Jack Johnson - the hardest fight in boxing history

Public domain image: Author - unattributed. date 4 July 1912

In 1908 'The Galveston Giant', against all odds, became the first black man in boxing history to become a heavyweight champion of the world.

Getting hold of a major world title can be difficult. Even today, with four sanctioning bodies each offering championship belts, fighters can still wait years to get a shot. Just ask Dillian Whyte.

Of course, this isn't always the case. Occasionally when a belt becomes vacant a couple of lucky contenders might get to battle it out for the prize. If you've ever wondered how an untested Charles Martin got hold of the IBF belt that Anthony Joshua now holds, it was a result of Tyson Fury vacating the titles that he claimed from Wladimir Klitschko.

Generally, though, world titles aren't so easy to come by. Most fighters spend years working their way into contention, having to beat several other contenders to force their way up the rankings, and finally, have to strip the belt from a legitimate world champion.

Many never make it that far. They might get matched against too many tough opponents while waiting for a shot, suffer a few losses, and drop down the rankings.

They might be kept out of title contention by boxing politics such as rival promoters with conflicting network deals struggling to agree to terms.

They might even, quite simply, get ducked.

For those who do make it to the top, the struggle doesn't end at winning a belt - the moment a boxer becomes a world champion they come into possession of something that all others in their division want. They might get a couple of easy defences, but eventually, they will have to face legitimate challengers.

Some hold onto their belts for years, some manage only a few months, and some never quite get there at all. None, however, will face as tough a road to win and retain a world title as did the first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson.
Jack Johnson in 1909
Otto Sarony Co. / Public domain
Johnson posing for a photo in 1909

The Galveston Giant

Johnson, who fought under the moniker of 'The Galveston giant', was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878 - a period in history when, in America, Jim Crow law was still very much at the core of society, and in the west as a whole, anti-black racism was not just accepted but was the norm.

Such was the extent of the racism that, while allowed to box white men, a black man had never been allowed to fight for the heavyweight world title - the sentiment being that the heavyweight championship of the world was too important to risk letting slip from white hands.

Johnson, never one to let others impose limitations on him, chased a title shot for years despite the reigning champion, Jim Jeffries, openly making it known that he would never allow a black man the honour of fighting for the championship.

When Jeffries retired in 1905, the vacated title was claimed by Marvin Hart before finding it's way to Candian boxer Tommy Burns - another man who refused to fight Johnson.

For several years during the reigns of Jeffries, Hart and Burns, Johnson would have to be satisfied with holding the 'world coloured' heavyweight title, but for Jack, being the best 'coloured' boxer in the world wouldn't do. He knew he was the best, period, and he intended to prove it.

Long before boxers could call each other out on Twitter, Jack Johnson was chasing Burns around the world demanding a title shot. It took 64 professional fights (that we know of), a 19-fight unbeaten streak, and years of goading Burns before his perseverance would pay off.

Johnson's success in the ring, particularly against white boxers, and his public provocations towards Burns hadn't gone unnoticed. In 1908, with public pressure mounting for Burns to prove himself against Johnson and a huge purse being offered, the champion put pen to paper, agreeing to give Johnson a chance at the universally recognised heavyweight championship of the world.

The fight, held in Sydney, Australia in front of more than 20'000 spectators - almost all of them white and vocally against Johnson - would see Burns comprehensively outmatched.

Johnson toyed with his opponent, showing no regard for the jeers coming from the crowd or the racial slurs coming from Burns and his cornermen. The more they ridiculed, the more Johnson smiled and continued to casually dismantle the champion.

Jack Johnson faces Tommy Burns for the heavyweight
Public domain image: Author - unattributed. date 26 December 1908
Jack Johnson faces Tommy Burns in 1908

The fight was scheduled for 20 rounds, however, in the 14th, when Johnson had finally grown bored with Burns and looked to end the fight, the police stepped in and called it off, sparing Burns from a very public KO.

It was the 26th of December 1908, and despite being denied a knockout Victory, Johnson was declared the winner and the new heavyweight champion of the world.

For Jack Johnson, winning the title was easy - Burns was no match for him - the real struggle was getting the opportunity in the first place, and sadly, the fight was only just beginning.

As the new heavyweight champion of the world, Johnson should have returned home a hero. Instead, he found himself the enemy of white society who regarded his victory over Burns as an affront.

To add salt to the wound, knowledge of Johnson's intimate ties with white women had been brought to public attention, and in a time of stringent segregation, the news was met with nothing short of revulsion. Here was a black man who had not only proven himself physically superior to the white champion of the world but also dared to choose for himself with whom he would spend his time.

It was too much for the public and the media to handle, and so began the search for 'The Great white hope'.

What was 'The great white hope'?

The term at large embodied the belief that a white saviour would emerge to defeat Johnson and restore the natural order of things. It was an ugly representation of a shared societal fear of equality. The Great white hope would put the black man back in his place, correcting an anomaly that threatened the conviction with which white society could claim itself superior.

