Johnson earned respect, drew anger

Originally Published: February 14, 2007
By Kieran Mulvaney | Special to ESPN.com

Sixty years before Muhammad Ali, there was Jack Johnson.

Like Ali, Johnson was the dominant heavyweight of his era. Like Ali, he challenged the notions of how a heavyweight champion -- particularly a black heavyweight champion -- should act, and he outraged much of white society in the process. And like Ali, he was a hero to most African-Americans but also earned the ire of many of his fellow black boxers for his behavior, which many felt was disrespectful, reflected badly on the rest of them and hurt the broader cause of equal rights.

But whereas Ali, at least for a while, cloaked himself in the comforting blanket of the Nation of Islam, Johnson had no such support group. And unlike Ali, Johnson did not live to see his image rehabilitated; not until several decades after his death, when his life was later seen through a prism of racial inequality and civil rights struggle, was Johnson viewed as a pioneer, among the first prominent African-Americans not only to refuse to be cowed by white society but also to apparently revel in flaunting his superiority over it.

He also happened to be one of the greatest fighters who ever lived, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and by most measures, among the top three or four heavyweight champs of all time.

Jack Johnson
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesJack Johnson is knocked out in the 26th round by Jess Willard during their 1915 world heavyweight title bout in Havana, Cuba. Willard took the title that Johnson had held since 1908.
Born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, Johnson grew up poor in a town where blacks weren't allowed to use the same sidewalks as whites. After a modicum of schooling, he found work in the docks, and honed his fighting skills in barbaric "Battle Royals," in which six to eight men -- all blindfolded and all black -- fought until only one remained standing.

Such was the nature of these spectacles that boxing was actually a rung or two above them on society's ladder, and it was to boxing that Johnson turned, winning his first professional bout in 1897. In 1901, he suffered a knockout loss at the fists of the far more experienced Joe Choynski, following which both combatants were arrested for participating in unsanctioned fights. While in jail, Choynski taught the crude Johnson the finer points of pugilism; after regaining his freedom, Johnson became increasingly adept at his craft, and garnered growing attention for his abilities.

"If you go back to 1903, the sporting press was already saying, 'This Jack Johnson's one of the best heavyweights in the world,'" said Kevin Smith, author of "The Sundowners: The History of the Black Prizefighter 1870-1930". "In 1904, they were talking about him as an opponent for [heavyweight champ Jim] Jeffries, and by 1905, when Jeffries started talking publicly about retirement, they were saying the only real fight left out there for him was Johnson."

Instead of fighting Johnson, Jeffries retired, handpicked the two white boxers he had selected to battle out his succession and refereed the contest himself. Johnson was denied an opportunity to fight for the championship until the title finally passed into the hands of a Canadian, Tommy Burns, who, after much cajoling and the promise of the then-hugely attractive purse of $30,000, faced Johnson in Australia.

"I think being in Australia was the key to making it happen," Smith said. "I think the money could have been found in the U.S. I doubt you'd have found a promoter brave enough to promote it, for fear of Johnson winning."

And Johnson did win, easily. He brutalized and taunted Burns under the blazing Sydney sun on the day after Christmas, 1908, until finally, in the 14th round, the police stepped in to stop the massacre.

It didn't hurt that Johnson dwarfed Burns, an advantage he frequently enjoyed over his opponents.

"In a day and age when the average size was 5-8, 5-9, he was 6-1½," observed boxing historian Bert Sugar. (The 5-7 Burns, who weighed 168 pounds to Johnson's 192, was particularly encumbered.)

But, Sugar said, there was more to Johnson than just sheer physicality:

"He was defensively gifted. He could block any punch. There were fights when he could just lean on the ropes and play pitty-pat with his opponent's punches. And he never had to kill his instinct until he got hit. Witness the Stanley Ketchel bout [in October 1909]. Ketchel, who came up to his navel maybe, swatted him in the 12th round and knocked him down. And Johnson just popped right up, and as Ketchel moved in for the kill, Johnson unleashed one punch. And the next thing you see, Ketchel is laying on the canvas, re-enacting the crucifixion of Christ, and Johnson is leaning on the ropes picking his teeth out of his gloves."

It was not the way Johnson fought that aroused horror and ire among many of those who saw him defeat Burns. It was the very nature of what had come to pass, the fact that a black man had risen to the very pinnacle of sports, the symbol of physical superiority, the heavyweight championship of the world.

