Jack Johnson's Title Reign - Boxing
By Ken Hissner (March 8, 2008) Doghouse Boxing  
There have been many stories written of the Galveston Giant heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.  Many people consider Johnson one of the best, if not the best, heavyweight champions of all time.  I begin my story in March 1905 when Johnson lost by points in 20 rounds to one eyed Marvin Hart in San Francisco.  Four months later, Hart would defeat Jack Root for the vacant heavyweight title in Reno, Nevada. 

In his first defense, he would lose in February 1906 to Canadian Tommy Burns in Los Angeles. Burns would
make eleven successful title defenses in the next two and a half years before meeting Johnson in Sydney, Australia. After his loss to Hart, Johnson had thirty fights and only had one loss to Joe Jeannette, although Johnson defeated Jeannette three times. Their last meeting ended in a draw over 10 rounds in November 1905. Seven wins for Johnson would follow that bout including one over former three weight class champion Bob Fitzsimmons. 

Burns at 5'7" and 168 pounds was dwarfed by Johnson at 6'1" and 192 pounds.  It was a lopsided fight until the police finally entered the ring and stopped it in the fourteenth round with the referee awarding the decision to Johnson.  Johnson held the title for six and a half years, but Johnson's toughest battles were outside the ring.  Johnson was ridiculed for his womanizing with white women in an era where this just didn't go over well with the people in this country.  Johnson loved it.  He would antagonize the whites and tell them to bring on their "white hope" to lick him.

There were some great black boxers at the time, not only Joe Jeannette, but
Sam Langford and Sam McVea whom Johnson had fought in the past while holding the "colored title."  It seemed only appropriate that Johnson would give one of them the chance he had finally gotten as the first colored to get a world heavyweight title fight, but he used the excuse that "you can't make any money with two colored's fighting."  This didn't seem to bother him in the past.  

Five months later, he made his first defense against former light heavyweight champion Jack O'Brien of Philadelphia with the fight ending in a six round draw in O'Brien's hometown.  Though the 162 pound O'Brien was grossly outweighed by the 205 pound Johnson and knocked down two times, the newspapers were split in their opinions.  The New York Times ruled it a draw while the Trenton Times reported referee Jack McGuigan had O'Brien by a shade.  The following month, Johnson would make his second defense against little known Tony Ross (13-9-2) in Pittsburgh.  Johnson would win the newspaper decision in six rounds per the Washington Post.  Three months later in San Francisco, Johnson would easily defeat Al Kaufman by a ten round decision.  It appeared that Johnson could have ended the fight at anytime.

Johnson would end his first year as champion by defending against the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel in Colma, California.  Though one of the most feared fighters of his time, Ketchel came in at 170 pounds to the champion's 205 pounds.  Word was that Johnson would carry Ketchel as long as the smaller man did not try anything foolish.  After taking a beating for eleven rounds, Ketchel finally caught the much bigger Johnson and dropped him in the twelfth round.  With no count in those days, Ketchel rushed in for the finish, but the more embarrassed than hurt Johnson ended the fight with one blow.  Those at ringside claimed one of Ketchel's teeth was embedded in Johnson's glove. 

There was a clamor for the former unbeaten heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries to come out of retirement.  It had been some six years and he was 100 pounds heavier since his last match.  It has been said that even during the service, his pastor would say, "We have a coward amongst us."  In the next nine months, Jeffries would shed those 100 pounds and come out of retirement to meet Johnson for the title.

The fight would take place in Reno, Nevada on July 4th, 1910.  Though about the same size as Johnson, the former champion would wear down as the fight progressed and it was obvious that Jeffries was only a shell of his former self.  The fight finally was waved off in the fifteenth round by referee Tex Rickard who also served as the promoter.  The defeat of Jeffries would cause much turmoil among the white people which prompted Johnson not to fight again for some two years.  Johnson's next opponent would again be a much smaller fighter in Fireman Jim Flynn at 175 pounds to the champion's 195 pounds on July 1912 in New Mexico.  Flynn would try head butting apparently trying to get loose while the taller Johnson constantly held the back of his opponent's upper arms.  The sheriff would stop the fight in the ninth round in favor of Johnson. 

In 1913, Johnson fled the United States because of bogus charges of violating the Mann Act which forbid the transporting women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.  Johnson sent his white girlfriend a train ticket to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago.  Johnson did not return to the United States until 1920 when he surrendered to Federal agents.  Johnson was imprisoned for eight months.  As a result, Johnson had to defend his title outside the United States starting in 1913.  

It would be a year and a half later before Johnson would finally "break the colored line" and fight Battling Jim Johnson in December of 1913.  Jim Johnson had a 12-11-2 record which included losses to Jeannette, Langford, and McVea.  It seemed a slap in the face when Jack Johnson chose such a mediocre fighter among the much more deserving colored fighters, but Jack Johnson wasn't doing anything different than the previous white title holders.  The bout would take place in Paris, France and was scheduled for ten rounds.  The spectators loudly protested that the men were not fighting and demanded their money back.  Jack Johnson said he injured his left arm in the third round and could not use it.  Post-fight examination revealed a slight fracture of the radial in his left arm.  The decision was declared a draw. 

Some six months later, Jack Johnson would return to the same venue in France.  His opponent this time would be Frank Moran who had lost two of his last six bouts to Gunboat Smith and Luther McCarty.  Again, it seemed Johnson was picking a lesser opponent.  The bout would go the full twenty rounds with Johnson winning in his eighth title defense.  Staying out of the United States, Johnson would take on a non-title opponent in Buenos Aires, Argentina named Jack Murray whose 0-2 record would include losing to a featherweight in his previous bout though outweighing his opponent by some 55 pounds.  Johnson would knock out Murray in the third. 

With the year 1914 coming to a close and Johnson refusing to return to the United States, another "white hope" named Jess Willard would travel to Havana, Cuba to challenge Johnson.  The only difference this time for Johnson would be he would be fighting someone even bigger than himself.  Willard stood 6'6½" although he was about thirteen pounds heavier than Johnson who was 6'1½".  On April 15, 1915, some ten months since his last defense, Johnson would come in at his heaviest at 225 pounds.  It was a grueling bout under the hot Havana sun scheduled for 45 rounds.  By the twenty-sixth round, Willard had worn down Johnson and knocked him to the canvas in becoming the new world champion.  After defeating Moran in a rematch in his first defense, he would take a brutal beating at the hands of Jack Dempsey in his next bout which all but brought an end to his career.

Ken at: kenhissner@yahoo.com

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