He had a fifth grade education, leaving school at thirteen, but by the time of his death he knew seven languages; French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Portuguese and English. He knew English Literature and even rewrote Othello so he could play it on stage.
He met the last Czar of Russia and Rasputin among other several heads of state and was once a special guest of President Carranza of Venezuela. He worked for US Intelligence during WW1, caught the eye of King Edward VII who first made positive comments about him and then met him. Johnson even took some public attention away from his successor, King George V, during the latter’s coronation in England.
As a Christian, he used to preach in Church and give sermons to listeners. On one occasion, his audience included the Ku Klux Klan, and they sat there for the whole speech. He was also romantically linked to Mata Hari, Mae West and several others.
His white opponents savagely ridiculed him, using the slurs, slang, insults and racism of the day. Jim Jeffries once said, ‘I’ve got no use for any living nigger. I’ve got less use for a nigger named Johnson.’
Tommy Burns later remarked of Johnson, ‘All black cats are yellow on the inside. That nigger ain’t nothing but a black cat.’
Jack Johnson’s “mastery of ring science, his ability to block, counter, and feint, are still unexcelled,” wrote Ring founder Nat Fleischer in ‘50 Years at Ringside’.
Historian and writer Gilbert odd said of him, “Jack’s skill at leading, picking his punches and whipping in precision blows was unequalled, so too was his uncanny ability to deflect punches aimed at him or to make them miss by a fraction of an inch by as he drew back his head.
His left jab was straight and true, his right-cross sheer artistry, while his uppercuts were devastating. He was an expert at drawing an opponent into his blows, and of course, as they advanced so met with double impact, “They just knock themselves out”, he was fond of saying.”
In 1896, Johnson then 18, became a sparring partner to the 23 yr old Joe Walcott, the ‘Barbados Demon’, who had been boxing for six years with fifty-eight wins already under his belt and was later crowned Welterweight Champion of the World.
Up until then, Jack Johnson the teenager had never worn a boxing glove or considered a boxing career. He did not even know how to fight, and had avoided fighting completely.
Joe Walcott was due to fight a white boxer, Scaldy Bill Quinn, who hated black people and both needed sparring partners before the bout. Initially, Johnson applied to Quinn’s camp, thinking the latter would prefer black partners since his opponent was also black. Quinn turned him down, and Johnson went to Walcott.
At the time, he was already 6ft tall and weighed 150 Ibs. Walcott trained the youth in the sparring sessions that followed. At first, Johnson took the punishment well, absorbing the punches and combinations that ripped into his body.
As the weeks progressed, Johnson grew in skill and learned to defend himself and give as good as he got. Walcott was impressed and insisted Johnson become his second in his upcoming bout with Quinn.
In the fight itself, Walcott was well ahead on points throughout the fight and seemed likely to win. During a break in the fight, Johnson instructed his mentor to go for a knockout since being black meant the points system could go against him.
Walcott accepted his advice and knocked out his white opponent in the 17th Round. Quinn fell, bleeding and senseless on the canvas. Johnson went over and gazed at the fallen pugilist. After the fight, the two (Walcott and Johnson) never met again.
Starting in the Battle Royale, where six blindfolded black fighters would be pitched against each other until only one remained standing for the entertainment of white onlookers, Johnson gained local celebrity status as the ‘Galveston Giant’.
In time, he won so many of these competitions, the other five black fighters would usually strike out deals beforehand to knock him out first, but all to no avail. He would still triumph. Later he would offer to fight anyone for 5-10 cents in Galveston.
It was in 1899 Jack Johnson fought his professional bout and travelled to Chicago looking for fighters between 1899 and 1901. It’s still unclear who his first opponent was, but it’s been suggested Jim McCormick, Jim Jefford or even John Haines Klondike could have been the one.
It is generally agreed he fought in 1901 with John Lee and Klondike, although the latter beat him in their first contest, an uppercut felled Klondike to the deck in Round 1. After the count of nine, the bell sounded to end the round and Klondike was still on the canvas. Johnson defeated or drew with him in every bout, except one, after that. In 1900 he won with a 14th Round knockout and a 13th Round knockout in 1901.
Joe Choynski, the ‘graduate professor’ of boxing was Johnson’s first serious white opponent. Although the bout was billed as a ‘fight to the finish’, Choynski dropped Johnson to the canvas in the 3rd Round. Until his loss to Willard fourteen years later, this was the only knockout Johnson sustained in his early career.
Both men were interred for the illegal bout where the two men continued where they left off with three weeks of regular sessions, day in day out for their prison audience. Choynski also trained the youthful Johnson on improving his performance and skills as a boxer.
In 1902, then aged twenty-four, Johnson was scheduled to meet, George Gardner, an Irish fighter of repute. However, due to his ability to win most of his bouts, it is said Johnson was permitted to sip beer from a white saloon where his drink was drugged and within minutes of leaving he felt sick and had to be carried back home.
Despite having a temperature of 102 for the week and constant vomiting, the bout went ahead and the visibly ill Johnson was led into the ring across the shoulders of his seconds. It is said, Johnson’s wife, manager and a friend, had bet heavily on Gardner to win and ensured throughout the contest their own fighter wouldn’t.
George Gardner dominated the early rounds with great ease, knocking Johnson from one side of the ring to the next, all the while the latter was being given rye whiskey in the break between rounds to further weaken and destroy his inner defences.
By the 12th Round, Gardner went in for the kill, but missed. It may have been his last opportunity. Johnson later remarked, ‘It looked like the eyes of death and murder were starin into mine.’
Johnson replied with three heavy shots to the body and his opponent then backed away after that. The next six rounds Gardner just ran clear of Johnson altogether and now refused to go toe to toe with the same man he had been closing in on earlier.
In the 19th and 20th Rounds, Johnson punished his adversary with the heaviest shots yet and Gardner collapsed to the canvas. The torture was over. Johnson, not yet a champion, had survived and beaten a national hero of another sovereign state.
Around 1902, the heavyweight champion of the world was Jim Jeffries, a protégé (and later an eventual conqueror) of Jim Corbett and until then was undefeated in every contest he had ever been. He would retire undefeated and only once was sent to the deck and even that was during an exhibition where he rose without a count.
It so happened, Jim Jeffries would encourage and invite all fighters to slug it out with him in the ring, the exception to the rule were emerging and talented young black boxers and by then Johnson was making headlines as a promising challenger. Jeffries had actually earlier fought an out of shape, Peter Jackson, a black Australian, albeit in the latter’s declining years in the late 1890s but drew the colour line after that.
Jeffries repeated his overtures and conditions and when no further challenges from white fighters seemed forthcoming, he retired to his farm. His brother, Jack Jeffries, known as the ‘other Jeff’ however, accepted to meet Johnson and the bout was staged in Los Angeles.
Despite being a three-to-one underdog in foreign territory, (Johnson was from Galveston, Texas) the more experienced Jack Jeffries was swept off his feet with a Fifth Round knockout.
By 1903, Johnson had won the Negro Heavyweight Championship of the World outpointing Denver Ed Martin, defeated the best black fighters including Frankie Childs, Joe Butler, Sam McVey and others. He was now scheduled to meet, Sandy Ferguson, a protégé of John L. Sullivan in San Francisco.
Ferguson was humiliated in front of his home crowd so viciously that he later kicked Johnson in the groin in disgust. The referee then awarded Johnson the match on a foul.
By 1906, Johnson had 54 victories to his credit. Among his ring triumphs included Jack Munro (the same man who had dropped Jim Jeffries in an exhibition bout) and Joe Grim, a top challenger who was floored eighteen times in the bout between them. In the latter bout, the match was rendered a ‘no decision’ nonetheless.
Johnson’s losses were small in comparison. Klondike had beaten him in 1901 (and was the only fighter ever to beat him twice). Joe Jeannette fought him a few times with one victory to his name whilst, Marvin Hart was among Johnson’s greatest worries.
This white fighter was mediocre, less than great and certainly not someone who in theory could outpoint, outlast or trouble a boxer like Johnson, but it was to his credit Hart emerged triumphant on points after 20 Rounds.
Although Hart was later crowned champion and beat several other fighters of great repute, it was his victory over Johnson that made him rise and featured as his greatest win ever.
Strangely Hart refused calls for a rematch and drew the colour line against Johnson soon afterwards. The victory was to be historic, not repeated and Johnson would have to live with the defeat as no revenge matches were forthcoming.
Hart was never rewarded for his win, Jim Jeffries had earlier said he would fight the victor if it was Hart and hoped for the white boxer to win, but denied him a title fight after the bout.
Hart never rose higher than his championship tenure and slumped downhill in comparison to Johnson, who featured higher in popularity, fame, history and perhaps even wealth and prestige.
