Wednesday, January 24, 2001
Updated: January 23, 4:22 PM ET
Long before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Jack Johnson broke down racial boundaries in the boxing ring. And nearly everywhere else he went.
More than a boxer, Johnson was a force of nature. At 6-foot-1¼ and 200 pounds, with rippling muscles, a coal-black complexion and a shiny bald head, Johnson cut an imposing figure. He won the "Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World" in 1903, but the reigning white champions refused to fight him.
It wasn't until nearly six years later, in 1908, that Johnson got his shot, and he had to go to Australia to get it. He stopped Tommy Burns in the 14th round to claim the true world heavyweight title. A year and a half later, former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to face Johnson as "The Great White Hope." On July 4, 1910, in what was described at the time as "The Fight of the Century," Johnson stopped Jeffries in the 15th round, prompting Jeffries to say, "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best."
But as significant a boxer as Johnson was, he 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.
But all of that couldn't obscure his dominance as a fighter. The Ring Record Book lists his record as 79-8 with 46 knockouts, 12 draws and 14 no-decisions. He was the first black heavyweight champion, and eight years after his death he became a charter member of the Boxing Hall of Fame.
John Arthur Johnson was born on March 31, 1878, in Galveston. He died at age 68 in a car accident on June 10, 1946, near Raleigh, N.C.