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Monday, February 26, 2024

The Story Of Jack Arthur Johnson, The First Black Heavyweight Champion Of The World


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The “Galveston Giant,” better known as Jack Arthur Johnson, was the first black heavyweight boxing champion in history. On December 26, 1908.

He fought Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, to claim the heavyweight championship, making history in the process.

Jack Arthur Johnson competed in demonstration contests until 1945 and fought professionally from 1897 to 1928.

He is regarded as one of the finest heavyweights of all time by many boxing experts.

Jack Arthur Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878.

He is the first son of Henry and Tina Johnson, two former slaves who worked as a dishwasher and janitor, and the third of their nine children.

Johnson exuded a sense of self-assurance and a desire to surpass the difficult upbringing he had had.

Johnson left school after a few years to work as a labourer to support his family. He actually spent a significant portion of his childhood in Galveston working on boats and sculleries.

By the time he was 16 years old, Jack Authur Johnson was out on his own, travelling to Boston and New York before coming home.

Around this time, Johnson engaged in his first fight. Although the prize money was small and his opponent was another longshoreman.

Jack Authur Johnson seized the opportunity and prevailed. Shortly after, he received $25 for enduring four rounds with professional boxer Bob Thompson.

In 1898, Johnson made his professional boxing debut. He quickly established himself as a strong opponent.

In Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908, he defeated Tommy Burns to win his first heavyweight championship.

He became the first black heavyweight champion in history after winning, and the black community erupted in jubilation.

Many white Americans, however, were outraged by Johnson’s triumph because they perceived it as a threat to their own sense of racial superiority.

Many white fighters refused to take on Johnson, and those who did were often soundly defeated.

A group of well-off white boxing promoters and supporters set out to find a “Great White Hope” who could defeat Johnson and reinstate the racial hierarchy in response.

Even the New York Times expressed their opinion about the situation, stating that “if the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers would mistake his success as justifying claims to far more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.”

By the turn of the century, Johnson, also known as the Galveston Giant, had established himself on the black boxing scene and had his sights set on Jim F. Jeffries, a white boxer who held the heavyweight championship.

Jeffries declined to fight him, but he wasn’t the only one. Johnson’s abilities and confidence, though, made them impossible to ignore. He was known for taunting his opponents while soundly defeating them.

Burns, who had replaced Jeffries as the champion, had only agreed to face Johnson after receiving a $30,000 guarantee from the organisers.

The fight was highly promoted as a struggle for racial supremacy, and despite being past his peak, Jeffries was seen to have the best chance of defeating Johnson.

The battle, which novelist Jack London witnessed and reported on for a New York newspaper, lasted until the 14th round, when it was stopped by police. The winner was announced as Johnson.

Johnson then proceeded to urge Jeffries to enter the ring with him. On July 4, 1910, he finally did. The fight, which took place in Reno, Nevada, and was dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” drew more than 22,000 eager fans.

Jack Arthur Johnson triumphed after 15 rounds, establishing his dominance over boxing and further infuriating white boxing supporters who detested seeing a Black man dominate the sport.

The defeat and what Jeffries had seen of his opponent left him humbled. “At my best, I could never have beaten Johnson,” he admitted. “I was unable to strike him. I couldn’t have caught up with him in a million years.”

Johnson received a sum of about $117,000 for the fight.

He lost the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in a 26-round fight in Havana, Cuba, five years later.

Jack Arthur Johnson kept fighting for another 12 years before finally putting up his gloves at the age of 50.

He had a total of 73 victories (40 of them knockouts), 13 defeats, 10 draws, and 5 no-contests on his professional resume.

The idea that a “great white hope” could be found to beat Johnson was crushed by Johnson’s triumph over Jeffries. The humiliation caused by Jeffries’ loss was felt by many white people.

Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant and hailed Johnson’s enormous victory as a step forward for racial equality.

William Waring Cuney, a black poet, later emphasised the blacks’ reactions to the brawl in his poem “My Lord, What a Morning.”

Race riots broke out that evening, on July 4, all over the country, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, D.C., as a result of the fight’s results.

Ultimately, there were riots in over 25 states and 50 cities. The riots in the US resulted in at least 20 fatalities and hundreds of injuries.

Johnson became more of a target for a white America that wanted to see him destroyed as he rose in prominence in the boxing world.

Johnson, on the other hand, delighted to flaunt his money and his contempt for racial norms.

He dated white ladies, drove expensive automobiles, and was a big spender. However, trouble was never far away.

He was found guilty of breaking the Mann Act in 1912 for transporting his white girlfriend across state lines prior to their wedding.

Johnson was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. However, his arrest was widely perceived as a barely disguised attempt to punish him for his associations with white women.

After being given a prison sentence, he went to Europe and hid out there for seven years. In 1920, he came back to the country and finished out his term there.

Following his release, he occasionally engaged in combat and appeared in vaudeville and carnival shows until finally debuting with a trained flea act.

Mes Combats, published in French in 1914, and Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out are two of his autobiographies (1927; reprinted 1975).

Johnson returned to boxing after completing his term and competed into the late 1920s. He died in an automobile accident on June 10, 1946, at the age of 68, after driving violently away from a segregated diner that refused to serve him.

In the years following Johnson’s passing, his reputation underwent a slow but steady restoration.

Members of the U.S. Congress, as well as others, including actor Sylvester Stallone, tried to get Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon, which is extremely uncommon.

In previous years, several legislators had requested the pardon. Senators John McCain and Harry Reid, as well as Congressmen Peter King and Gregory Meeks, issued a joint letter to President Barack Obama in 2016, pleading with him to overturn Johnson’s “racially-motivated conviction.”

Senator Corey Booker introduced a resolution in support of the boxer in 2017 together with his colleagues.

Johnson received a complete pardon from President Donald Trump in 2018, 105 years after his controversial conviction under the Mann Act.

The pardon was viewed as a long overdue acknowledgment of Johnson’s tremendous contributions to the civil rights movement and the boxing sport.

His criminal record came to be seen as the result of racial injustice more than actual misconduct.

Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and is a member of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

Personal Life of Jack Arthur Johnson

Jack Arthur Johnson became a target of prejudice and discrimination outside of the ring due to his flourishing profession and flamboyant attitude.

Johnson’s relationships with white women were one area of his life that received significant criticism and controversy.

There was a lot of controversy around Johnson’s three marriages, all of which were to white women.

In 1911, he married Brooklyn socialite and divorcee Etta Terry Duryea for the first time. Because of the instability of their relationship and her depression, Duryea ended up killing herself in 1912.

Johnson married Lucille Cameron only a few months after Duryea took her own life, but she later divorced him in 1924 due to his philandering.

The boxer wedded Irene Pineau the next year, and the couple remained together until his death in 1946.


Jack Arthur Johnson was portrayed by actor James Earl Jones in the 1970 movie The Great White Hope, which was based on the Howard Sackler play from 1967.

The title is a symbol of racism and repression since it alludes to some fans’ expectations that a white boxer will unseat Johnson as the heavyweight champion.

The Great White Hope was written in three acts and spans the years 1908 to 1915.

For their roles in the movie, Jones and Jane Alexander both received Oscar awards.

Johnson’s life was the subject of the renowned Ken Burns film Unforgivable Blackness twenty years after he was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (2004).

Also read: The Execution of Kinjikitile Ngwale, The Tanzanian Leader Who Fought Against German Colonialism


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