It was immediately too much for some to bear. The writer Jack London, reporting from ringside at the Burns bout, wrote that it was incumbent upon the retired Jeffries to "emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Johnson's face."

Jeffries eventually responded to the clamor, and in July 1910, six years after he had last fought, was summarily battered by the reigning champion, who demonstrated once again his suffocating, dominating style.

"[Johnson] was extremely good at tying men up," Smith noted. "He'd jab, jab, tie you up. Jab, jab, bang, uppercut. If you watch the Jeffries fight, he'd jab him, tie him up, and then rip him with an uppercut. He had a supreme uppercut."

Or, as Sugar put it: "He wore out Jeffries until it was time to hit him. And then he hit him."

Jeffries' corner stopped the fight after 15 rounds of a scheduled 45 -- yes, 45 3-minute rounds. Johnson's victory sparked wild celebrations that morphed into race riots across the country, and spawned numerous reported instances of whites attacking blacks. Several states banned the showing of film of the fight.

In between Burns and Jeffries, Johnson repelled a series of white challengers -- Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman and Ketchel. But it wasn't enough for Johnson to defeat his opponents. He carried them physically, prolonging their punishment, verbally taunting them all the while to underline his superiority.

That, of course, infuriated his white critics further, but they were driven altogether apoplectic by his behavior outside the ring.

It wasn't enough that he beat up white men. He also dated white women -- many of them, in succession, whom he escorted, frequently at speed, in his roadsters. One story has him being pulled over for speeding by a traffic cop who demanded an on-the-spot $50 fine. Johnson gave him a $100 bill and told him to keep the change because he'd be coming through in the opposite direction at the same speed.

"The arrogance! I mean, can you imagine a black man being arrogant in 1908?" boxing historian Mike Silver asked rhetorically.

"Here was a man who was free of anything that could hold him back in terms of slave mentality. He almost made this tremendous effort to put himself as far away from that as possible, in terms of marrying white women, becoming very cultured -- he was a rake and he was a cad, but he also spoke three languages. He was an extremely intelligent man. If you drew an IQ chart for fighters, he would be very near the top."

Observed Smith: "It was like white America was an open sore and he was just picking at it, and picking at it."

In the process, Johnson painted a giant bull's-eye on his back. His enemies longed to bring him down and found the means to do so when he sent a white girlfriend a railroad ticket to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, against "transporting white women across state lines for immoral purposes," and fled into exile.

He lived and fought for a while in France, defending his title in 1913 against Battling Jim Johnson, and in 1914 against Frank Moran. In April 1915, aged 37 and softened by life in Europe, he was lured back across the Atlantic, where, at a racetrack in Havana, Cuba, he lost his championship to the giant Jess Willard.

Willard did to Johnson what Johnson often did to others -- he fought defensively, content to counterpunch, forcing Johnson to do the leading. By the 20th round, Johnson was tiring, and he crumpled to the canvas in the 26th.

The Great White Hope had finally been found. The first black heavyweight champion of the world had been dethroned, and an African-American would not be granted another shot at the crown until Joe Louis in 1937.

"Blacks were so, so proud of him at the time, and he earned a grudging respect from white people. He actually broke down barriers," said Silver. "Other blacks hated him later; they hated him because they felt he set them back, especially the fighters. The fighters felt that he had hurt them; blacks didn't get a title shot for over 20 years. After all the trouble he caused, they weren't going to give another black man the chance to win the title."

After his defeat, Johnson remained in exile, fighting in Spain and Mexico before eventually returning to the United States in 1920, whereupon he was incarcerated in Leavenworth for his Mann Act conviction. On his release, he fought sporadically until 1938.

On June 10, 1946, Johnson was driving to New York to attend a fight between Louis and Billy Conn when he stopped at a restaurant outside Raleigh, N.C. Denied service at the whites-only establishment, he stalked furiously out to his roadster, slammed on the gas pedal and sped, wheels spinning, out of the parking lot. As he turned into a bend on the road, he lost control of his vehicle, which flew across the highway and slammed into a telephone pole, killing him.

Jack Johnson was 68.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters and TigerBoxing.com.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com, HBO.com and Reuters, and also blogs for Discovery Channel News.

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