The first World heavyweight champion in the world ever – and he’s from Texas
Born March 31, 1878, in the southeast coastal city of Galveston, TX to parents of former slaves during the height of the Jim Crow era, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson or the Galveston Giant as he was known is recognized today as one of the greatest heavyweights to have ever lived. Much of his legacy is attributed to his style of fighting in the ring, as he packed a mean left uppercut and had an incredible defense for a man his size. But mostly he was known for toying with his opponents and even holding them up after striking them with a vicious shot just to beat his opponent some more.
As much of his success came during a time when racial tensions were extremely volatile in America, Jack was not immune to the prejudices that went on during that time. He had a couple of run-ins with the law and brought up on false charges violating the Mann Act – which made it illegal to transport any women across state lines for immoral (prostitution), purposes.
The charges were brought onto Jack in retaliation for his relationships with white women. After no evidence could justify the claims, he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Jack was arrested a second time for taking a boxing fight in his native Texas, both he and his opponent William Lester, who would later go on to train Jack were taken in for the fight, as boxing was still illegal in Texas.
Like most young men during this time making ends meat was tough and even tougher for the ones who grew up in the 12th ward. Jack grew up poor and took on odd jobs such as working on fishing docks, caring for horses at the track, as well as helping his father clean the floors at school. But it was during a painting apprenticeship with Walter Lewis, boxing enthusiast who would take Jack to the gym with him, and while there Jack would watch the sparring matches and eventually get in the ring himself which would change his life and the world of sports forever.
IN THE SLAMMER
Jack Johnson’s first fight took place on the beach in Galveston where he took on a bigger and older man John “must have it” Lee in the summer league. He would go on to win the match and even made a dollar and fifty cents, but more than money was the confidence Jack gained which would propel him to a life in the sport.
Jacks first pro bout was against Charley Brooks who he would knock out in the 2nd round of a 15 round fight. Not long after that Jack would take his first loss when he fought Joe Choynski an experienced and well-known heavyweight. Choynski knocked him out in the third round and because fighting was illegal both of them were thrown in jail with an impossible bail. However the Sherriff struck a deal with the pair and would let them go home if they agreed to fight each other in the cell, they did and they were.
After their stint in jail, Joe saw the potential in Jack and began to train him to improve his boxing style and defense. From there Johnson would go on to have over a hundred fights during his tenure, with 73 wins, 40 by way of knock out, 13 loses 10 draws and 5 no contest.
In 1903 Johnson won his first title when he beat Denver Ed Martin in a unanimous decision twenty-round fight for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship; the only recognized title available to African Americans at the time.
However, in 1908 Jack would rewrite history for black people in sports and America as his Boxing record grew so did his popularity adamant to fight for the world title he would challenge the World Heavy Weight Champ James Jefferies but Jefferies refused a match because Jack was black. Jeffries retired and Thomas Burns would become the new champ. Again Johnson persisted and much to Burns’ annoyance gave Johnson a shot at the title. Johnson and Burns met in Sydney, Australia in front of 20,000 people and Johnson would easily win on points after the police shut it down in the 14th round.
The crowing of Johnson as the official World Heavyweight Champ created a lot of animosity in the sport amongst fans and the press. Writers believed if he continued his success coverage in the media this would make black people believe that they were equal to the white man. The press and the white fans would so desperately look for a “Great white hope” any non-colored boxer to beat Johnson and take back the title but the reality was stronger than their desire as Johnson continued to steamroll his competition.
Hellbent that Johnson be defeated his opposition came up with the only possibility for Johnson’s defeat and summoned James Jefferies. Jefferies had little interest in the fight as by that time he was living a great life on the farm, but money talks and offered him a large purse of $120,000 (3.2 million) in today’s money, only a madman would have declined the fight was on.
AT THE FIGHT
During the fight, Jeffers was outmatched, outclassed, out powered and out-willed, Johnson controlled every round since the opening bell and Jeffries corner threw in the towel to save their fighter from being knocked out and embarrassed. Johnson retained his title and the critics were forced to swallow their pride and recognize Johnson as the official heavyweight champion of the world.
It is because of people like Jack Johnson who overcome adversity of all kinds in pursuit of their dreams and open new roads for those who will follow in their footsteps. Jack not only cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats in the sport of boxing but also made it possible for future African Americans to make a name for themselves regardless of circumstance. Jack represented the true American dream and proved that hard work and dedication will always be victorious.