I am a huge boxing fan, mainly because of Muhammad Ali. However, there was another great champion long before Tyson or Ali or Joe Lewis. This boxers name was Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, whose reign at the height of the Jim Crow era lasted from 1908 to 1915. During this period, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African American on Earth. This man was so bad that white people searched the world to find a “Great White Hope” to defeat him. By the way, this is the origin of the team.
Jack Johnson was the first African American pop culture icon. At the time, he was photographed more than any other black man of his day. He was also written about more than any other man. Black people during the early 20th century were hardly the subject of news in the white press unless they were the perpetrators of a crime or had been lynched; be it from a crime, real or imagined infraction. Johnson was unique in that not only was he written about in black newspapers but he was frequently the subject of white papers and often on the front pages.
Another unique, or insane, quality outside of his boxing talent was that he openly entertained and twice married “white women”. This was at a time when black men were lynched for merely looking at a white woman. As you can imagine, this made him the subject of scrutiny from the white press who often accused him of crimes as a result of his position as a champion athlete in a sport with a strong national following.
Not only did he date white women openly, but he also had a flashy lifestyle, drove lavish cars and spent large sums of money freely. All of this made it certain that trouble was always lurking. In 1912, he was convicted of violating the “Mann Act” for bringing his white girlfriend across state lines before their marriage. Sentenced to prison, he fled to Europe, remaining there as a fugitive for seven years. He returned to the United States in 1920 and ultimately served out his sentence.
Johnson’s boxing style was very distinctive. He developed a more patient approach than was customary in that day, playing with his opponents; often carrying on a conversation with ringsiders while he was fighting. Johnson would begin a bout cautiously, slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. When annoyed, he often fought to punish his opponents rather than knocking them out, easily 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 powerfully.
They found the “Great White Hope”, former undefeated heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, who came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. The fight was dubbed “The Fight of the Century” held on July 4th, 1910 to which Jeffries lost badly. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries. The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening all across America; in Texas, Colorado, New York, Washington, D.C., and most places in the country. Johnson’s victory over Jeffries had dashed white dreams of finding a white man to defeat him and reclaim the Heavyweight Title.
Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant and 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. During his boxing career, Jack Johnson fought 114 fights, winning 80 matches, 45 by knockouts.
Johnson’s skills as a fighter and the money that it brought made it impossible for him to be ignored by the establishment. In the short term, the boxing world reacted against Johnson’s legacy. But Johnson foreshadowed one of the most famous boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Jack Johnson. Ali identified with Johnson because he felt America ostracized him in the same manner because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and affiliation with the Nation of Islam.In 2002, Johnson was listed as one of 100 Greatest African Americans.
Since segregation ended and more liberal views exist today, Johnson’s life and career have undergone a major rehabilitation. His alleged crimes are now seen as the result of racial bias in law enforcement. Johnson has since been inducted into 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. In 2012, the City of Galveston dedicated a park in Johnson’s memory as Galveston Island’s most famous native son. The park includes a life-size, bronze statue of Johnson.
Jack Johnson was and should be considered one of the greatest boxers of all times and all who came after him owes their place in boxing history to him. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…