Hart remains a solitary figure despite being champion for a time. It was his win over Johnson that stands above all else and his record other than his fight with the black champion is less significant, perhaps even unknown and unimportant in comparison among many worldwide.
In a rematch, it’s likely Johnson would have altered his tactics, go for a knockout, insist on a different venue and perhaps even agree to a fight to the finish to prevent the possibility of bias.
Jack Root heavily demolished Hart in 1906, had he been black, would he have got the decision? No one is certain. Jim Jeffries was the referee and may have been fairer in a Johnson-Hart 2 match.
What is certain is Hart was favoured with good fortune, the kind that was denied to Johnson in a heavily prejudicial era to the detriment of blacks in general and in the promotion of interests to whites.
Marvin Hart-Jack Johnson Fight, 28th March 1905
At Woodward’s Pavilion, San Francisco, USA, two Americans, one white, the other black; Marvin Hart and Jack Johnson, both of whom later secured the heavyweight belt stood against the other in what was later billed a historic contest.
Although it was not officially staged for a future ring battle with the heavyweight champion of the time, James Jeffries, observers were keen to know which of the two could be the better contender against him. Jeffries certainly wanted Hart to win.
Jeffries had already let it be known he would not fight a black man and retired aged thirty a few months after this bout. He wanted only the best white opponents and would leave the ring when no great white fighters were left.
At the time, Hart was neither a great puncher, a skilful fighter or a good opponent as such. Johnson meanwhile was in his prime, he was twenty-seven years old and according to some observers, a possible claimant to the title even then.
Arriving at the Pavilion, Johnson was 2-1 favourite to win. He had few losses to his name and had been in the ring since at least 1899, some have said 1896. After this fight, Hart refused a rematch.
Several hard rights to the body by Johnson during clinches opened the contest. He then followed up with swings to the head. Hart had yet to reply when the bell rang to end the round.
A smash to the kidneys left Hart breathing heavily in the Second Round. A left and some hooks to the jaw landed with force on Hart. The Kentucky Colonel did however push two right-lefts to the heart to end the round.
Hart tried to assert some dominance in the 3rd Round but didn’t succeed in landing any meaningful deliveries. Johnson seemed content just to keep out of his way and not reply either,
Several clinches appeared in the Fourth Round and although there were a few heavy exchanges, neither seriously hurt the other. Hart tried once more to punish Johnson in the Fifth, but Johnson blocked his shots effectively.
Hart rushed in during the Sixth Round, Johnson struck with a straight left and followed it up with another to roll the Colonel back, breaking his speed. The second shot was the hardest blow in the fight. Hart tried to push more shots in during the clinches that followed but with no effect.
Johnson assumed command in the Seventh Round. Left hooks to the jaw followed with continuity, the Colonel seemed unable to block or reply with equally convincing blows. Johnson let loose two rights to the jaw to close the round.
Johnson proceeded to repeat the eighth and ninth rounds with similar results and his supporters must have found some joy and amusement as their fighter pounded and powdered his opponent across the ring.
This was a demonstration of his ring superiority and personal strength over his opponent. Two-handed punches brought the first cut of the fight as a gash appeared over Hart’s mouth and blood trickled down his lips.
More quick combinations of the same kind soon followed. Hart hadn’t finished yet however, and was still rushing towards Johnson throughout, but all he got were several hard shots for his troubles.
Hart was in some trouble during the 10th Round. Johnson had him walled in on the ropes and Hart fought for dear life. The Kentucky Colonel fought well in the eleventh with both men exchanging some hard shots.
Hart even managed a right to the jaw that staggered Johnson briefly. The first and only time in the fight Hart landed an effective strike, which his white supporters felt almost knocked Johnson out.
The next three rounds saw Johnson cut the pace somewhat, allowing Hart some room for the first time. However, Hart was still unable to dominate despite Johnson’s change in manoeuvre.
The 15th and 16th Rounds were by far Hart’s best yet. He swung at the head and body as he drove Johnson across the ring. Hart was punished heavily in the 17th Round however, with hammering deliveries. Hart was tired at the close of the round.
Rounds 18-20 had little in them. Johnson seemed to have lost interest or was disturbed by something. He let Hart do the chasing and the attacking and although his opponent repeatedly struck him in the ribs, it was the Kentucky Colonel who looked battered, bruised and badly beat up by the end.
Hart’s face was a mess by the 20th Round, but he had successfully covered up against several uppercuts throughout the fight, although Johnson’s counterpunches wore him down. The crowd were mostly white and had cheered every time Hart struck or seemed the more intent; there had been silence when Johnson took over.
Johnson had won at least 15 out of 20 Rounds according to some of the newspapers of the day and it appears he may have thought he could coast for the last few as he already had the fight wrapped up by then. If this was true it was a misjudgement that cost him dearly, although even if he had won, James Jeffries would still not have fought him.
The referee, Alec Greggains, who incidentally was also Hart’s manager and ran Woodward’s Pavilion where the bout was staged, awarded the fight to the Kentucky Colonel. He had a stake in the fight and it was to his interest his own fighter win the bout.
Greggains also favoured aggressive fighters and this was the reason he gave to a badly damaged and bleeding Hart being given the decision above a totally unmarked Johnson. The referee added Hart was the more aggressive of the two and fought with determination whilst Johnson seemed passively on the defensive throughout the bout.
The referee was criticised for his decision, but he remarked Marvin Hart had more gameness and aggression in him, whilst Johnson showed defensiveness for much of the fight. Johnson had easily dominated in the early phase of the fight with Marvin Hart. Later Hart refused a rematch with Johnson.
Unlike Marvin Hart, Jeanette would fight Johnson again and again and never won, whilst being battered and bruised in all other ‘no decisions’ and ‘draws’ between them. Johnson even took on Jeanette and another boxer, Walter Johnson, the same night and beat them both.
It was also in 1905 Jack Root won the heavyweight crown, decisively outpointing Marvin Hart for the vacant title, now that Jeffries had retired and officiated the bout. Tommy Burns, a Canadian, dethroned Root the following year and now held the belt.
By then, Johnson had fought over six hundred rounds and won sixty-three fights, losing only four in seven years. The international mass media wasn’t interested and neither was the new champion.
In 1907, a former white champion, Robert Fitzsimmons, then aged 44 years, accepted to fight Johnson. Fitzsimmons had won the title ten years earlier against James Corbett, the second heavyweight champion under Queensberry rules since 1892.
The bout was Johnson’s largest purse yet, $1, 200, but it was over in minutes as Fitzsimmons sunk to the deck in a spectacular 2nd Round knockout. The former champion commented later, he was afraid of the repercussions of rising at the sight of Johnson above him.
‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn was the next sorry victim and was carried out from the ring with a broken jaw in an 11th Round knockout. By now, Johnson was almost thirty.
Jim Jeffries did eventually agree to take on Johnson, but not in the ring itself. He wished to have a private fight in a backroom with the door locked. His reason for the change of heart was more to do with Johnson’s personal life rather than his skills as a boxer. Besides, if he did lose no one could claim to have seen it and Jeffries could still retain his respect as an able fighter.
For Johnson, it was not sufficient, no title was at stake and if he beat Jeffries, the newsmen would pounce on him as a bully and murderer and Jeffries could downplay the incident or even worse accuse him of ganging up with other black men. Jeffries word would be law, no one would believe Johnson.
John L. Sullivan, the last bare knuckle champion and first heavyweight champion under Queensberry rules, who had point blank refused to meet the best black fighters of his own era, including the Australian Peter Jackson (who most analysts predicted would demolish Sullivan in a few rounds) and the Canadian George Godfrey, spoke next.
‘Why was he afraid to take Jeff on in a private fight? When I was champion I took anybody on, anywhere! He’s a yellow dog. That’s what he is. My boy Kid Cutler would kill that dinge.’
Johnson for once had been issued a challenge and it was guaranteed coverage, especially since John L. Sullivan would be there. The bout was arranged and sure enough, a large audience took their seats to see Cutler destroy Johnson in twelve scheduled rounds. At least that’s what they wanted to see.
Sullivan appeared in person for once, the first time to a Jack Johnson bout (but not the last). He was introduced, took a bow and pointing to his protégé, said loud enough for people to hear-
‘I now give you a champion of the people, the next champion of the world.’
The cheers, excitement and jubilation drowned as soon as the bell rang. A determined Cutler approached Johnson and took a strike at the head, Johnson struck with a left and the fight was over. The unconscious Cutler was carried out from the ring.
Cutler’s demise persuaded Tommy Burns to fight Johnson. ‘I’ll take care of the nigger when I return to America.’ In the meantime, Johnson was signed to meet Ben Taylor, the ‘Olrich Terror’ in England.