There were many a challenger after Burns, and while they may have been white and hopeful, few were great.

In need of a hero, the public pleaded for former Champion Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement and reclaim the title that he had never truly lost. Though reluctant at first, Jeffries would eventually agree to make his return and become 'The great white Hope'.

Back when Johnson fought Burns for the title, the white populous had wanted him to lose, this time, they needed it, pinning all of their desperation firmly on James J. Jeffries.

Once again Johnson would find himself fighting against not just one man, but an entire race. A race whipped into a frenzy by the media. A race terrified of what a Johnson win might inspire in other members of the oppressed peoples.

The fight of the century

On 4th July 1910, in Reno, Nevada, Jack Johnson stepped between the ropes to face the personification of white supremacy in what was billed as 'The fight of the century'.

Well aware of the potential riot that could erupt around him should he win,  Jack Johnson, with the demeanour of a man who hadn't a care in the world, proceeded to dismantle the former Champion with whom the hopes of the white race rested.

Jack Johnson vs Jim Jeffries
{PD-US}} Bout between Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries Photograph taken in 1910
Jack Johnson defends the championship against Jim Jeffries

Jeffries, who had been retired now for the better part of 5 years, started aggressively but was unable to find his range and found his faded ability to be no match for that of Johnson, who was content to sit back, defend and counter, and slowly break Jeffries down.

The fight lasted into the 15th round where a bloodied and bruised Jeffries was pulled out by his cornermen after Johnson repeatedly knocked him to the canvas.

Johnson had once more proved to the world that the colour of his skin in no way rendered him inferior to any other man. Sadly, however, he'd also find once more that his fight would extend far beyond the four corners of the ring.

The downfall of Jack Johnson

Johnson's victory over Jeffries inspired mass celebrations amongst black Americans, but in white Americans, it served only to incite further feelings of humiliation, anger and fear.

The search for the Great white hope continued, there were attempts made to kill Johnson, and his personal life was turned upside down by the authorities in a desperate endeavour to incriminate him.

The focus of their efforts quickly turned to Johnson's affinity for white women - an aspect of the champion's nature perhaps even more incendiary than his propensity for knocking out white hopes.

Eventually, they convicted Johnson of violating a law known as the Mann act - something that was put in place to prevent the trafficking of women for prostitution. This particular law, with its vague literature, could be distorted beyond its purpose to fit the narrative of the prosecution to convict Johnson - a man guilty only of travelling across state lines with a woman who happened to be involved in prostitution.

The Mann act was just a cover. In reality, Johnson was being prosecuted for disregarding a social taboo held by both white, and black communities, which saw no place for interracial relations.

Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress / Public domain
Jack Johnson and wife Lucille Cameron

Sentenced to a year in prison, Jack Johnson and his white wife Lucille Cameron went on the run to Europe where Johnson would have to live as a fugitive. While there, he continued to fight and defeat White Hopes, but he was getting old and he wasn't training like he used to.

After nearly 2 years on the run, Johson would agree to a fight with a man known as 'The Pottawatomie Giant'. Jess Willard, as he was otherwise known, lacked any real boxing skill, but he stood at 6′ 6½″ which although common amongst modern heavyweights, was enormous for the time.

With Johnson still unable to return to the states, the event was held in Havana, Cuba. It began as did most of Johnson's defences - with his opponent looking helplessly outclassed. Were it a modern-day 12-rounder Johson would have comfortably taken the decision, but this fight was scheduled for 45 rounds,  and with Johnson unable to KO the much larger Willard, he began to fade as the rounds ticked over into the 20s.
By round 26 he was looking severely fatigued and when Willard landed a huge right hand that sent him to the canvas it was all over. Johnson simply lay there, shielding his eyes from the sun, unable or perhaps unwilling to get up.

After nearly six years as the heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson had finally been beaten - the white race had found their 'Great White Hope' in an unassuming giant from Pottawatomie County named Jess Myron Willard.

No longer the champion and still a fugitive, Johnson would remain on the run until 1920 when such was his desire to return home, that he finally resolved to hand himself in and serve his sentence.

A more significant title

Johnson continued to box before, during, and after prison, besting all opponents for many years, but would never again fight for the title which, after Willard, would be held by Jack Dempsey. Like those that came before him, including for the most part Johnson himself, Dempsey firmly drew the colour line throughout his reign as champion.

Though he'd never reclaim the championship, there is to this day a title that he can't be stripped of - Jack Johnson was, is, and will always be, the first black man universally recognised as the heavyweight champion of the world. Given what black men and women have contributed to boxing since, is there any more significant title than that?

Johnson was never supposed to get an opportunity to become a world champion. It was an opportunity of his own making. An opportunity bought about by being unashamedly who he was, by refusing to be allocated a place in society, and by being so damn good a boxer that the world just couldn't deny him.

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