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1st Black Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson   1878 - 1946

‚ÄčJack Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  While criticized by whites for his lifestyle outside the ring, he is still regarded by some experts as one of the best heavyweights of all time.

Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, the son of a school janitor.  He was so small as a child that he earned the nickname, "Li'l Arthur."  He quit school, after the fifth grade, and worked at odd jobs until he became big enough to work on the docks.

Johnson began boxing as a means of survival.  As a dock hand in his native Galveston, he worked alongside those who provoked fights.  Once, while in a brawl with another worker his raw boxing skills were noticed and he was offered $25 to fight four rounds.  Realizing that this was a way better way to make a living, for someone nearly 6 foot 4 and 195 pounds, he accepted the challenge.  Eventually, in bouts, he boxed his way across the United States.  By 1906, he had won a phenomenal 97 out of 100 fights.

With the enviable record, Johnson was set to challenge the current heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns, of Australia.  Because Johnson desperately wanted to fight, he agreed to outrageous terms that were so tilted in Burns' favor that Johnson had to dominate the fight.  And dominate he did, beating Burns so decisively that the fight had to be stopped in the 14th round in Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908.

After his victory, Johnson returned to the United States as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  He continued to silence any doubters by easily defeating a string of challengers.  Instead of welcoming the new champion, whites resented his color and began to look for a "White hope."  This search resulted in the successful persuasion of former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries to leave retirement and to challenge Johnson in 1910.  Because of what was at stake, the bout was known as the "Battle of the Century" and attracted a wide range of spectators.  Jeffries fought bravely until the 14th round, but in the 15th, Johnson landed a left hook to the former champ that sent him reeling to the mat.  This gave Johnson the undisputed crown.

Much of the resentment toward Johnson grew because of his high living and his relations with women.  He often frequented nightspots with a white woman on his arm; he invested foolishly; and his unwillingness to accept insults with "dignity" resulted in arrests and other brushes with the law.  Eventually, a legal charge caused by a failed romance forced him to flee the United States in 1913.

In his autobiography, Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out, he revealed that he was given the opportunity to return to America, if he would throw a championship fight to Jess Willard of Pottawatomie, Kansas.  In Havana, Cuba, in 1915, the two went one-on-one in the ring for a phenomenal 25 rounds.  Totally exhausted, Johnson was decked by a blow to the stomach in the 26th round, and Willard was declared the champion.

Following the match, Johnson lived in exile in Spain and Mexico before returning to America, in 1920, to serve 11 months in prison.  Following his release, he earned his living by fighting in a series of exhibitions, where he proved that he still had the winning touch.  However, he was virtually penniless.

Jack Johnson, who confessed a weakness for fast driving, died on June 11, 1946, in an automobile accident near Raleigh, North Carolina.  In his life, he fought 113 recorded bouts in the ring, and in the difficult arena of trail blazing.  He fought his last fight in 1945, at the age of 67.  Jack Johnson was elected to boxing's Hall of Fame in 1954.

Excerpt from A Salute to Historic Black Firsts.

This is only a summary of the life of the First Black Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World Jack Johnson.