Taylor had never been knocked off his feet and the deal between Johnson’s manager agreed he could only win by knockout alone. The fight would go ten rounds instead of twelve with two minutes a round, twenty minutes in total.
Prior to the fight, Johnson was forced to pose almost naked for the pleasure of British businessmen, sports reporters and the like as a specimen of interest rather than as a human bring whilst they talked, joked and physically examined him as if he couldn’t hear or sense them.
The purpose behind it all was to ascertain his strength, physique and body as Johnson’s manager explained how his fighter could take on and defeat Taylor, who was their man, under the conditions agreed.
Johnson bore the insults, the physical poking of his body and feeling of his arms and muscles and the embarrassing static position he was forced to do with his eyes closed until the session was over.
On the day of the match, both men appeared with different mindsets. Taylor as white fighter with hopes of further glory after the bout and Johnson with a view of finding ways of beating his adversary by a knockout or nothing.
After eight uneventful rounds, neither fighter looked like winning and Johnson clinched. He claimed Taylor bit him and when his white opponent dropped his guard, a right and left finished him.
Another challenge to Jim Jeffries brought back a cold reply, ‘No dinge is any good. All coons look alike to me.’ This particular statement resulted in a song with the same name, ‘All Coons look alike to me.’
As soon as it came out, it was played in almost every fight involving Johnson including the one with Jeffries later in 1910 by the seemingly unbiased white boxing establishments.
A bout with home favourite, the Irishman Al McNamara, whilst still on British soil brought life back to Johnson’s gloves in response to the taunts against him. A series of thunderous blows shook McNamara and sent him reeling to the canvas.
Three knockdowns in three minutes, the Irishman was feeling the thrust of Johnson’s anger. McNamara was saved by the bell after the third knockdown and was carried back to his corner.
The onslaught continued in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Rounds until finally McNamara collapsed unconscious from the blows. It had not been a fight. It had been a total annihilation.
Some time before Johnson was to meet Tommy Burns in the ring, the two men met in person to discuss further details. Burns brought a revolver and walked over to Johnson. Holding his pistol, Burns opened up saying-
‘Hello, you stinking nigger scum, so we meet, huh?’
The meeting was brief and both men had to be restrained by their respective sides whilst swearing and threatening the other, but not before a few items had been agreed nonetheless.
Hugh McIntosh, the fight promoter, for example, was made referee despite his admission he knew nothing about boxing rules and had bet heavily on a Johnson victory beforehand.
However, he was the only one the two sides would agree to referee the bout. Both parties believed the other’s choices were biased and likely to be prejudiced in the favour of the proponent.
Burns however did relent on a major issue that had been playing on Johnson’s mind for a while; the referee could award the fight on points if it came down to it. Before his consent to this, it was assumed Burns might still retain his title even if he was knocked off his feet, disqualified, or led out of the ring by his seconds.
So strong was Burns’ belief in himself he let Johnson’s conscience be soothed by his concession and trained lightly in the weeks leading up to the fight.
Jack Johnson-Tommy Burns Fight 1908
On December 25th 1908 at Rushcutter’s Bay on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia stood the first official contest between a white champion and a black challenger in a historic occasion.
The Champion, Tommy Burns, was a Canadian boxer and had held the title since 1906 after outpointing Jack Root for the vacant title after 20 Rounds. Jim Jeffries had retired the previous year and was both present for the bout and the referee between the two men.
After winning the title, Burns, like Jeffries before him, had evaded his current opponent, Jack Johnson, until now on grounds of colour alone and had finally agreed to meet him in the ring.
Tommy Burns (real name Noah Bruso) at 5ft7ins was the shortest Champion on record and that day was the 7 to 4 favourite to retain the title. He himself allowed the referee, much to Johnson’s delight, to make a decision if it went the distance, so confident he would win with ease.
The bout opened at 11.15am with both men springing at each other at the sound of the bell. Johnson opened up with a flurry of punches followed by a right uppercut ripping into the Champion’s stomach and connecting to his jaw landing with bone-crushing force.
Burns was lifted off his feet and landed on the canvas. The Champion rose after an eight second count only to be greeted by a right hook leaving Burns reeling and rolling. After another blow by Johnson, Burns follows up with a punch of his own, his first of the fight. Johnson laughed at the Champion’s lack of strength.
Burns covered up to protect his head and body as Johnson sent in more hammering shots in succession against the biceps and muscles of his arms. Red blotches of blood appeared on the Champion’s body as each of the challenger’s punches landed. The bell sounded early to cut short the Champion’s agony.
Johnson danced back to his corner singing the national anthem. As the bell rang to signal the Second Round, Johnson danced towards Burns taunting him to come out and face him. A right hand from the challenger dropped the Champion for the count, the second time in the fight.
Burns rose up quickly and clinched. After breaking, Johnson let loose another combination of punches. The Champion reeled away, peddling and running backwards around the ring.
The Champion came back with a new set of instructions, shouts of encouragement from his corner to go for the challenger’s stomach in Round 3. Burns’s body continued to redden with fresh bruises opening up as the challenger rained down more blows.
The Champion attempted a straight right to the jaw only to be rewarded with a vicious left to the kidneys that left Burns back on the canvas. The bell sounded early as usual to relieve the Champion of further punishment.
Johnson danced around at the beginning of Round 4 with Burns rushing towards him while continuing to converse with him. A series of blows connected to the Champion’s head, torso and body as Johnson stepped back and then repeated the combination twice.
After a third such now systematic explosive delivery of strikes, this time on the face and body, the Champion’s eyes swelled with blood gushing profusely from the lips. The Champion replied with some curses on the challenger’s race only to be welcomed with another set of punches to end the round.
Success came to the Champion finally in the Fifth Round; Burns ripped into the challenger and landed an effective shot to the face causing Johnson to bleed. Johnson taunted further and then landed a blow of his own, also to the face forcing the Champion to step back, spitting blood from his displaced lips as he went.
In the Sixth Round, Johnson dropped his arms voluntarily in the middle of the ring inviting the Champion to hit him. Burns seemed enlivened by this and lashed in at the open stomach. Johnson hadn’t budged and taunted further for the Champion to strike again, this time harder.
Johnson spun the Champion in a trance before delivering another right uppercut causing Burns to reel across the ring again. After a left to the head, the Champion’s eye swelled to the size of a grapefruit and was now closed entirely.
Johnson now worked on the body as Burns staggered and hung on to the ropes to prevent himself from falling to the canvas. Johnson held up the now seemingly lifeless body to the crowd, taunting them of their previous unflinching belief in him destroying the black challenger.
As the bell rang, Burns’s seconds literally carried the now blind Champion back to his corner. At this time, the fight had in reality come to an end, it was a massacre and there was no point in continuing the bout. Nevertheless, it went on.
The odds had also been reversed. Johnson was 2 to 1 to take the title, even by whites who still wanted the Champion to stage a miracle. Burns did fight back, but it was an ugly sight. His shredded lips, his swollen and bloodied eyes and his badly bruised and reddened body were grotesque to see as the rounds went on.
After Round 8, Johnson lost interest in the fight and instead focussed on spectators and his black supporters. Burns threw a desperate swing in the meantime and for the first and only occasion in the fight, Johnson ducked almost to the canvas.
As the rounds progressed, Burns saw no light at the end of the tunnel, no end to the murderous torture and yet no more serious fighting from Johnson. The 13th Round saw more fresh blood emanating again from Burns’s body.
In the 14th Round, Johnson unleashed right uppercuts at will. Burns fell to the deck, his fourth in the fight, but his first since the 3rd Round. The Champion’s supporters now begged the police chief to stop the bout. The inspector of police was rushed from his seat and climbed into the ring, gesturing to the referee to end it.
Hugh McIntosh, the referee and promoter of the fight complied. Jack Johnson had done it; he was the new Heavyweight Champion of the World, the first black Champion in history.
Despite the destruction of Burns, who by now also had a shattered nose to add to his already demolished body, Johnson remained unrecognised as the true champion and as the great white hopes came and went so did the anger and resentment against him by whites.
Stanley Ketchel, a Polish American Middleweight, was among them and agreed with Johnson to a pre-arranged 20 Round bout for the benefit of the cameras, which were a new phenomenon then. After 11 Rounds, Johnson was well ahead on points but then something happened to unnerve the Champion.
Johnson’s water bottles were switched and he was given dope to drink between rounds. It had more effect as the rounds progressed and as he began feeling the full weight of the switch, Ketchel caught him off guard for once and sent in a left to the ear and Johnson was on the canvas. He had double crossed Johnson with the assistance of one of the latter’s seconds.
At the count of seven, Johnson rose and delivered one of the most crushing shots ever delivered in a professional fight. The lethal uppercut exploded on Ketchel’s face and jolted his head back with sledgehammer force.
