Jack Johnson is, inarguably, one of the most famous fighters to ever live. He was heavyweight champion of the world from 1908 – 1915, the first black man to hold the title. For this, he was, according to famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, “the most well-known and hated man in the world.” He was, Burns and collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward claim, “unforgivably black.”
Here, in partial form is Jack Johnson’s story told in 8 installments as viewed through the FIGHT FOR GLORY Universe.
Jack Johnson Suite: Part 1. Introduction
Jack Johnson, born in 1878 to former slaves in Galveston, Texas, discovers the power of his fists early in life, harnessing it as a ticket to freedom and a better life. From the very start, Johnson’s journey — as a Black man and prizefighter — is uphill.
As the 20th Century dawns, Johnson stands virtually alone against an impossible challenge: the Color Line, a barrier composed of both law and prejudice that bars Black fighters from even attempting to ascend the heavyweight throne. John L. Sullivan, America’s first heavyweight champion, the Boston Strong Boy they called him, flatly refused to fight Johnson or any other non-white fighter. “I will not fight a Negro,” Sullivan thumped. “I never have, and I never will.”
“The heavyweight crown needed to be kept pure,” reports Jim Walter in his 2011 book, Battle of the Century. “The white heavyweight champ needed to be spared the ignominy of losing to a Black man.”
Determined to carve his own destiny, the 6’1”, 215-pound Johnson danced around the Color Line for years — until he finally had his opportunity to stomp all over it in 1908. Day after Christmas, 1908, Johnson steps into an Australian ring at Rushcutters Bay for a shot at the heavyweight crown. No Black man has ever won such laurels before.
In the ring, Johnson’s assault of Tommy Burns is a blunt, decisive systematic dismantling, 14 one-sided rounds that many who bear witness refer to as “a slaughter” or “a massacre.” The victory wins Johnson more than just the heavyweight title — it earns him the ire of an entire world.
To celebrate his triumph over Burns, Johnson caps his teeth in gold like Ancient Roman rulers a thousand years earlier. From that day forth, Johnson would be hounded by never-ending racial slurs and vilification. Variously, he is referred to as the Galveston Giant, the Big Smoke, and/or The Most Hated Man in the Universe.
Two years later, Johnson is set to defend the heavyweight crown against the once-great, hairy white mammoth Jim J. Jeffries, now dubbed The Great White Hope. Jeffries task is simple: defeat the black man as savagely as possible and restore supremacy to the white race.
Things don’t go quite the way the white world intends. After that, things get even harder for Jack Johnson. Much harder.
Next in the JACK JOHNSON SUITE: PART 2. 1910, Battle of the Century – Part I.