Jack Johnson was ahead of his time, both in and out of the ring.
Johnson was a defensive genius inside the ropes, using his counterpunching skills to pick opponents apart. In 1908, he traveled to Australia and outpointed Tommy Burns to win the world heavyweight title. He became boxing’s first African-American heavyweight champion, 39 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
“I believe Jack Johnson rates as the greatest of all heavyweight champions,” said boxing historian Mike Silver. “I won’t argue too strenuously if someone rates Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis in the top spot, but Johnson definitely rates in the top three. If fighting styles could be rated like IQs, Jack Johnson’s would rank in the genius category. His defense was virtually impregnable.”
On May 24, President Donald Trump granted Johnson a full and unconditional pardon for a 1913 conviction for violating the Mann Act. Johnson was arrested for transporting a white woman across state lines. Massapequa Congressman Peter King and Arizona Senator John McCain had been seeking a pardon for Johnson since 2009.
So talented was Johnson that his success gave rise to the term, “Great White Hope.” When Johnson won the title there was an open campaign for a white heavyweight to come along and end his reign. It would be seven years before Johnson was defeated.
“Johnson perfected a brilliant defensive style that to this day has never been duplicated by any heavyweight,” said Silver, author of “The Arc of Boxing.” “It was based on strategic use of the left jab, mobile footwork and accurate and well-timed counter punches. His perfectly balanced stance was similar to the en garde position of a fencer.”
Johnson, from Galveston, Texas, turned pro in 1897 at the age of 19. Like most black fighters of that time, he had difficulty securing fights against top white heavyweights. So Johnson fought other black fighters and in 1903 won what was called, “The Colored Heavyweight Title.” Johnson defeated some of the top black heavyweights of the era — Joe Jeannette (six times), Sam McVey (three times) and Sam Langford (once). Johnson, Jeannette, McVey and Langford are all enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“In his prime Johnson defeated two genuinely great fighters, Joe Jeanette and Sam Langford,” Silver said. “They were among a coterie of tough black boxers who had to fight each other often because it was so hard to get fights against the top white boxers. Langford, who some consider the greatest boxer who ever lived, was a middleweight at the time they fought but was more than a match for any heavyweight.”
Steve Farhood, a Hall-of-Fame boxing analyst for Showtime, lectures on boxing and race and has produced a multimedia presentation based on the lives of heavyweight champions Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. He said the racial tensions of the day helped shape Johnson’s unique fighting style.
“Johnson’s style was largely cautious,” Farhood said. “In fact, his bouts were often boring. It wasn’t unusual in his day for black fighters to hesitate in taking the initiative. The white audiences preferred black fighters to be passive. His counterpunches discouraged the aggressiveness of his opponents. His most lethal weapon was his uppercut, which he used during infighting.”
Indeed, Johnson could be lethal.
In 1909, he knocked out the great middleweight Stanley Ketchel, a white fighter, in the 12th round of a scheduled 20-round bout. Ketchel dropped Johnson earlier in the 12th, but when the champion rose, he floored Ketchel with a thunderous right hand. According to legend, as Ketchel was counted out, Johnson brushed off a pair of Ketchel’s teeth that had been embedded in his glove.
Johnson’s most famous victory was the demolition of former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries on July 4, 1910. Two years into Johnson’s reign, the boxing establishment and media called upon Jeffries to come out of retirement in the hopes of dethroning Johnson. Jeffries, who retired as undefeated champion in 1904, became boxing’s original “Great White Hope.”
Johnson dropped Jeffries three times in the 15th round to end the fight. According to numerous newspaper reports, race riots broke out across the country. Some cities, which promised to re-broadcast the fight, canceled because of Johnson’s victory.
Johnson made seven title defenses, six against white opponents. He simply made more money defending the title against white challengers. Jeanette, McVey or Langford never challenged for a world title.
When Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act, and sentenced to a year and one day in prison, he fled the country and fought abroad. In 1915, Johnson was finally dethroned by Jess Willard while fighting in Havana. The world would not see another African-American heavyweight champion until Louis in 1937.
“Johnson’s attitude predated that of Muhammad Ali by about 50 years,” Farhood said. “He demanded that the white public take him for what he was, and not for what they wanted him to be. He was unashamedly bold and outrageous during a time when athletes were supposed to be humble and one-dimensional. The fact that he was all this as a black man set him apart from every champion before him — and virtually all who followed.”
- “The Great White Hope,” a 1970 movie starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, told the story of Jack Jefferson, a boxer modeled after Jack Johnson. Adapted from Howard Sackler’s play of the same name, the title referred to the wishes of boxing fans looking for a white fighter to end the African-American’s reign as heavyweight champion.
- Released that same year was “Jack Johnson,” a Jim Jacobs documentary starring Brock Peters as the champ.
- Samuel L. Jackson was the voice of Jack Johnson in “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” a 2004 film by Ken Burns.