So strong was the strike that it ripped out six teeth off his jaw. He immediately dropped to the deck unconscious. In the dressing room afterwards, Johnson discovered one of Ketchel’s missing teeth on his glove; five of the others were still on the canvas or spread across the ring. Ketchel remained in a coma for hours afterwards.
In time, Stanley Ketchel became one of his many sparring partners and close friends and the bad blood between them disappeared. A few years later however, Ketchel was shot and killed over a woman. He was twenty-four.
‘That nigger’s no champ! I own the title. And there ain’t no dinge that to take it from me.’ Brave, eye-catching and maybe even historically required words of defiance from Jim Jeffries.
Nevertheless they were contradictory sentiments from Jim Jeffries shortly before his bout with Johnson. One has to wonder who Jack Root and Tommy Burns were when Jeffries retired.
Even more so why did he preside over the bout between Marvin Hart and Jack Root as a referee to be his successor in 1905-6. Should he have not been in the ring as the champion instead?
Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries 1910
On the Fourth of July 1910, a previously undefeated Champion was to take on the first black Champion. Jim Jeffries had retired a few years earlier, but after much pressure from the white public to dethrone Johnson, he accepted and threw a challenge to the black Champion.
The odds were 10 to 6 in Jeffries favour, and although Johnson was the Champion, it was Jeffries who was introduced as such and given a much larger sum to fight than the actual titleholder.
Six hundred newsmen were among the sixteen thousand spectators that day. Fifty US marshals also checked and confiscated all weapons at the gate to return them later after the fight.
At ringside, James Corbett stood as a second for Jeffries while John L Sullivan, Tommy Burns, Sam Fitzpatrick, Abe Attel and Jake Kilrain and others took their seats close to the scene. In time, Corbett would also hurl curses and abuse at Johnson throughout the bout.
Johnson’s response was to join him in the ring as Jeffries’ replacement so that both men could slug it out with their fists instead of their words. Corbett now 44 years old and past his prime, was content with verbal assaults alone.
He knew Johnson would dismantle him in a few rounds. Corbett in his youth was praised for his style that was in some ways similar to Johnson, slowly moving in for the kill, toying with your opponent and using ring science, when Johnson employed it he was criticised.
Corbett had good reason to want Jeffries to win; after all he had bet ten thousand dollars on him to triumph that night. In Round 1, Johnson sent in a light strike to Jeffries face before moving out and then stepping back in with a heavier hook to the chin and then pushed Jeffries away.
A series of punches from Johnson brought to the crowd to their feet, rattling Jeffries for the first time. As the round progressed, Johnson set a pattern for the fight. He would dance around, feinting, dodging, laughing and sending in deliveries of punishing strokes while Jeffries defended his body from the barrage of artillery being struck against him.
Round 2 saw the first clinch of the match with Jeffries hoping to recuperate from the severity of the pounding he was constantly receiving. Johnson laughed and sent in a hard left followed by a right sending Jeffries staggering and reeling across the ring.
Jeffries rushed back, only for Johnson to dodge, feint and dance around before replying with a few hard shots of his won rocking his white opponent off balance before delivering another left.
Jeffries rushed to Johnson in the Third Round and this time the Champion clinched. After addressing the newsmen with a few words about the challenger, Johnson sent in another flurry of punches before the second clinch and repeated this for the cameras to catch just in case they missed it the first time.
By now Jeffries left eye had closed, his head was already ‘swollen to the size of a pumpkin’ but he continued and sent in his hardest jabs yet, to the body and stomach where it was thought black men are weakest. Johnson responded in kind by giving him the same treatment, only this time Jeffries fell back.
By the Fifth Round, it had become clear Johnson was carrying Jeffries. He was prolonging the bout for his personal enjoyment and had no desire to end the fight early and knock out the challenger. Corbett admitted later he and many others wished Johnson would end it soon.
The Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Rounds were little more than games of torture for Jeffries. Johnson wasn’t fighting him, he was toying with him and at other times dismantling him.
After the Eighth Round, Johnson started conversing with famous ringside spectators he recognised in a monologue tone. An angry and charging Jeffries again brought the white audience to their feet only to be sat down again by the Champion’s reply. Jeffries was met with a dancing, feinting and amused Johnson who picked off the challenger’s thrusts and clinched.
A left, then a right sent Jeffries spinning to the far side of the ring. Jeffries returned quickly only to be met with a right to the mouth causing blood to flow from his lips. The first cut of the fight.
Four more rights in succession from Johnson caught the challenger as he rushed again to the Champion. Close to the end of the round, Johnson pumped in some more hard shots before another clinch.
Jeffries landed a right to the ribs, his first successful knock, but it only made Johnson laugh and as the bell rang, it was Jeffries who wobbled back to his corner, tired and exhausted.
In the Ninth Round, Johnson displayed his footwork, driving in digging blows, ducking and vanishing to come into the other side. Jeffries meanwhile was the sorry victim of it all, taking in heavy punishment and stumbling across the ring to catch up with him. By the end of the round, Jeffries nose had been broken.
Unlike before, Johnson gave warnings to Jeffries of a punch about to be thrown against him and then send it on the helpless challenger, causing him to reel. A rushing Jeffries was caught by Johnson counting out loud. ‘One’, a left landed effectively on Jeffries, ‘Two’, a right uppercut made Jeffries body stand up erect. Jeffries reeled away to the ropes.
The Champion continued his barrage of assaults. Jeffries blood was on both the referee’s shirt and on Johnson. By the 13th Round, Jeffries was virtually blind in both eyes and waded through the ring to catch sight of Johnson.
In the 13th Round, Johnson slowed down the pace with short blows to the body and face. The swelling from his face had worsened. His bleeding and badly bruised body could not take any more. Jeffries was dazed and unable to reply but tried anyway.
His short spell of jabs at Johnson, who didn’t bother to defend himself, were all that was left of him, the shots contained no power in them. Johnson sunk in some shots of his own and Jeffries was on the ropes, leaning on them for dear life.
Johnson then ripped through with another flurry of fists and for the first time in his career, Jeffries slumped to the deck for a count. He pulled himself up by the ropes and rose to clinch Johnson. Jeffries waved to his corner to send in the sponge to save him from a knockout, but Johnson sent in a hammering right and Jeffries was back on the canvas.
Jeffries corner threw in the sponge, but the referee hadn’t seen it and the count commenced. Jeffries rose at the count of ten, but sunk to the floor almost as soon as he had got up. Johnson had done it again. He had vanquished the invincible by a knockout. Only now was he recognised as King of the Heavyweights.
“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.”
This admission was far reaching showing Jeffries felt Johnson was the better of the two fighters overall both in skill and ability and even in his prime, Jeffries would have lost decisively.
John L. Sullivan later entered the ring and reluctantly congratulated Johnson with a firm handshake. This new courtesy lacked colour however, as Sullivan promptly renewed the quest for another Great White Hope.
After destroying Jeffries, Johnson’s adversaries in the ring diminished and he had few opponents with whom to do battle. It was then Johnson fought a fellow black man for once. Battling Jim Johnson.
Johnson fought his opponent for the most part with a broken arm; the injury had been self-inflicted during the bout whilst trying for a special punch. Johnson nevertheless inflicted a severe battering upon his opponent.
Frank Moran, a white boxer, was next on the list. The year was 1914, the venue for the match was Paris, France and WW1 was one week away. Still a small number of celebrities came to see two men slug it out while the rest of Europe would later kill each other elsewhere.
Rounds 1 and 2 showed few signs of life as neither fighter attempted to dominate the bout. Both waited for the other to bring the fight to them. Moran was the first to land a successful punch, but was rewarded with a more ferocious shot that sent the challenger reeling. Rounds 3 and 4 followed a similar pattern to the first two. Moran was being careful not to lose his cool.
An effective strike on the Champion’s head brought the Fifth Round to a standstill, but Johnson retaliated with an equally heavy right and left to the rib cage. The two then clinched. Moran was hurt and it showed.
A right uppercut tore through Moran’s face and cracked his nose open. With blood gushing into his mouth, Moran went back out of range and the bell soon soothed his anguish and increasing anxiety.
Moran backed away further in the Sixth, but caught Johnson with a good punch that dazed the Champion slightly. In the Eighth, Johnson charged and despite his punching power, Moran remained on his feet.
Johnson stopped dancing and attempting to dominate from then on and took a more relaxed approach to the bout and to Moran’s attitude. It went on like this throughout the rest of the match.
In the 20th Round, Johnson landed a vicious straight left to the jaw that almost dislocated the challenger’s head from the body, but the fight continued. Johnson worked on the now defenceless Moran who had stopped protecting his body and took all the blows as they landed.
