Jackie Robinson is well known: Jack Johnson, not so much.
However, he was the first black athlete to break the color barrier, fighting and defeating white boxer in old school leather gloves in 1908 to become the first black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World.
Doing all this almost 40 years before Jackie Robinson ever saw the baseball field, and during a time when stadium lighting hadn’t been invented yet. He even had the New York Times issue an article demanding a “Great White Hope” to beat this black punk back to where he came from because who gave these blacks the right to be good at sports and stuff?!
Jack Johnson just didn’t care. When he wasn’t defending his six year reign as World Heavyweight Champion, this once impoverished son of ex-slaves played jazz in a band, owned a killer Harlem nightclub, and drove around town in this ultra-fast pimped out yellow hot rod, and had even been spotted walking his PET LEOPARD down the streets of Harlem with a glass of champagne in one hand and a cane in the other. Rumor even has it that he had “relations” with Mae West, German spy Mata Hari, and well, let’s just say there were a lot of others.
Born in Galveston in 1878, Jack’s parents were slaves just 15 years prior and were barely scraping by doing menial labor for terrible wages. Being dirt poor with little in the way of prospects, Johnson dropped out of school in the 5th grade and took any job he could come across. While working at the Galveston Harbor loading cargo onto ships, he made extra cash by fighting in back alley, bare-knuckled, winner-takes-all type fights where everyone would bet on the fight and the winner took a bit of the loot home.
As his first known boxing match made him exactly $1, Johnson figured out real quick that this back-alley fighting wasn’t going to cut it, so he train-hopped all the way from Galveston to Chicago and wanted to take a real shot at being a boxer. He found a few promoters that wanted to help him, and was unceremoniously beaten unconscious by a boxer known as The Black Hercules. Johnson was pissed, so he fought him again…and won in the 14th round.
Johnson’s first fight with a white boxer was in 1900, when he knocked out Jim Scanlon. Scanlon wasn’t pleased, and sure enough the Nashville cops showed up to put an end to all this “black guy beating the crap out of the local white guy” stuff. Johnson developed a name for himself quickly, and actually became well known for the massive amounts of shit he would talk to the other boxer before the fight, after the fight, and even during the fight. Then he actually engaged those sitting ringside and talked trash to them, too.
Johnson came back to Texas and had developed quite a following. A kick-ass pro boxer named Joe Choynski got pissed hearing all this talk about Jack Johnson, so he went to Galveston to beat his ass. The Texas Rangers stormed the ring because boxing was actually illegal in Texas and then threw the two of them in prison for a year. The Rangers then sold tickets so the public could show up and watch the two men fight in their cells.
Johnson got out of jail, and continued rising the ranks. He became the Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1903, but this pissed him off as he wanted to be known as the best in the world, regardless of ethnicity.
Jim Jeffries held the title as World’s Best at that time, but he refused to fight a black man. So Johnson went in the ring, challenged Jeffries’ younger brother to a fight (also a boxer) and beat the
hell out of him while Jim sat ringside. Jim refused, so Johnson beat two other former heavyweight champions while waiting on Jim. Jeffries saw the writing on the wall, gave his belt to some guy from Canada, and retired to never fight again.
Jeffries’ successor was a guy named Tommy Burns who also didn’t want to fight Johnson. So Johnson, being a crazy badass, took out newspaper ads calling him vulgar names and then traveled to his fights so he could talk trash to him from ringside. Eventually, Burns agrees, and well, the fight was stopped when the cops thought Johnson was going to kill Burns.
As Johnson was the new World Champ, the white populace went…well…crazy. Cops barred him from towns. Pastors prayed for his lynching. Every time he was photographed going to the opera with a good looking white woman on his arm, women fainted in shock and men kicked the dog. The papers prayed again for a Great White Hope to descend from heaven and crush this cockroach, and they finally had their prayers answered: Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to take him on again.
They faced off in Reno in front of 22,000 folks, most of them white folks cheering for Jeffries. Johnson dismantled him and forced Jeffries’ corner to throw in the towel in the 14th round. Jeffries conceded and said “I could never have whipped him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1000 years.” Johnson was paid $100,000 for the win, which was an assload of money in those days.
For the next six years, Johnson just kept beating people up. He once won a fight with a broken arm and only punching with his left hand. The Middleweight Champ came up and fought Johnson and lost 5 teeth for his troubles. He spent his nights cruising to the opera houses and jazz clubs, owned his own club, and married four different white woman, much to the shagrin of pretty much everyone.
In 1912 he was actually arrested for transporting his girlfriend across state lines for “immoral purposes” and was tossed in Leavenworth for a year. Except he didn’t go to jail, he split for Paris and spent 7 years on the run, kicking more ass in the boxing rings of Buenos Aires, Paris, Madrid, and even Mexico City. He remained Heavyweight World Champion during his 7 years in exile.
Johnson was finally beaten at 37 years of age after going 26 rounds in 108 degree heat in Havana. Johnson kept fighting and fighting, and actually got banned in Kansas for illegally fighting at the age of 67. He died in 1946 after wrapping his hot rod around a tree doing over 100 mph. His final record was 79-8 with 46 Kos…most of those losses coming after he was 40 years old. He inspired future boxes Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, and had songs written about him by everyone from Miles Davis to Mos Def.
Jack Johnson was one of, if not the, greatest boxer in history….and truly, one of Texas’ most amazing badasses ever.