight champion, who rose improbably to the height of the sport, firmly established his place in the archives of boxing's greatest fighters and personalities.

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