Jack Johnson, the first black heavy¬ weight champion of the world, was bom in Galveston, Texas, where he attended school until the fifth grade. Leaving home soon after, Johnson took odd jobs in stables and on the docks, slowly building a reputation as a fighter. By the age of 18 he was already well-respected for “barnstorming his way through the United States,” as Columbus Salley wrote.
In 1897 Johnson went professional. He married his childhood love, Mary Austin, and continued working toward the fight that made him an unavoidable force in the white-dominated world of professional boxing. In 1906 Johnson was granted a match with Bob Fitzsimmons, the former heavyweight champion of the world.
In a finish that rocked the boxing world, Fitzsimmons went down and the fight end¬ ed in an unprecedented knockout. Johnson soon sought a match with the then-current champion, James Jeffries. Jeffries refused to fight Johnson because he was a black man and retired undefeated soon after.
Jef¬ fries’ successor, Tommy Bums, accepted Johnson’s challenge and went into the ring with him on December 26, 1908 in Aus¬ tralia. The world watched breathlessly as Johnson took him down too, proving him¬ self the heavyweight champion of the world.
Known for his flashy style and his wom¬ anizing, Johnson became a thorn in the side ofmany white fans and fighters alike. Many wanted to see him lose badly, and when James Jeffries announced that he would come out of retirement in 1910, they thought they’d get the chance.
Jeffries made a public statement that clearly defined the racial connotations of the competition: “I fully realize what depends upon me and won’t disappoint the public. That portion ofthe white race which is look¬ ing to me to defend its athletic supremacy may feel assured that I am fit to do my very best. I’ll win as quickly as I can.”
Jeffries’ statement only made it sweeter when he hit the mat in the 15th round. Unfortunately, a small part of the nation couldn’t accept that their champion was unequal to Johnson. Race riots erupted around the nation and both black and white citizens lost their lives before the rioters were subdued.
Johnson remained the undefeated cham¬ pion until 1915, when Jess Willard, nick¬ named “the White Hope,” won the title in the 26th round of a match in Havana, Cuba.
Though there was some dispute over the knockout that ended Johnson’s career, there was no question that Johnson had inspired pride in the world of African-American ath¬ letics, and paved the way for such upcom¬ ing national heroes as Muhammad Ali (see no. 100) and Joe Louis. Jack Johnson died in Raleigh, North Carolina, after receiving lethal injuries in a car racing crash.