“If I felt any better,” Jack Johnson quipped a hundred years ago, “I’d be scared of myself.”
Jack Johnson was the first African American to win the heavyweight title. He was a great champion, one of a kind, decades ahead of his time, but because of his race and uppity ways, because he rankled the establishment, he was deemed an enemy of the state and paid the price.
Jack Johnson is a heavyweight legend. He may have lacked the killer instinct of Jack Dempsey, the consistency of Joe Louis, the beard of Muhammad Ali, but Jack Johnson was a ring genius, before those words lost currency from over usage, a towering figure in boxing history.
John Arthur Johnson was born to former slaves in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878. After learning the ropes in the Battle Royals – spectacles featuring blindfolded black boys fighting for pennies – Papa Jack turned pro in 1894 at the age of eighteen with a kayo over John Lee in Galveston, Texas.
Jack Johnson, aka Papa Jack, aka the Galveston Giant, aka Li’l Arthur, fought anyone, anywhere, any time a match could be made, but his progress was hampered by racism, the law, and his lack of formal training. Johnson was a small town phenomenon taking on all comers.
On February 25, 1901, Johnson fought Joe Choynski, the great Jewish heavyweight from San Francisco, who was barnstorming through Texas. Choynski was 32-years-old and past his prime, but he had sixty-eight bouts to his credit, including fights with John L. Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and Jim Jeffries. Johnson offered Choynski $200 for the match. Choynski accepted the money and took Jack Johnson to school. Johnson threw a lazy left jab in the third round and Choynski countered with a straight right to the chin. Johnson never knew what hit him. He went down and was out cold. The ref raised Choynski’s hand in victory.
Because boxing was illegal in the Lone Star State, the Texas Rangers entered the ring and placed the fighters under arrest. The men were jailed while their case dragged through the courts. Johnson and Choynski served their time by sparring in the jailhouse. During their twenty-four days in captivity, Choynski taught Johnson all he knew. Jack Johnson got a crash course from a professor in the art of demolition.
On February 3, 1903, Johnson won the black heavyweight title from Denver Ed Martin in Los Angeles. Johnson successfully defended that title many times during the next two years, including wins over Sam McVey, Joe Jeanette and Sam Langford.
Johnson flattened former heavyweight champ Bob Fitzsimmons in the second round when the two men met in Philly in 1907. Now Johnson was gunning for the title. He challenged the heavyweight champ Tommy Burns to a fight. Burns responded by embarking on a world tour . . . with Jack Johnson in hot pursuit.
The two men met on December 26, 1908 at Rushcutter’s Bay in Sydney, Australia in a fight that changed the face of boxing forever, even though it was a mismatch. Burns was not big enough, not skilled enough, not fast enough, not black enough to deal with Jack Johnson. Johnson could have starched Burns in the opening minute, but he toyed with the champ, he humiliated the champ, he made mincemeat of the champ. When Johnson wasn’t pounding Burns with stinging lefts and rights he attacked him with his mouth. “You punch like a woman, Tommy,” Johnson taunted. “Who taught you how to fight, your mother?” The ref waved it off in the fourteenth.
Jack Johnson held the heavyweight title for seven tumultuous years. He lived large, did it his way, and had a taste for the finer things in life. Diamond jewelry, tailored suits, Cuban cigars, fine wine, fast cars and white women were his daily bread. Johnson loved nothing more than to rub his excesses in the face of polite society. Caucasians across the land hated the champ.
The words “Great White Hope” first entered the lexicon during Jack Johnson’s title reign. The search was on for someone, anyone, so long as he was white, to try to “remove that golden smile from Johnson’s face.” Eventually former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries was dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement at the age of thirty-five to try to wrest the crown from Papa Jack. The Boilermaker knew better and should have stayed on his alfalfa farm, but out of loyalty to his race he betrayed his better judgment and agreed to fight Jack Johnson.
The two men met in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910 and Johnson gave Jeffries the beating of his life. After fifteen grotesque rounds, Big Jeff’s corner threw in the sponge. The best black man in America beat the best white man in America to a bloody pulp on the Fourth of July, and the black man’s brothers went crazy in celebration. Race riots, followed by retaliatory stabbings, shootings and lynchings, followed the fight. Hundreds were injured. Dozens of Johnson’s fans were murdered.
In 1912, Jack Johnson, while still champ, was arrested under the provisions of the Mann Act. The Mann Act outlawed transporting women across state lines “for prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose” and was used to convict syndicates involved in the white slave trade. That law had never been applied to an individual before. But Jack Johnson was a special case. He did transport a minor across state lines. The teenager was a former prostitute from Pittsburgh. She was white and they had sex. But Belle Schreiber, the alleged victim, was a willing accomplice.
Jack Johnson’s trial was held on May 13, 1913. Based on Belle Schreiber’s testimony, a jury of Johnson’s peers found the defendant guilty as charged and sentenced him to a year and a day at Joliet. Rather than have his freedom curtailed, Jack Johnson disguised himself as a ballplayer on Rube Foster’s Giants, a Negro League baseball team, and made his way out of the U.S. by train to freedom in Canada. The heavyweight champ was a fugitive from justice.
Jack Johnson successfully defended his title in Paris in 1913 and 1914. On April 15, 1915 Johnson met 6’6” Jess Willard at a Havana, Cuba racetrack in a fight scheduled for forty-five rounds. Johnson was thirty-seven at the time and the good life had taken its toll, but it wasn’t until the twenty-sixth round, under a blistering Caribbean sun, that the lumbering Willard caught Johnson coming off the ropes and clubbed him to the canvas with a combination. Johnson was counted out. It would be another twenty-two years before another black man (a quiet soul named Joe Louis) was heavyweight champion of the world.
Johnson kept fighting. He kayoed the mad punching poet Arthur Craven in Barcelona in 1916. He fought several times in Madrid and Mexico. In 1920, after seven years on the lam, Jack Johnson surrendered to the U.S. authorities and served eight months in Leavenworth.
After his release from prison, Johnson fought sporadically, a bout in Canada in 1922, a bout in Mexico in 1926, followed by fights in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Illinois. Jack Johnson had his final fight in 1938 at the age of fifty in Boston. He retired with a record of 91-14-12 (51 KOs).
Jack Johnson continued to live in high style. He gave boxing and wrestling exhibitions. He opened a nightclub. He was a journalist and author. He was a bullfighter. Papa Jack could do it all. He sang and danced like a pro. He played many musical instruments. He spoke a number of languages fluently. And, last but not least, Jack Johnson could fight.
Jack Johnson died as he lived – with the pedal pressed to the metal. He wrapped his speeding Lincoln Zephyr around a telephone pole in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946. Papa Jack was sixty-eight.
And now, many years after Johnson’s triumphs and violent end, several Congressmen have petitioned President George W. Bush to exonerate Jack Johnson. This move was spearheaded by the film maker Ken Burns, whose documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” airs on PBS in January. Burns studied the subject and believes Jack Johnson deserves a posthumous presidential pardon. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Illinois, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as well as Bernard Hopkins, Vernon Forrest, Sugar Ray Leonard and the actor Samuel L. Jackson, also hope Jack Johnson shall be released.