Jack Johnson had the world at his feet. Well, as much as any black man could have at the turn of the 20th century. In 1908 he had become the first African-American to win the World Heavyweight Championship when on Boxing Day – somewhat ironically – he knocked out Canadian Tommy Burns in the 14th round of their fight to claim the title, a bout which by all accounts was so one-sided that Johnson could’ve despatched his opponent whenever he felt like.
Nearly 60 years before Muhammad Ali screamed that he shook up the world after he beat Liston for his first title reign, Jack Johnson not only achieved that but managed to p*ss it off no end by having the audacity to be a black World Heavyweight Champion who refused to bow down to the white oppression that he faced every single day.
For two years he held the belt in his vice-like grip and no matter the challenge that was set before him, Jack Johnson beat them all. So, in desperation, the white-run boxing authorities called upon former champion James J. Jeffries to come out of retirement and to put Jack Johnson in his place. This was somewhat ironic as when Jeffries had been the champion he had done everything in his power to duck Johnson, but the fact that he had been afraid to face him the first time around didn’t stop both Jeffries and the boxing board from deciding that it was time the white man took back the belt for the purity of the sport.
If anyone doubted that this bout was all about race, that was quickly dispelled by the fact that Jeffries was labeled “The Great White Hope” – as was nearly every other contender that Jack Johnson had faced in the previous two years of his reign – and that he had the following to say on their forthcoming match. Please remember, these aren’t my words;
I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro”
In the build-up to the bout, Jeffries hardly made any appearances and stayed out of the public eye as much as he could, leading the writers of the time to question whether or not he was fully focused and physically fit for the match-up, while Johnson lapped up the limelight, as was his want. When it came time for the pre-match interviews, Jeffries remarked he would try and put his opponent down as soon as he could, while Johnson just said he hoped the best man would win. The stage was set. 20,000 screaming fans crowded around a specially made ring. Tensions were high and threatened to boil over at any moment, so much so in fact that guns and alcohol were banned from the event and any person found even slightly intoxicated was removed from the venue. The whole world waited with bated breath, and then the bell rang.
What followed was – at the time and still is in my humble opinion – a masterclass in the boxing arts. Jack Johnson totally dominated James J. Jeffries from the opening bell and said afterward that he knew he was going to win when he caught his opponent with an uppercut in the 4th round and he saw the reaction that spread across his face;
I knew what that look meant. The old ship was sinking.”
Jack Johnson became the first man to ever put James J. Jeffries on the canvas and was so impressed with having done so, that he proceeded to do it again. By the 14th round, Jeffries corner has seen enough and threw in the towel, and though the outcome would see riots across the whole of America that same evening – which you can read more on here – at least Jack Johnson’s opponent had finally seen the error of his ways;
I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
While John L. Sullivan – the first ever acknowledge World Heavyweight Champion – offered these thoughts;
The fight of the century is over and a black man is the undisputed champion of the world. Scarcely has there ever been a championship contest that was so one-sided. All of Jeffries much-vaunted condition amounted to nothing. He wasn’t in it from the first bell tap to the last. The negro had few friends, but there was little demonstration against him. (Spectators) could not help but admire Johnson because he is the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen. He played fairly at all times and fought fairly. What a crafty, powerful, cunning left hand (Johnson) has. He is one of the craftiest, cunningest boxers that ever stepped into the ring. They both fought closely all during the 15 rounds. It was just the sort of fight that Jeffries wanted. There was no running or ducking like Corbett did with me in New Orleans (1892). Jeffries did not miss so many blows, because he hardly started any. Johnson was on top of him all the time. Johnson didn’t get gay at all with Jeffries in the beginning, and it was always the white man who clinched, but Johnson was very careful, and he backed away and took no chances, and was good-natured with it all. The best man won, and I was one of the first to congratulate him, and also one of the first to extend my heartfelt sympathy to the beaten man.”
Jack Johnson would hold the belt for an incredible seven years, before finally losing it to Jess Willard who managed to knock him out in 1915 during the 20th round of their scheduled 45-round championship fight.
Jack Johnson was an amazing athlete and man. No matter what white America threw at him – whether that be as many Great Hopes as they could muster or trumped-up charges of “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes” just because he married a white woman – he took it all in his stride and continued to rage against the machine well into his later life.
In fact, on the night of his death, he had been refused service at a segregated diner and had driven away in disgust, only to crash his car head-on into a telegraph pole. He later died of his injuries at Saint Agnes Hospital, at the age of 68.
No matter who came after him, whether that was Joe Lewis, Floyd Patterson, Ali, or Frazier, they all owed a debt to a man who not only paved the way for them, but was the first to meet The Great White Hope face to face, and to knock him the f*ck out.