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Jack Johnson: A Forgotten Champion

Feb 25, 2004  Vito Trabucco
You know when we think about boxers who’ve earned their place in history not just for they way they fought, but for the way they lived, we usually think of Muhammad Ali. Not only was he one of the slickest fighters who ever stepped into the ring, but he also stood up for what he believed outside of it as well.

I respect Muhammad Ali for everything he’s done in and out of the ring, but there is a man that I respect even more. And that is Jack Johnson.

He was born Arthur John Johnson on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. His first career fight coming at the age of 15, with a 16 round victory. His first arrest came 3 years later. Boxing was illegal in Texas at the time and Johnson paid the price for it. He went on to win the “Colored Heavyweight Championship” on February 3, 1903, beating ‘Denver’ Ed Martin.

The prejudice that Johnson experienced was something none of us could ever dare to imagine. At that time, no one would give a “Negro” a shot at the title. In 1907, former Heavyweight Champion Bob Fitzsimmons tried to show the public his superiority over a black fighter who turned out to be Johnson. Johnson knocked him out in 2 rounds. One of our first black sports heroes had been born.

It wasn’t until December 26, 1908 when Jack Johnson would establish himself among boxing immortality. On this date Johnson traveled to Sydney, Australia to challenge the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Canadian Tommy Burns. The bout lasted 14 rounds until being stopped by the police. On a referee’s decision, Jack Johnson was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World.

This was also the birth of “The Great White Hope” phrase. In 1909 Johnson beat Victor McLaglen (who would go on to become a big actor and actually won an Oscar for his 1935 role in the John Ford movie, The Informer), Frank Moran, Jack O'Brien, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. “Hope” was about all these white fighters had against Johnson.

But it was on July 4th 1910 when Jack Johnson scored his greatest victory. It was another ex-champion, James J. Jefferies, who had earlier turned him down, was knocked out in fifteenth round in front of 22,000 people, earning Johnson $115,000. Johnson’s big win sparked race riots and certain states banned the filming of Johnson's victories over white fighters.

But his life continued to roller coaster outside of the ring. In January 1911 he married Etta Duryea. But in September, Duryea committed suicide. In June 1912 he was indicted for smuggling a diamond necklace and in October he was arrested under a section of the Mann Act, initially enacted to combat prostitution, but never before used in prosecution, for transporting his fiancê, a white woman named Lucille Cameron, across state lines. Despite the looming trial he married Cameron in December 1912. He went to trial in Chicago in 1913 and he was convicted along with sentenced, to a year and a day plus a fine of $1000. In mid-June he fled the United States while free pending appeal. He continued fighting, mainly in exhibition bouts.

On April 5th 1915, at the age of 37, Jack Johnson went on to face “Newest hope” Jess Willard. In a scheduled 45 round fight, Willard knocked out the champion in the 26th round. Later Johnson swears that he threw the fight, and that it was the sun that made him cover his face while being counted out on the canvas and not Willard’s punch. This fight has become one of our sport’s greatest controversies to this day.

After his loss, he eventually surrendered to Federal Agents. He was sent to Leavenworth to serve his sentence and was released on July 9, 1921. He later opened up a night club in Harlem. He divorced Lucille Cameron in 1924 and married Irene Pineau.

Johnson would struggle for the remainder of his life, sadly dying in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946. He was buried in the Graceland Cemetery, in Chicago, Illinois. In 1954 he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame.

The legacy of Jack Johnson seems to me almost as sad as the life he lived. Its rare nowadays for people to give him the recognition that he so rightly deserves. But I dedicate this column to Jack Johnson, and bestow upon him the credit he so rightfully has deserved for years.

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