Johnson boxed, lived on his own terms

Updated: October 20, 2005, 2:46 PM ET
By Ron Flatter | Special to ESPN.com

Easy question: Who was the man named Jack who broke a color barrier in sports?

Harder question: Name another.

Harder because it happened so long ago. But in 1908, 39 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, there was Jack Johnson -- the first black man to hold the world heavyweight championship.

Johnson is still considered one of the best, most powerful counter-punchers who ever stepped in a ring. Once he won the title, he would not relinquish it for more than six years.

But Johnson is often remembered more for a flamboyant lifestyle that, coupled with his skin color in "White America," inspired unprecedented controversy and even rioting.

He transformed himself from the docks of Galveston, Texas, to early 20th-century glitterati. He had his own jazz band, owned a Chicago nightclub, acted on stage, drove flashy yellow sports cars, reputedly walked his pet leopard while sipping champagne, flaunted gold teeth that went with his gold-handled walking stick and boasted of his conquests of whites -- both in and out of the ring.

Johnson kept the company of some of his era's most desired women, most of them white. Moulin Rouge star Mistinguette. German spy Mata Hari. Sex symbols Lupe Velez and Mae West. Johnson was romantically linked to all.

Johnson was also a fugitive for seven years, having been accused of violating a white slavery act with a woman who would become his third wife.

All these things would have been lost in obscurity were it not for the fact Johnson was the most dominant boxer of his time. The Ring Record Book lists his record as 79-8 with 46 knockouts, 12 draws and 14 no-decisions.

If there was one fight that forged Johnson's celebrity, it was against Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champ who had been in retirement five years. Famed promoter Tex Rickard lured more than 22,000 fans to Reno, Nev., on July 4, 1910 for the first "Fight of the Century," the bout matching the outspoken African-American against "The Great White Hope."

Johnson became the first to floor Jeffries, whose corner gave up in the 15th round. "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best," Jeffries said. "I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years."

The incredible sum of $117,000 that Johnson earned that day was about as far from his roots as he could have imagined. Born March 31, 1878, John Arthur Johnson would spend much of his childhood working on the boats and sculleries of his native Galveston.

He grew to be 6 feet, 1 1/4 inches and a giant of a young man who hung out with older fighters in Chicago, New York and Boston. He moved to California in 1901 and, on Feb. 3, 1903, in Los Angeles, won the "Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World" with a 20-round decision over Denver Ed Martin.

A year later, Johnson issued a challenge to Jeffries, who held the world title at the time. But Jeffries wouldn't fight an African-American.

It wouldn't be until Dec. 26, 1908, that Johnson would finally get his shot at the title. He got it for the simplest of reasons. Champion Tommy Burns was guaranteed $30,000 to fight him.

The bout was held on the outskirts of Sydney. Australia may have been a hotbed of boxing at the time, but it was no more sympathetic to a black than "White America" was. Accounts of the fight indicated that few among the 20,000 at Rushcutter's Bay cheered for Johnson.

Burns, who was 24 pounds lighter than the 192-pound Johnson, was practically out on his feet in the 14th round when the police jumped into the ring and stopped the fight. Referee Hugh McIntosh awarded the championship to Johnson.

Popular novelist Jack London wrote in a New York newspaper that it was a match "between a colossus and a pygmy. Burns was a toy in his hands. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you."

But Jeffries wasn't biting yet. Johnson was a champion without an opponent. He fought two exhibitions and three no-decisions before meeting middleweight champ Stanley Ketchel on Oct. 16, 1909, in Colma, Calif.

The 205 1/2-pound Johnson knocked out the 170 1/4-pound Ketchel in the 12th round with a devastating right to the jaw, one of the hardest blows ever delivered. Five of the challenger's teeth were ripped off at the roots.

The next year, the landmark fight was arranged between Johnson and Jeffries. Even though interracial business was pretty risky back then, the fight was a financial boon to its promoter, who spent lavishly on pre-fight advertising.

After whipping Jeffries, Johnson didn't fight for two years, but he made waves out of the ring. In January 1911, he married for the second time. The bride was Etta Duryea, a white divorced woman from high society. The marriage ended tragically only eight months later, when Duryea committed suicide.

A week after successfully defending his championship against Jim Flynn on July 4, 1912, Johnson opened Cafe de Champion, his Chicago nightclub. That year, he was frequently in the company of Lucille Cameron, a white secretary.

In the court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future commissioner of baseball, Johnson was charged with taking Cameron across state lines for "immoral purposes," a violation of the Mann white slavery act. With the charge hanging over him, Johnson married Cameron on Dec. 4, 1912.

The following spring, Johnson was convicted, sentenced to a year and a day in prison and fined $1,000. Johnson was free pending an appeal when he and Cameron fled the country.

Johnson spent the next seven years on the lam. In Paris, he took on a series of farcical matches against wrestlers. He fought exhibitions in Buenos Aires for measly purses.

He finally met his match in Havana, Cuba, on April 5, 1915. More than 25,000 came to see him take on 6-foot, 6 1/4-inch, 230-pound Jess Willard. At age 37, Johnson had a noticeable paunch and looked anything but ready for the scheduled 45-round bout. Still, he dominated the fight until the 20th round.

In Round 26, Willard penetrated Johnson's withering defense with a hard right to the head. Johnson was knocked out, and Willard was the new champ. There have been rumors ever since that Johnson threw the fight.

Johnson went to Spain, then Mexico, fighting off and on until he returned to America and surrendered to federal authorities in 1920. He was sent to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he boxed five times before being released on July 9, 1921.

In his 40s, Johnson fought in Cuba, Canada and Mexico before returning to the United States for the last two sanctioned fights of his career -- knockout losses in Kansas to Ed "Bearcat" Wright and Big Bill Hartwell in the spring of 1928. Johnson was 50.

By then, Johnson had divorced Cameron and married Irene Pineau, another white woman. If that wedding was not perceived as trouble enough for Johnson, his non-sanctioned fights in 1931 against Brad Simmons led to his being banned from boxing in Kansas.

If Johnson lived in the fast lane, he died there literally -- in an automobile accident in Raleigh, N.C., on June 10, 1946. He was 68. Eight years later, he became a charter member of the Boxing Hall of Fame.