The bell ended the fight and Moran had survived the onslaught, but still lost the fight. In their second fight much later, Johnson would emerge the winner a second time and on this occasion via a knockout. Revenge for the dismal draw had been achieved, for Moran it was another blow.
In 1916, Frank Moran fought Johnson’s successor, Jess Willard, for the title and couldn’t dislodge him either, but survived with a well earned draw some felt Willard had won. Among the ringside observers was John L. Sullivan.
In December 1914 meanwhile, Johnson delivered a 3rd Round knockout of Jack Murray in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Even at thirty-six and with occasional fights he was flooring opponents with ease.
Two days before his fight with Willard, Sam McVey, an earlier black opponent, seven years his junior, with whom he had fought and beaten on all three occasions, was brought in as a sparring partner.
Whilst Johnson represented the bad black image, McVey was the epitome of the good American boy, albeit the black man, who knew his place, accepted black inferiority, was both apologetic and quiet and kept his opinions about race and culture to himself.
He died penniless of tuberculosis aged thirty-six in 1921. Jack Johnson, the ‘bad black man’, who the media projected as selfish, egoistic and fun loving both arranged and paid for McVey’s funeral.
McVey’s ‘white friends’ were nowhere to be seen and his death passed virtually unnoticed in international boxing circles worldwide. 30 years later, Sam Langford, the Canadian ‘Boston Tar Baby’, another such ‘good boy’ was blind, homeless and broke.
The Jack Johnson-Jess Willard Fight 1915
Jess Willard was a cowboy from Potawatomie County in Kansas, Iowa. By the time he fought Jack Johnson for the Heavyweight Championship in 1915, he was 34 years old, 6ft6ins, 250 Ibs and with an arm reach of 83 inches, seemed like a living giant hovering over his opponents.
It was in 1910, five years earlier, whilst a country boy living and working on the ranch, Willard heard the sad news the latest Great White Hope, the previously undefeated and seemingly invincible former champion, Jim Jeffries, had lost in a spectacular bout with the new sensational black titleholder, Jack Johnson.
At the time, Willard was close to thirty and had not even considered a sports career. A friend asked Willard with his physique and strength, why he didn’t become a challenger himself.
Willard seemed dumbstruck by it. He had not worn a boxing glove until he was twenty-six and had not fought in a bout until he was twenty-nine. The interest in boxing then had been for fun among friends and other locals.
Willard was three years younger than Johnson, five inches taller than the Champion, outweighed him by 50 Ibs and out-extended his arm reach by at least ten inches over his adversary.
Jess Willard had a solid left jab and a good right hand, the endurance to fight 25 plus rounds and the power enough to kill a man in the ring with a single blow. He was an upper cutter and his strikes were heavy and destructive.
Only two years earlier however, Willard had sent in a hammering uppercut to one opponent, William (Bull) Young that his adversary slid to the canvas immediately and had to be carried out in a stretcher from the ring. His opponent’s neck had been severely dislocated and he died from the injuries he sustained the next day in hospital.
Jack Johnson meanwhile, Willard’s newest opponent, was close to forty, had held the Heavyweight crown for seven years and had already vanquished at least one Great White Hope along the way in a ‘battle of the century’, except he was not supposed to win.
Johnson trained hard on South American soil whilst Willard enjoyed national and white support in his native America. After all, the government wanted the Champion behind bars and held to be a fugitive from justice and barred him from entering the country.
Betting was heavily on Willard to take the crown no longer than the fifteenth round. Johnson had been described as being old, over the hill and past his best. His good living had finally caught up with him.
American Newspaper reports for two months prior to the bout had portrayed him as homesick, unfit, repentant for his mistakes and seeking to give everyone the last great fight of his life.
South American newspapers meanwhile painted quite a different story with actual pictures of Johnson in training and looking fresh, solid, muscular and as determined as ever.
The venue for the fight was the Oriental Race Track in Havana, Cuba. Jack Curley, the fight promoter, who himself wanted Willard (or anyone else except a black man both like and unlike Johnson) to win and let the Champion know it prior to the bout, had wanted El Paso, Mexico, to host the match, but a revolution there a little earlier had ended those plans.
Fifteen thousand spectators stood facing the scorching roasting sun; thermometers recorded the heat as being over 1000 C. The Cubans called such a day, ‘a good day for nothing except drying out tobacco.’
Both of the earlier Battle of the Centuries had been in such weather and each one had involved Jack Johnson triumphing via a knockout over his white opponents, both of whom believed they would defeat him decisively.
The police had stopped the first bout in 1908 when Tommy Burns, Johnson’s first victim, was in bad shape in the 14th Round and the sponge was thrown to save Jim Jeffries, his second opponent in 1910 from the worst beating he had ever received.
The Willard team prepared their fighter for endurance to outlast the Champion. Willard’s height, body strength and reach were to contain Johnson in the early rounds and weaken him in the latter rounds.
Cheers followed after each fighter entered the open air ring. The historic fight was scheduled to last a maximum of forty-five long excruciating rounds, neither fighter had been taken the distance to date and until the end of the careers, neither did. This was the longest fight either boxer was to ever endure in an official contest. Johnson however, is recorded to have fought and won an unsubstantiated 65 Round bout years later.
As the fight entered the 1st Round, a deadly silence ensued as both boxers moved in close to the other. Johnson feinted, danced around and grinned for the first minute whilst taunting the challenger amid delivering a few small blows.
Willard seemed oblivious to them all, and until the end of the bout did not once respond to Johnson’s verbal barrage of assaults. He was however, unprepared for Johnson’s first serious shot; a tremendous left to the jaw.
Willard was sent staggering to the ropes, the blow had left him reeling and in shock, Johnson had been playing with him all this time and the challenger had failed to realise how and when to act.
Johnson followed up with a series of solid blows into the body of the now helpless Willard. No cheers or applause were heard, no screams of encouragement for the Champion, just the grumbling of dissatisfied customers. The bell ended Willard’s agony a short time later.
Round 2 was different only in Willard backing away from Johnson this time, unwilling to test the waters as he had in the first round. Nerves had begun to show. Johnson was not the old and worn out wash out the media had envisaged.
Midway in the Second Round, however Johnson started taunting again and as he drew for a right upper cut the challenger forced a clinch, the younger man had initiated the first embrace as early as Round 2 and had barely touched the Champion. Johnson then let loose a few shots to the body before the bell rang to end another uneventful round for Willard.
A laughing Johnson pumped more bombs at Willard in the Third Round and then stepped back grinning after doing so. Willard was not living up to his billing and had fared worse than most of Johnson’s adversaries. Willard had not even thrown a single punch of any worth and it was Johnson who was letting him continue.
After the first series of punches, another flurry of fists followed with virtually no return blows from Willard. Johnson again voluntarily stepped back, almost bowing as if acting in a theatre performance.
The audience were now howling and screaming for the challenger to pick himself up. Willard just stumbled across the ring swept away by the Champion’s deliveries. The bell sounded after a few more taunts against Willard.
Round 4 saw Willard receive the first cut of the fight and he continued to bleed from the mouth throughout the bout. By the Fifth Round, Willard had sent in some punches successfully, but received more in return and Johnson was still well ahead on points and energy levels.
Willard had wobbled back to his corner, bent at the knees having been battered and worked on at the ropes. All the while, Johnson kept up a running conversation with the challenger.
Round Six followed the same pattern with Willard unable to land a single shot to shake or hurt the Champion. Willard reeled and rocked about the ring. Willard’s punches had been shoddy; Johnson laughed at his opponent’s returns.
In the Seventh Round, a thunderous left to the jaw sent Willard wobbling once more back to his corner and in Round 8, Johnson looked set for a knockout but the white challenger survived the ordeal. Throughout the fight, Willard had been trying to block using his long arms, gloves and elbows against the might of the Champion.
The Cuban army had been posted to patrol the ringside and stadium in place of local police and by now were restraining angry spectators from entering the ring to defend Jess Willard.
Johnson showed signs of sweat by the Ninth Round, giving some people the impression he was tired. Willard’s manager directed his fighter to go for the heart and chest. Willard complied and the crowd roared with new found energy as the challenger landed some hard shots to the rib cage.
Johnson laughed again and after sliding away pounded three right jabs in succession opening red blotches on Willard’s body, which showed signs of hurt and pain as each one struck its target. Willard grimaced with each shot to his body.
The bell then rang to end the fight’s first glimpse of the challenger, Jess Willard, coming alive, if only for a moment. In later rounds, it was Johnson who was described as a big bear even though Willard was taller but until then height didn’t matter to anyone present.
Some critics report that at end of the Tenth Round,
‘There haven’t been any redder ribs than Willard’s during a Championship bout, since those of Jim Jeffries in his tenth round with Johnson.’
