World Heavyweight Champion: 1908-1915
There are boxing aficionados who put Jack Johnson above Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali in the all-time list of heavyweight greats. The first black champion reigned for seven years, and it certainly would have been a lot longer had the likes of Jeffries and Burns avoided meeting him for so long. As it was, Johnson had to wait until he was 30 for his chance. It was only after six successful defences and one draw that he relinquished the title, and then it has to be remembered that ‘L’il Arthur’ had turned 37.
Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on 31 March 1878. His early experience of boxing came in the infamous ‘Battles Royal’. In this brutal activity, between six and a dozen black youngsters were thrown into a ring together for the entertainment of a white crowd. The sole survivor scooped the pool, which might consist of nickels and dimes tossed disdainfully by the spectators. It was an experience which burned deep into the aspiring heavyweight, and when he fought his way to the top, he showed that he had a long memory.
Ironically, it was probably at least in part because of the Battles Royal that Johnson developed a defence which verged on the uncanny. At a shade over 6 ft and 13st 101b when he fought for the title, Johnson was no giant by modern standards. But he was a master of his craft, and the fact that the boxing fraternity rates him so highly nearly a hundred years on speaks volumes for his contribution to the sport.
By 1903 he had beaten all the top contenders and was regarded as the best black heavyweight in the world. He openly challenged Jeffries for the title, but the latter made it clear that he wouldn’t step into the ring with a negro. Several years later, he was to change his mind as far as Johnson was concerned, and take a terrible beating as a result.
When Tommy Burns became champion in 1906, Johnson embarked on a pursuit that lasted two long years. One of the greatest chases in sporting history saw Johnson follow Burns from America to Britain, France and Australia. He finally pinned his man down to a contest in Sydney, on 26 December 1908.
Ever the shrewd businessman, Burns negotiated himself a guaranteed fee of $25,000, win, lose or draw. It was just as well. Johnson received just $5,000, but the coveted title at last was within his grasp. He knocked Burns down in the first round, and again in the seventh. It was clear that he could have finished off the champion at any time he liked. Johnson didn’t like, however. After all the years of racial abuse, all the years of being humiliatingly marginalised by the white boxing establishment, Johnson wanted to savour the moment. The fight was eventually stopped in the 14th round, the police intervening to prevent the game French-Canadian from taking further punishment.
After such a long struggle to get to the top, Johnson intended to enjoy the fruits of being the heavyweight champion. He played the part of the dandy to the full. He enjoyed flashy cars, fine clothes, cigars and champagne. When he smiled he showed off a mouthful of gold teeth. He had a weakness for gambling, and for white women. White America was outraged at the thought of a negro boxing champion in general, and a dissolute, debauched champion such as Johnson in particular. The search for a contender to wipe the gold-toothed smile off Johnson’s face began in earnest.
Johnson continued to enjoy the high life. He interrupted his hedonistic pursuits for the absolute minimum time necessary to remain on top of the boxing world. He often looked as if he’d come into the ring straight from a bar instead of a gym, yet no one came close to making him pay for his lack of preparation.
The clamour for Jeffries to come out of retirement was now greater than ever, and the former champion finally relented. After six years out of the ring, he agreed to fight Johnson. The match – or mismatch as it transpired – took place in Reno, on 4 July 1910. Johnson did to Jeffries what he’d done to Burns. He cut him, taunted him, toyed with him, humiliated him. He finally smashed the previously unbeaten Jeffries to the canvas in the 15th round.
Unable to get the better of Johnson in the ring, his enemies turned to the law. The champion was charged under a new piece of legislation which made it illegal to transport white women across state lines for immoral purposes. It didn’t matter matter whether – as in Johnson’s case – the women were willing participants. Many were liable to prosecution under this ridiculous new law. Unsurprisingly, Johnson was targeted. His guilt was never in doubt and he was sentenced to a year and a day’s imprisonment. Released on bail, he managed to skip the country by joining a Canadian baseball team on tour in the USA. Johnson took the place of a lookalike in the team when it returned home.
From Canada he headed for Europe. After two defences of his title in Paris, and another in Buenos Aires, Johnson agreed to fight the latest Great White Hope, a 6ft 6in cowboy named Jess Willard. Johnson had turned 37 by the time they met, in Havana, Cuba, on 5 April 1915. Not only was Johnson at a disadvantage in terms of age, height and weight, his dissolute lifestyle was finally catching up with him. It was a fight too far for L’il Arthur.
Born: Galveston, Texas USA March 31, 1878
June 10, 1946
Record: Won 68 (49 Kos) Lost 10 Drawn 10