Jack Johnson: The First Black American Heavyweight Champion

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In the boxing world, we often hear about Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, and the like. However, we don’t hear enough about Jack Jackson, the first black American heavyweight champion

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He played the sport at the height of racial segregation but towered above everyone else. Who was he, and what was his boxing record? We have all the details below.

Who Was Jack Johnson?

John Arthur Johnson was born on 31 March 1878 in Texas. He was one of eight children brought up in a racially divided America. His parents were enslaved people who worked as dishwashers and janitors. 

Even though he grew up in the South, Jack Johnson said he didn’t feel segregated. He ate, played, and hung out with the white boys. Unlike his white counterparts, the one thing that he didn’t get enough of was education. Jack Johnson stopped school and started working to help his family. 

His exploits to look for work took him to Dallas, where he met Walter Lewis, whom he credits for helping him to become a boxer. When he was 16, Jack Johnson went to New York for work but was fired and returned to his hometown. That didn’t deter his boxing ambition. He worked and bought gloves for himself and trained whenever he could.

His first two fighting experiences came in an unorthodox way. He got into a brawl with a local man whom he defeated in a fight and went on and fought a John ‘Must Have It.’ He beat him and won one dollar fifty cents as prize money. 

Jack Johnson’s Professional Career

Jack Johnson turned pro in 1898 in a match he won against Charley Brooks. He then fought Klondike and tasted his first defeat. The two fought again twice. The second ended in a draw, and Jack Johnson won the third bout.   

In 1900, Jack Johnson fought in his first match, which earned him money. He fought Haynes and pocketed $1000. A year later, Johnson was beaten by Joe Choynski, and later, both men got arrested as prizemoney fighting wasn’t allowed in Texas.

Both were jailed together. During this time, Jack Johnson got some training from Choynski. After he got out, Johnson faced Frank Childs and ended the former heavyweight’s run. 

By 1903, Johnson had won 50 fights. He eventually fought Denver Ed Martin for the World Coloured Heavyweight title and won it.

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White opponents underrated him but hesitated to fight him because of his color. That changed in 1906 when Tommy Burns agreed to fight him. Two after the agreement, Jack Johnson faced Burns in Australia and won the fight. So fierce was he that it took the police to stop the fight. 

This led to public demand to watch Johnson fight James Jeffries. This was billed as the fight of the century, but it was nothing but. Jack Johnson beat him, and Jeffries later admitted he wasn’t a match. 

Even then, some of his haters couldn’t admit that Johnson was better. As a result, he was always a target. 

By the end of his career, Jack Johnson had a 54-11-9 record.

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Jack Johnson’s Controversial Lifestyle

Interracial marriage was illegal in the Jim Crow era. Jack Johnson went against this, married three white women, and had affairs with others. This resulted in a conviction for violating the Mann Act. The Mann Act was passed to stop the operations of the adult industry. 

A white jury convicted him. He left the country and lived as a fugitive. That said, this prevented him from fighting and thus making money. After several years on the run, he surrendered to the US authorities and was jailed. In 1946, he died in a car crash. 

If this piece makes you want to learn more about boxing history, you can get a few books on Amazon.

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