The rounds continued with little change. Willard charged, was sent back staggering, stumbling and reeling across the ring, Johnson smiled, laughed and talked to him while keeping up a steady combination of shots and short flurry of bombs.
In the Sixteenth Round, Johnson unleashed the terror in him causing Willard to take a savage beating as he rocked around in despair. Some spectators were closing their eyes unable to look on at the beating being inflicted on the challenger.
Johnson slowed down the pace in the Seventeenth Round to allow Willard time to recover, and this time Johnson no longer seemed as interested in delivering hard blows. Johnson was taking it easy. Willard even managed to hit Johnson in the mouth causing him to bleed as well.
Willard had thrown some heavy punches at Johnson throughout the fight, only for many of them to land in the air as Johnson dodged and danced around the perplexed Willard. Both men laughed a little at the empty exchanges in the early rounds.
Signs of fatigue seemed to appear on the Champion in Round 18 and Tex O’Rourke, the challenger’s manager, instructed Willard to finish his opponent in the 20th and for the first time in the fight, Johnson was on the defensive.
However, by the 21st Round, Johnson had still well ahead on points and had won every round decisively. Although he was sweating and was bleeding from the mouth, he had dominated Willard so badly that few dared to now wager against him.
The white challenger had hardly hurt him. Jess Willard was no power house, despite his heavy punching potential; the Champion had deliberately kept him in the match by stepping back once the challenger showed signs of exhaustion and an inability to exchange blow for blow. The Mannasa Mauler, Jack Dempsey, would not repeat this action four years later.
The 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th and 26th Rounds belonged to Willard however. Reporters at ringside brought back the stories of Johnson’s lifestyle taking its toll on him, his tiredness and fatigue as an old man and Willard as the one wiping the smile off the Champion’s face with renewed strength.
Willard was being described less and less by ringside reporters (and later by other newsmen as well) as the focus of the fight still remained with Johnson’s age, wearing and sagging old body and skin colour.
In the 26th Round, Willard delivered a left and after a short pause followed up with a right uppercut. Johnson fell to his knees and then rolled over on to his back; the first and only knockdown of the match.
On six separate occasions in the bout, Johnson had almost finished off the challenger starting as early as the First Round and at least twice, both in Round 2, had walked away from stopping him completely, bowing to the audience to show he was actually carrying Willard and giving him time to recuperate.
For 20 Rounds, Johnson dominated the fight, cutting Willard in the Fourth, pounding him against the ropes by the Fifth, causing red stains to appear on his ribs in the Tenth and sending him dazed and bent at the knees to his corner throughout the fight.
Willard had more than once attempted to stage a comeback by rushing at the Champion, but was greeted each time with quick jabs and combinations in succession and his supporters just closed their eyes.
Only the Champion’s apparent tiredness often awakened the challenger to go on the offensive and try for a knockout. At all other times, he just dodged and took his opponent’s blows the best way he could.
Willard’s success is said to have been, not his skills as a fighter, but his endurance to remain in the ring for long bouts where it was suggested Johnson could eventually be outpaced because of overage.
Had the bout been scheduled for 20 Rounds, no doubt Johnson would have retained the title and won on points decisively and Willard been pushed into oblivion as just another insignificant challenger.
In the same way, if the bout was held years earlier during Johnson’s prime, it’s unlikely Willard could have lasted so long and inevitably might have been knocked off his feet completely and sent to the canvas.
A rematch had been scheduled between them before the fight regardless of the result, but now that a white man held the crown again, the colour bar was reinstated as a regular rule. It was to last another twenty-two years.
Willard refused to entertain any possibility of a return bout with the man he had just dethroned despite several overtures from Johnson during the next few years, as did his sponsors and leading boxing establishment personnel.
Willard had wanted the title, nothing else and a rematch with the likes of Johnson spurned him. White pride was at stake prior to the match, now that Willard held the crown, why accept a challenge from a black man, even if it was the man he had just taken it from.
Sam McVey, Sam Langford and Jack Johnson issued challenges to Willard during his short reign, but Willard wasn’t interested even in fighting members of his own race professionally, let alone black fighters.
Instead he went on exhibitions (where the money was greater, the travelling more intense, the prestige less and the opponents mediocre, but at least the title was safe from prospective challengers).
Jess Willard later lost his newly-acquired crown in only his second defence to the 24 year old Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey, in Toledo 1919. The bout was nothing short of a massacre.
At the time however, it is suggested Willard was still in excellent condition, was very confident of success and believed he would destroy the young challenger quickly, even approaching Dempsey’s corner, turning his back and flexing his muscles before the fight to lower his opponent’s morale.
Willard’s first defence had been in 1916 resulting in a draw against Frank Moran (a fighter Johnson both sparred and fought with earlier). He was then thirty-five years old; a similar age Johnson had been when he met Willard for the title.
Willard did however; learn the hard way about the effects of dodging challengers. Jack Dempsey, his conqueror, similarly snubbed him when he requested a rematch more than once, and after 1922 he was never a serious threat to take the title again.
Willard did however take on the ‘Wild Bull of the Pampas’, Luis Angel Firpo, an Argentine boxer and a Heavyweight Champion of South America prior to coming to the United States. The fight was a prelude to further opportunities with a view of challenging Jack Dempsey as a legitimate contender; this was as long as Willard could beat him (Firpo).
Firpo heavily demolished the then forty-one year old Willard in eight rounds after the referee stopped the bout to prevent the former champion from sustaining a further battering; thereby ending his boxing career and future prospects for another title fight with anyone ever again.
Johnson similarly had met Firpo in a non-professional training bout and floored him more than sixteen times in their encounter. The session was stopped early to prevent Firpo taking on more punishment and humiliation from a much older opponent.
Interestingly Firpo later sent Jack Dempsey through the ropes and onto the camera crews and newsmen in their 1923 bout. That particular fight produced nine knockdowns in the first two rounds, seven from Dempsey on Firpo and two from Firpo on Dempsey.
Not surprisingly, the fight ended in a knockout with Dempsey keeping his crown until he himself was dethroned by fellow American Gene Tunney five years later in a decision.
Jess Willard, known also as the tallest champion (until the advent of the Russian champion, Vitaly Klitschko in the 1990s) had long since retired by then, starred in a film, inspired others in other sports including the swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller, (who later played Tarzan in the 1930s) and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-seven, finally dying in 1968.
He had appeared suddenly in the 1910s as the best of the great white hopes and just as suddenly vanished from public view within the decade when his personal value and status had since diminished by another white champion, Jack Dempsey.
Jack Johnson nevertheless outclassed his successor in fame, historicity and personal fortune. This was despite the racism, hypocrisy and national war of envy and hatred against him, his wives, entourage and private life outside the ring from his own country and successive governments.
After his loss to Willard, Johnson briefly went into bull fighting in Spain and in 1916 was back in the ring and won his next sixteen fights, eleven by knockout and ten of which were over before the Seventh Round by 1924. In his forties he was still in good shape and a great fighter.
Eventually, Johnson returned to the United States where he spent time in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Whilst there, he opened his own boxing school and restarted boxing himself after a brief absence.
He was eventually crowned the Heavyweight Champion of Leavenworth Prison, a nominal title of no international significance. In later years he even refereed a few bouts that neither mentioned his role or presence.
In 1920, by which time he was 42 years old, he faced a much younger opponent, George Owens. At first, Johnson carried Owens for the initial rounds then ripped into him in the Fifth.
Four rights in succession shocked Owens and in the Sixth, Owens was on the floor. Before the round was over, Owens had been knocked off his feet a further five times. He was carried out from the ring. Johnson followed up his victory with another against Topeka Jack Johnson the same day.
Although he issued challenges to Jack Dempsey twice, once in 1920 and then again in 1924 he was never again a serious contender. In 1924, he seemed to have got back to his old routine defeating an opponent, Homer Smith, twenty years his junior by a wide margin, outpointing him successfully. Smith rose from a nine count on several occasions and denied Johnson an outright knockout victory.
It was eleven years after his loss to Willard, before Johnson lost again in 1926. By then he was 48 years old. He lost six bouts in succession, three of them on points but only one by knockout. In 1928 Johnson, then aged fifty, was on even terms with Ed Bearcat Wright for four rounds before a punch to the solar plexus downed Johnson for the full count; his first in twelve years. It is said he retired not long afterwards.
However, in 1931, in an exhibition match with a heavyweight contender, Dynamite Jackson, Johnson destroyed the young hopeful in three rounds despite his retirement. He was then 53 years old.
In 1945, the year before his death, he staged his last official exhibition match with an old acquaintance, Joe Jeannette, one of the original big black foursome of the 1910s three decades earlier. The occasion was to uplift the spirits of American soldiers tired of the war in Europe and Asia. This was one all-black boxing event white sponsors didn’t mind holding and white soldiers in comparison, didn’t mind watching. Neither boxer held the heavyweight belt and both were overage.
