The life and times of Jack Johnson was a storied history that spanned the globe in the early 1900’s…..as this professional boxer from Galveston, TX provided the background that allowed him to become the most universally known African-American in the world…..who early in his boxing career beat former black heavyweight champ Frank Childs on October 21, 1902….as Johnson won by a TKO in the 12th round of the scheduled 20-rounder after Childs’ seconds signaled he couldn’t go on….claiming he had dislocated his elbow.
By 1903, though Johnson’s “official” record showed him with nine wins against three losses, five draws and two no contests….he had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903 by beating Denver Ed Martin on points in a 20-round match for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. Johnson held the title until it was vacated when he won the world heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia on Boxing Day 1908. His reign of 2,151 days was the third longest in the 60-year-long history of the colored heavyweight title….as only Harry Wills at 3,103 days and Peter Jackson at 3,041 days held the title longer. A three-time colored heavyweight champion, Wills held the title for a total of 3,351 days. Johnson defended the colored heavyweight title 17 times….which was second only to the 26 times Wills defended the title. While colored champ, he defeated ex-colored champs Denver Ed Martin and Frank Childs again and beat future colored heavyweight champs Sam McVey three times and Sam Langford once. He beat Langford on points in a 15-rounder and never gave him another shot at the title….either when he was colored champ or the world heavyweight champ. Jack Johnson fought Joe Jeanette a total of seven times, all during his reign as colored champ before he became the world’s heavyweight champion….winning four times and drawing twice. In their first match on 1905, they had fought to a draw, but in their second match on 25 November 1905, Johnson lost as he was disqualified in the second round of a scheduled six-round fight. Johnson continued to claim the title because of the disqualification.
After Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world on December 26, 1908,….his world colored heavyweight championship was vacated. Jeanette fought Sam McVey for the title in Paris on 20 February 1909 and was beaten….but later took the title from McVey in a 49-round bout on April 17 of that year in Paris for a $6,000 purse. Sam Langford subsequently claimed the title during Jeanette’s reign after Johnson refused to defend the world heavyweight championship against him…..and eighteen months later, Jeanette lost the title to Langford. During his reign as world champ….Johnson never again fought Jeanette despite numerous challenges and avoided Langford….who won the colored title a record five times. Johnson had fought Langford once while he was the colored champ and beat him on points in a 15-rounder. On 27 November 1945, Johnson finally stepped back into the ring with Joe Jeanette….as the then 67-year-old Johnson squared off against the 66-year-old Jeanette in an exhibition held at a New York City rally to sell war bonds….as fellow former colored heavyweight champ Harry Wills also participated in the exhibition.
Johnson’s efforts to win the world heavyweight title were thwarted….as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him then….for at this time in boxing history…..black boxers could meet white boxers in other competitions….but the world heavyweight championship was off limits to them….however, Johnson did fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds. There is a report that Johnson even fought and KO’d Jim Jeffries’ brother Jack….taunting him about it to force a fight with no success.
Johnson finally won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908….a full six years after lightweight champion Joe Gans became the first African American boxing champion. Johnson’s victory over the reigning world champion, Canadian Tommy Burns, in Sydney, Australia….came after stalking Burns around the world for two years and taunting him in the press for a match. It is believed that Burns had only agreed to fight Johnson after promoters guaranteed him $30,000. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police in front of over 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee’s decision.
Jack Johnson arriving in Vancouver BC on the 9th of March 1909 as World Heavyweight Champion….and after Johnson’s victory over Burns….racial animosity among whites ran so deep that it was called out for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from Johnson. While Johnson was heavyweight champion….he was covered more in the press than all other notable black men combined….as the lead-up to the bout was peppered with racist press against Johnson. Even the New York Times wrote of the event, “If the black man wins….thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.” As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters each billed by boxing promoters as a “great white hope”….often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel.
The match with Ketchel was originally thought to have been an exhibition….and in fact it was fought by both men that way….until the 12th round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson’s head, knocking him down. Quickly regaining his feet and very annoyed, Johnson immediately dashed straight at Ketchell and threw a single punch….an uppercut, a punch for which he was famous, to Ketchel’s jaw….knocking him out. The punch knocked out Ketchell’s front teeth….as Johnson can be seen on videotape removing them from his glove….where they had been embedded.
