The first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson dared to crash through the color bar that had created two classes of boxers since the sport's beginnings. A gaudy, bold character who lived just as he wanted, Johnson enraged the defenders of white supremacy with his refusal to accept anything less than equality. He was beloved by blacks and some whites, but thoroughly hated and eventually conquered by those who saw him as a threat to America's divided society.
The son of a former slave, Johnson grew up poor in Galveston, Texas where at that time, blacks were forbidden to use the same sidewalks as whites. He got a little schooling, then went to work on the docks and elsewhere. Johnson honed his fighting skills in "battle royals," racist spectacles in which several black men fought at once until the last man standing was declared the winner. White audiences then tossed coins to the victor. These crude free-for-alls were often the only venues available to black fighters, and only the very best emerged.
Johnson turned professional in 1897 with a knockout victory over Jim Rocks. West Coast champion Joe Choynski took Johnson down in 1901, then taught him ring tactics when both were jailed after police raided the fight. In 1903, Johnson won a twenty-round decision over Denver Ed Martin for the black heavyweight title, which he defended four times in the next two years. In 1905, he lost a decision to future heavyweight champion Marvin Hart. Two years later, Johnson scored a second-round knockout of former heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons.
Even though he was an obvious contender for the crown, Johnson was repeatedly refused a shot at the heavyweight title because of his race. He was finally given his chance in 1908 when he faced champion Tommy Burns in Australia in a stadium erected especially for the fight, in Rushcutter's Bay near Sydney. Johnson won on a technical knockout in the fourteenth round to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
White society was outraged, and Johnson rubbed salt in the wound by flaunting his fame and wealth. The search was already on for a "Great White Hope" to reclaim the crown. In 1909, middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel tried to topple Johnson. When Ketchell floored Johnson in the twelfth, the champion rose and knocked Ketchel out with one vicious punch. After the match, Johnson claimed that he had agreed to carry Ketchel and had become outraged when Ketchel knocked him down.
Finally, white hopes were pinned to former champion James J. Jeffries, who was persuaded to come out of retirement to face Johnson on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. Jeffries, who hadn't been in the ring for six years, trained hard for the fight. Movie cameras recorded the battle, which Johnson clearly dominated. Jeffries was totally defenseless by the fifteenth, when Johnson went for the easy knockout. Blacks in cities across the country burst into an extended celebration, starting race riots in which several people died. The films of Jeffries's demolition by the black champ were never shown.
Meanwhile, Johnson's bi-racial love life sent his enemies scurrying for revenge, and eventually he was convicted of transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, even though the teenaged white woman was Johnson's wife. To avoid prison, Johnson fled to Canada and then Europe, where he twice defended his title in Paris.
In 1915, Johnson was persuaded to fight the huge 6'6" Jess Willard in a title bout in Havana. By then 37 years old, Johnson tired as the fight passed the twenty-round mark. In the 26th, Willard knocked Johnson out with a left to the body and a jab to the head. A promise from the fight's promoter to get Johnson safely back into the U.S. failed to materialize, and the fighter continued to live in exile. In 1920, Johnson surrendered to federal authorities and served eight months in Kansas's Leavenworth prison. After his release, he fought sporadically until 1928 when he retired at the age of 50.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.