On this day in 1908, the boxer John Arthur Johnson defeats Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, becoming the first black heavyweight champion of the world and an international icon.
Born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, Johnson began boxing professionally in 1897, when it was a relatively new sport. In an era of persistent racial discrimination, African-Americans were allowed to enter many competitions, but were not permitted to compete for the title of world champion. After winning many titles and a good deal of prize money, Johnson pushed for a fight against the reigning world heavyweight champion, James Jeffries. Jeffries refused to fight a black boxer, and decided to retire undefeated. In 1908, the new champion, Tommy Burns of Canada, agreed to fight Johnson for the title after Johnson attended a number of Burns’ matches around the world and taunted him from the sidelines.
In Sydney on December 26, 20,000 screaming fans watched Johnson relentlessly pound at Burns over 14 rounds. At that point, the police stepped in to stop the one-sided bout. Officials awarded the fight to Johnson on a technical knock-out (TKO), making him the first black heavyweight champion of the world. He would hold the title until April 1915, including a successful defense against Jeffries, who came out of retirement to face Johnson in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century” on July 4, 1910. Heralded by the press as the “Great White Hope,” Jeffries was knocked out by Johnson in the 15th round of that bout.
As the heavyweight world champion in a sport that was captivating a global audience, Johnson became one of the most famous figures–black or white–in his native country and around the world. In addition to his punishing victories, however, Johnson was known for his extravagant lifestyle, and was excoriated by his white critics for his romantic relationships with white women. In 1913, Johnson was convicted (in what was widely considered a sham trial) of violating a federal law, the Mann Act of 1910, which outlawed the transportation of women across state lines for “prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” He was found to have traveled with his second wife, a former prostitute, across state lines before they were married.
Johnson fled the country to avoid sentencing and didn’t return until 1920, five years after losing the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. After serving one year in prison, Johnson fought occasionally and appeared in vaudeville and carnival acts, and wrote two memoirs. He died in an automobile accident in 1946. Inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, he is considered by many to be one of the best heavyweight fighters of all time.