In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. He had not fought in six years and had to lose well over 100 pounds to get back to his championship fighting weight. Initially Jeffries had no interest in the fight….being quite happy as an alfalfa farmer. But those who wanted to see Johnson defeated badgered Jeffries mercilessly for months….offering him an unheard sum of money reputed to be about $120,000 (equivalent to $3 million in 2016) to which he finally acquiesced. Jeffries remained mostly hidden from media attention until the day of the fight….meanwhile Johnson was soaking up the spotlight. John L. Sullivan, who made boxing championships a popular and esteemed spectacle….stated that Johnson was in such good physical shape compared to Jeffries that he could only lose if he had a lack of skill on the day. Before the fight, Jeffries remarked, “It is my intention to go right after my opponent and knock him out as soon as possible.” While his wife added, “I’m not interested in prizefighting but I am interested in my husband’s welfare, I do hope this will be his last fight.” Johnson’s words were “May the best man win.”
Racial tension was brewing leading up to the fight and to prevent any harm to either boxer, guns were prohibited within the arena as was the sale of alcohol or anyone under the effects of alcohol. Behind the racial attitudes being instigated by the media was a major investment in gambling for the fight with 10-7 odds in favor of Jeffries.
The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 20,000 people at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. Jeffries proved unable to impose his will on the younger champion and Johnson dominated the fight. By the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career….Jeffries´ corner threw in the towel to end the fight and prevent Jeffries from having a knockout on his record. Johnson later remarked he knew the fight was over in the 4th round when he landed an uppercut and saw the look on Jeffries face….stating “I knew what that look meant….the old ship was sinking.” Afterwards, Jeffries was humbled by the loss and what he’d seen of Johnson in their match. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” Jeffries said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $65,000 (over $1.7 million in 2015 dollars)….silencing the critics who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty”….claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated. John L. Sullivan commented after the fight that Johnson won deservedly, fairly, and convincingly:
The fight of the century is over and a black man is the undisputed champion of the world. It was a poor fight as fights go, this less than 15-round affair between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. Scarcely has there ever been a championship contest that was so one-sided. All of Jeffries much-vaunted condition amounted to nothing. He wasn’t in it from the first bell tap to the last …. The negro had few friends, but there was little demonstration against him. (Spectators) could not help but admire Johnson because he is the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen. He played fairly at all times and fought fairly. … What a crafty, powerful, cunning left hand (Johnson) has. He is one of the craftiest, cunningest boxers that ever stepped into the ring. … They both fought closely all during the 15 rounds. It was just the sort of fight that Jeffries wanted. There was no running or ducking like Corbett did with me in New Orleans (1892). Jeffries did not miss so many blows, because he hardly started any. Johnson was on top of him all the time…. (Johnson) didn’t get gay at all with Jeffries in the beginning, and it was always the white man who clinched, but Johnson was very careful, and he backed away and took no chances, and was good-natured with it all…. The best man won, and I was one of the first to congratulate him, and also one of the first to extend my heartfelt sympathy to the beaten man.
The outcome of the fight triggered race riots on the evening of the Fourth of July all across the United States….from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, D.C…..as Johnson’s victory over Jeffries had dashed white dreams of finding a “great white hope” to defeat him. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries….with blacks, on the other hand….they were jubilant….as they celebrated Johnson’s great victory as a victory for racial advancement. Black poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the black reaction to the fight in his poem “My Lord, What a Morning.” Around the country, blacks held spontaneous parades and gathered in prayer meetings.
White anger over the outcome erupted into race riots in New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans,Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Little Rock, Houston and Atlanta….for in several cases…..white mobs attacked or lynched black citizens in revenge. In all, riots occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities. At least twenty people were killed across America from the riots, and hundreds more were injured.
It is over 100 years later in July 2016…..and it seems to me that nothing was learned by HUMANS and virtually nothing has changed….as the same hate that existed then….exists today.