The pair met when Jack Johnson was 67 years old and already years into retirement. Jeanette had been one of the few to beat him in his early years. Johnson returned the favour recording two victories against him.
In 114 bouts he had only fourteen losses to his name along with 78 wins (46 by knockout), the rest had been rendered and sometimes pre-arranged to be ‘No Decisions, Draws and No Contest’ often to prevent a Johnson victory. All this had been achieved in an amazing career span of at least 29 years.
Most losses had come in his final years, when he was in his late forties or older and despite his age, he was still quite fit and able to go toe go toe with sluggers, upper cutters and powerful boxer punchers.
He was by far the best of the black foursome of the 1910s (Sam Langford, Sam McVey, Joe Jeanette), all of whom he defeated more than once and in terms of style and endurance was better than his later black conquerors. Only age had allowed his black adversaries of his closing years to overpower him.
In time, one among them, Sam Langford, followed Jack Johnson across the World over twenty years for more contests between them using white sponsors to engage and lure him into the ring, but other than pride and two decades of rivalry, there was little in a second bout for Johnson between them.
Although Langford was a great fighter, Johnson was by far the better of the two and such a fight generated no prestige, no financial freedom, no further opportunities and no title. Johnson fought for prizes, wealth and tangible results, pride and personal rivalry held no place for him as it may have done for Langford.
At different times, Johnson did agree to fight Langford, on other occasions he almost fought Sam McVey, however the purse strings, conditions or other proposals never matched and scheduled meetings between them were always cancelled.
After Willard became champion, Langford turned his attention to him, rebuffed by Willard and then Jack Dempsey after him, Langford returned to fighting the same monotonous opponents for paltry sums and the absorption of further unnecessary heavy punishment.
Jack Johnson in comparison to Langford and many of his black contemporaries, despite his flaws, both in and outside the ring, was nevertheless among the greatest and most successful fighters ever of the early twentieth century and stands out as an example of perseverance and finesse.
If it wasn’t for racism alone, he might have remained in the USA in the 1910s and retained his title longer than he did. He might even have been on the champion’s chair facing Jack Dempsey in 1919 instead of Jess Willard and it is unlikely he would have sustained such a terrible beating himself.
Only the black Australian, Peter Jackson, a century earlier might have successfully challenged and contained his strength, resilience and determination when it came to going toe to toe in the ring, slugging it out with equal or similar strength, winning the title and holding on to it.
Unlike Jack Johnson, Peter Jackson, the ‘Black Prince’, never came close to fighting his white contemporaries for the much coveted and prized Heavyweight crown because of their fear of him.
Jack Johnson would have thrived with fantastic success in any era, dethroned many a man in doing so and retained his prowess against almost any one that fought against him for the title.
His later opponents that beat him in his last years are unlikely to have inflicted as much punishment upon him or defeated him as decisively as they did if the bouts had been during his prime.
His latter vanquishers may have been on even terms with him throughout the fight or perhaps less fortunate as the eventual losers. Whatever the results, Johnson would have been more difficult to dislodge that easily and given as good as he got.
It would have been clearly a matter of will, reflexes, superior staying power and actual body strength. In the last instance, physical strength was in sustaining and absorbing heavy punishment with relative or little damage as well as delivering powerful thrusts to the body of an equally awesome or more ferocious opponent.
Jack Johnson was an awesome hitter, an effective counter puncher, one of the finest upper cutters of all time and possessed deadly right and left hooks with the aptitude of producing surprising quick combinations and inner strength when one would least expect it.
He often danced, feinted and bobbed around the arena displaying incredible footwork, amazing speed, natural agility and physical resistance to come what may in the ring. The Walcott and Ali shuffles were later models of greatness after Johnson had perfected his own style.
Johnson talked to as well as dismantling his opponents and often psyched out their fears and bitterness by teasing and taunting each adversary against what he sensed they hated most; his supremacy over their strength, skill and confidence.
He was the embodiment of black pride when there seemed little to be proud of being dark skinned. He was a chivalrous gentleman to all who showed and gave him respect, even to racists who despised him.
He was a black celebrity of remarkable public scrutiny and detail; his life was an open book. What he had, he let others know about. What he did, he allowed people to know. Still, he was labelled otherwise and scorned even by members of his own race.
Jack Johnson didn’t possess the youthful looks and physique of Muhammad Ali, the personal popularity of Joe Louis, the slickness of Joe Frazier, the punching power of George Foreman, the boxing intelligence of Sugar Ray Robinson, the fierce and powerful look of Sonny Liston or the enchantment and embracing warmth of Floyd Patterson as a Catholic hero.
However, he did hold the record none of them could compete with; he was the first successful heavyweight black champion of the world and the first to achieve it through no black boxing models before him.
Johnson sparred with Larry Foley, the trainer ands manager of the black Australian Peter Jackson, who fought professionally two decades before Johnson in addition to Ed Gunboat Smith and Harry Wills.
In the early 1930s Johnson exposed weaknesses in the fighting strategies of Joe Louis; flaws which Max Schmelling, the latter’s first conqueror, exploited and knocked him out in the 12th Round. That type of punch and attack method resulted in Louis’s third knockdown in the fight.
Aside from boxing, Johnson later became an expert matador in bullfighting, engaged in motor racing and wrestling, entered the theatre and even opened his own glamorous private saloon and cafe to add to his already impressive resume.
In his private life, he penned down an autobiography in the 1920s, married on four occasions (but never had any children), kept a small number of leopards (which he kept on a leash when out on the town), wore dapper suits, expensive elegant costumes and gold chains and rode in fast cars.
He regularly paraded many of his expensive possessions in public to white observers who would look and was even an expert violinist and musician. He was in short an intensely proud confident black celebrity well ahead of his era.
Both black and white people would gather round his presence with awe and delight and converse with him, at other times they would stop or surround his car and ask for autographs.
Many white women would throw themselves at him and in his private mixed race café, paying guests talked and intermingled freely without race being an issue or subject of taboo.
Booker T Washington, an early integrationist and seemingly respectable face in white circles, was among the many black advocates to sermonise and preach against him and focus more on his private life than his achievements, was summarily rewarded by white gangs when he once emerged secretly from visiting white prostitutes.
Racism and villainisation followed Johnson everywhere. Theatres that often paraded semi-nude and nude actors on stage sometimes accused Johnson of immoral scenes when he appeared fully clothed with his wife on stage.
The audience usually knew in advance the theatre’s two principal actors in this play were married, yet that didn’t deter the slurs and scorn that usually followed by otherwise ‘liberal’ spectators and media analysts.
His ‘immoral’ scenes involved Johnson holding his legally-wedded white wife (who was also modestly dressed) in his arms. There were no kissing or fondling scenes throughout the plays. Both British and French viewers objected to seeing a black actor in a role of non servitude and especially one where a white woman gladly acquiesced to him in place of a white man.
This was not to say Johnson’s personal greatness, valour and industriousness had started or taken shape largely only after his brief but evocative reign as heavyweight king of the world.
In his youth, Johnson had participated as a volunteer in relief work following the Great Galveston Flood in Texas 1900. The flood killed thousands and was seen as one of the worst disasters in the history of the area.
Then, as a relatively unknown 22 year old junior boxer, Johnson had pulled numerous natives to safety at great personal risk to himself and worked day and night to look for and help survivors throughout the ordeal.
Johnson rescued both black and white victims (including those whom he knew to be racist) and spent both time and money on ensuring many survivors were safe after their experience.
He even wandered and looked into areas designated to other rescuers just to find more people that had been overlooked by his white colleagues in the rescue operations that followed the flood. Some white people were charging victims to be rescued. Only those who could pay were helped. The rest risked death.
This humane and less belligerently hostile and controversial aspect of his life is usually always omitted by unbiased white historians who mention even smaller and more minor details elsewhere that are of more negative interest towards him.
The mass media and local press at the time did not even mention Johnson, who was both a significant and major player on the occasion, despite his local celebrity status. After all, he was only Galveston’s most prestigious sportsman at the time and the best boxer in the city.
Later whilst he was champion and looking for more worthy opponents, Jack Johnson applied to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912. What prompted him to do so and why he selected this particular cruiser is not known.
This was also the ship that allegedly even God couldn’t sink even if He wanted to, its captain boasted before the trip. The ship was an impregnable fortress; the finest of the age and greatest design of a vessel to date.
Johnson, despite being heavyweight champion of the world, was turned down flat because of his colour alone. All the guests given permission to board were international celebrities, the fabulously wealthy, major and minor socialites and some others of lesser public profiles.
The ship sank on its first expedition after hitting an iceberg. There were no survivors. Later, Johnson’s supporters claimed the cruiser sank because of its refusal to accommodate their hero.
