Jack Johnson --First Black Heavyweight Champion

Arthur John Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), better known as Jack Johnson and nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, was an American boxer and arguably the best heavyweight of his generation. He was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World (1908-1915). In a documentary about his life, Ken Burns notes: "For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth." Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas as the second child and first son of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson, former slaves, who both worked blue-collar jobs to earn enough to raise six children and taught them how to read and write. Jack Johnson had five years of formal education.

Johnson's boxing style was very distinctive. He developed a more patient approach than was customary in that day: playing defensively, waiting for a mistake, and then capitalizing on it. Johnson always began a bout cautiously, slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. He often fought to punish his opponents rather than knock them out, endlessly avoiding their blows and striking with swift counters. He always gave the impression of having much more to offer and, if pushed, he could punch quite powerfully.

Johnson's style was very effective, but it was criticized in the white press as being cowardly and devious. By contrast, World Heavyweight Champion "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, who was white, had used many of the same techniques a decade earlier, and was praised by the press as "the cleverest man in boxing".[1] This evidenced a stong racial bias in the media.

By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating "Denver" Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted, as the world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him. Blacks could box whites in other arenas, but the world heavyweight championship was such a respected and coveted position in America that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it. Johnson was, however, able to fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.[1]
Sydney Stadium during the Johnson-Burns match on December 26, 1908.

He eventually won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world, taunting him in the press for a match. 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 as a T.K.O, but he had severely beaten the champion. During the fight, Johnson had mocked both Burns and his ringside crew. Every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up again, punishing him more. The camera was stopped just as Johnson was finishing off Burns, so as not to show Burns' defeat.

After Johnson's victory over Burns, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that even a socialist like Jack London called out for a "Great White Hope" to take the title away from Johnson — who was crudely caricatured as a subhuman "ape" — and return it to where it supposedly belonged, with the "superior" white race. As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as "great white hopes", often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Victor McLaglen, Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. The match with Ketchel was keenly fought by both men until the 12th and last round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson's head, knocking him down. Slowly regaining his feet, Johnson threw a straight to Ketchel's jaw, knocking him out, along with some of his teeth, several of which were embedded in Johnson's glove. His fight with "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien was a disappointing one for Johnson: though scaling 205 pounds (93 kg) to O'Brien's 161 pounds (73 kg) , he could only achieve a six-round draw with the great middleweight.

n 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro".[2] Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose around 100 lb (45 kg) to try to get back to his championship fighting weight.

At the fight, which took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 22,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada, the ringside band played "All coons look alike to me". The fight had become a hotbed of racial tension, and the promoters incited the all-white crowd to chant "kill the nigger".[3] Johnson, however, proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.

The "Fight of the Century" earned Johnson $225,000 and silenced 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.

[edit] Riots and Aftermath

The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening — the Fourth of July — all across the United States, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, D.C. 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 and were incensed by Johnson's comments.[1]

Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant, and celebrated Johnson's great victory as a victory for the entire race. Black poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the African-American reaction to the fight in his poem "My Lord, What a Morning". Around the country, blacks held spontaneous parades, gathered in prayer meetings, and purchased goods with winnings from backing Johnson at the bookmakers. These celebrations often drew a violent response from white men.

Some "riots" were simply African-Americans celebrating in the streets. In certain cities, like Chicago, the police allowed them to continue their festivities. But in other cities the police and angry white citizens tried to subdue the celebrations. Police interrupted several attempted lynchings. In all, riots occurred in more than twenty-five states and fifty cities. At least 23 blacks and 2 whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured. A few white people were injured when they tried to intervene in a crowd's beating of a black man.[1]

On April 5, 1915, Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a working cowboy who did not start boxing until he was almost thirty years old. With a crowd of 25,000 at the Veda do Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was K.O.'d in the 26th round of the scheduled 45-round fight, which was co-promoted by Roderick James "Jess" McMahon and a partner. Johnson found that he could not knock out the giant Willard, who fought as a counter puncher, making Johnson do all the leading. Johnson began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th round knockout. Johnson is said (without proofs) to have spread rumors that he took a dive,[citation needed] but Willard is widely regarded as having won the fight outright. Willard said "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there".

Film of the bout

A number of leading American film companies joined forces to shoot footage of the fight and turn it into a feature-length documentary film, at the cost of $100,000. The film was distributed widely in the U.S. and was exhibited internationally as well. As a result, Congress banned prizefight films from 1912 until 1940. In 2005, the film of the Jeffries-Johnson "Fight of the Century" was entered into the United States National Film Registry as being worthy of preservation.

Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, and is on the roster of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame. In 2005, the United States National Film Preservation Board deemed the film of the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight "historically significant" and put it in the National Film Registry.

Johnson's story is the basis of the play and subsequent 1970 movie The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones as Johnson (known as Jack Jefferson in the movie), and Jane Alexander as his love interest. In 2005, filmmaker Ken Burns produced a 2-part documentary about Johnson's life, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, based on the 2004 nonfiction book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward.

Johnson's skill as a fighter and the money that it brought made it impossible for him to be ignored by the white establishment. In a time in which African-Americans enjoyed few civil rights and in which lynching was an accepted extra-legal means of social coercion in many parts of the United States, his success and defiant behavior were a serious threat to the racist status quo. In the short term, the boxing world reacted against Johnson's legacy. But Johnson foreshadowed, in many ways, perhaps the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Jack Johnson. He identified with him because he felt white America ostracized him in the same manner because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. In his autobiography, Ali relates how he and Joe Frazier agreed that Johnson and Joe Louis were the greatest boxers of all.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Jack Johnson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Sixty-two years after Johnson's death, in September, 2008, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recommend that the President grant a pardon for his 1913 conviction, in acknowledgment of its racist overtones, and in order to exonerate Johnson and recognize his contribution to boxing.
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  • Sumo- Living for the new year! 2009/03/03 19:24:21
    Sumo- Living for the new year!
    Jack Johnson fought in Reno Nv. way back when. I admire Jesse Owens.
  • toomuch 2009/02/26 22:37:51
    duh, like, i already knew this!
  • Chocolat-In the universe I ... 2009/02/25 17:44:21
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    Johnson (1878-1946) was the first black heavyweight champion in the boxing world, reigning from 1908-1915 and participated in the first "Fight of the Century", defeating James J. Jeffries, the former champ, in 1910. The 1913 conviction was regarding his bi-racial marriage which was said to be a violation of the Mann Act.

    As of July 2004--no.
  • MOM - LOL@Silly.St.Sarah.of... 2009/02/25 14:08:00 (edited)
    MOM - LOL@Silly.St.Sarah.of.Wasilly
    Okay Tresor, I am just dying to know, Congress passed a resolution to make 'only' a recommendation.... did the President agree to grant him a pardon?

    Edited to add: What fool DRed this?

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Chocolat-In the universe I trust.

Chocolat-In the universe I trust.

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2008/01/26 03:29:06

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