Over the years Johnson’s title was the principal object of both envy and outright hostility. It was discomfiting to many a black man who was proud of his colour and unwilling to lower himself to what was expected of him now held boxing’s most distinguished belt and badge of honour.
Winston Churchill said he wanted Johnson to be denied entry to every part of the British Empire and Theodore Roosevelt, then a former US president, waving a pistol in his hand during a public sermon warned he would kill Johnson personally if he ever had the chance to see him.
Interestingly, Roosevelt was also the first American President to extend a widely publicised invitation to a black man, Booker T Washington, to the White House in the early 1900s.
Non white populations across the globe welcomed Johnson in droves and the Heavyweight Champion sometimes sensed more comfort and brotherhood among them than among his own compatriots in the US.
Nonetheless, despite his country’s intense hatred of him, Johnson proudly waved the American flag in tournaments and individual matches and patriotically identified it as his homeland, even defending it when he had nothing to gain by it.
Johnson was often offered lucrative contracts to remain in foreign nations where he could live comfortably for the rest of his life and with less restrictions, racism and repugnance against him. Johnson always refused.
His elderly mother, his sisters and many of his close friends still lived in America and had stuck by him. That was where he was born and raised and that was where he wanted to live and die. Even if it meant taking the defamatory abuse, resentment and aggression of his own people as well as imminent incarceration for a crime everyone knew was created to imprison him, Johnson was willing to take it.
The Coloured Heavyweight Championship of the World
Since black boxers were continuously kept from participating in the official championships, an all-black alternative was created to counter the more internationally acclaimed white version.
In the late nineteenth century the principal tournament victors had been the Canadian George Godfrey who had once fought Jake Kilrain in a gruelling 44 Round ring battle in 1890 and the Australian Peter Jackson who similarly held James Corbett to a 61 Round Draw in 1891. Both Champions had issued challenges to the official white World Title holders including John L Sullivan, but had been rebuffed each time.
George Godfrey, a late starter to boxing (he had begun in 1879 aged twenty-six), had amassed a few other titles of non international repute in his earliest years before winning the Coloured Heavyweight Championship in 1883.
He had held the belt for five years and had successfully defended it twice before accepting a challenge from Peter Jackson in 1888. Godfrey was then thirty-five years old and his latest opponent, then a new face in the United States, was twenty-seven.
Peter Jackson had recently won the Australian Heavyweight title in 1886 in his third attempt, outpointing the white giant, Tom Lees, in the 30 Round bout between them and was ambitious for more titles and proficient opponents.
In the Coloured Heavyweight Championship between the two black men Peter Jackson, outclassed the clearly older Godfrey in the nineteen one-sided rounds of the fight.
An uppercut by Jackson in the First Round shook Godfrey and he slumped to the deck. Godfrey hit the canvas more than once and was bleeding heavily throughout the fight.
Godfrey remarked later, if he had to beaten so destructively he was glad it was Jackson who did it. The two became friends and ironically died the same year, 1901, in two different continents.
At first, Jackson’s newly-acquired title in 1888, was the only world championship among black fighters of any worth and after Jack Johnson won the official world title twenty years later; he refused to meet his former adversaries from his own race in the official international version.
It was in 1903, then twenty-five years old, Johnson met Denver Ed Martin for the Coloured Heavyweight Championship and although the latter crashed to the canvas four times in the 11th Round, he remained standing till the end of the bout and only lost on points after 20 Rounds.
Jack Johnson defended his title 11 times until he was disqualified against Joe Jeanette in 1905, his only defeat against him, but still surprisingly held his highly sought-after precious belt nonetheless.
He successfully defended it a total of nineteen times, delivering six knockouts in the process before retiring undefeated in 1908, after five years, when he captured the World Title.
He had defeated Sam McVey twice on points and once by knockout. In the latter, McVey was knocked out cold and through the ropes in their 1904 bout in the 20th Round.
The one two combination that won Johnson the fight was suddenly unleashed twenty seconds before the bell sounded to end the bout. McVey only regained consciousness in the dressing room sometime afterwards.
Johnson also avenged his earlier less than spectacular performance against Denver Ed Martin with a 2nd Round knockout in 1904 and hammered Sam Langford to the canvas twice in the Sixth Round of their 1906 fight smashing his opponent’s nose in the process.
Sam Langford survived the worst of the beating but still lost on points in a spectacular 15 Rounds fight. This was the second bout between them, the first; a 1903 draw was not recorded.
Sam Langford assumed the Coloured Championship of the World soon after Jack Johnson voluntarily relinquished it and defended it into the 1920s. By then, Sam Langford was already in his forties and partially blind.
In time, Langford won 188 bouts in 322 contests with only 34 defeats to his name. His losses had started to quickly rise in the closing years of his career when he was being sent into the ring with increasing impairment of the eyes.
Jack Dempsey in his autobiography said of Langford years later, he feared the black fighter would flatten him and avoided the Canadian pugilist throughout his career even when it was quite clear Langford’s abilities and skills had severely weakened by 1920.
Harry Wills, Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey and Kid Chocolate, a younger fighter of the 1920s and 30s with the same name of his hero, George Godfrey, were among the many opponents Langford faced as champion with varying fortunes.
At different times in the 1910s, all the above (except the younger George Godfrey) were crowned champions, but none held it as long as Sam Langford and only he re-captured it after being stripped of the title belt.
Sam McVey was a persistent challenger compared to many. In 1912 Langford defeated Sam McVey in all four meetings between them and fought him seven times in 1915-16. All the above bouts between them had been for the richly prized Coloured Heavyweight Championships.
Only the Black Panther, a 6ft4in giant in the form of the multitalented Harry Wills in the 1910s, eclipsed the Boston Tar Baby. Wills later challenged Jack Dempsey for the World Title, a date and venue were agreed and advertisements announcing the upcoming bout were splashed across different places in the country.
The two men and their respective parties met in person, were photographed together and both made comments about the fight, but negotiations fell through and the bout was cancelled after much speculation and hope in the 1920s.
Dempsey later remarked Harry Wills was made for him; his style of boxing, his physique and his age were against him when they met. Dempsey said in his autobiography he would have liked to have destroyed Wills in the ring for all to see. It was not fear of black men that kept the two apart, but the circumstances of the time and nothing else.
Harry Wills had appeared in Langford’s final years. The two men fought a total of eighteen times, despite the tremendous age gap and difference in physical fitness between them. Langford won twice, both by knockout.
Langford defeated most of his black opponents with constant regularity and also won and successfully defended the Mexican Heavyweight Championships on a few occasions.
As long as the colour line existed, white fighters engaged in training with black boxers in sparring sessions but never professionally in the ring. Many of these same black boxers were considered their equals by many but denied the opportunity to prove it.
Some of whom still participated in the Coloured World Championships well into the 1920s and 30s and included young George Godfrey, Ed Bearcat Wright and Larry Gaines.
Larry Gaines served as a long term sparring partner with both Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in the 1920s and 30s. The latter is said to have fired him because he couldn’t catch him or lay a hand on him in the practice sessions between them.
The latter in time beat both the Italian fighter Primo Carnera who later defeated Jack Sharkey in a controversial bout and Joe Louis’s most famous early German conqueror, Max Schmelling, along the way.
The last win came via a memorable 1st Round knockout in Berlin, Germany of all places, the loser’s home town and seat of support. This was however, before Schmelling became a local or national fighter of any significance. He was then just an aspiring pugilist among many with dreams of becoming Germany’s finest.
It was still a few years before he was to win and then lose the World Title to Jack Sharkey in the early 1930s or when achieved fame and notoriety by knocking out the previously undefeated ambitious American hopeful Joe Louis some years later.
Jack Johnson V’s Joe Jeanette
Jack Johnson met Joe Jeanette a total of nine times in his career and held a three round exhibition bout with him once in 1945. His official fight record against Jeanette stood at:
3rd Round No Decision 1905
6th Round No Decision 1905
2nd Round defeat by a foul 1905
6th Round No Decision 1905
Total No of fights between Johnson and Jeanette in 1905: 4
Total No of Rounds in for 1905: 17 Rounds
3rd Round No Decision 1906
Won 15th Round 1906
6th Round No Decision 1906
Won 3rd Round 1906
Total No of fights between Johnson and Jeanette in 1906: 4.
Total No of Rounds for 1906: 27 Rounds
That is 44 Rounds in eight bouts between the two fighters in two years.
3rd Round Draw 1908
Total 2 Wins, 1 loss, 5 No Decisions and 1 Draw.
Total No of Rounds overall: 48 Rounds in nine bouts over three years (1905-1908).
Only one fight, a 15 Rounds points victory to Johnson in 1906 went beyond 6 Rounds and was the only one to end on points.