Updated:
Original:
Year
1908
Month Day
December 26

Jack Johnson wins heavyweight boxing title

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.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

The first Kwanzaa

The first day of the first Kwanzaa is celebrated in Los Angeles under the direction of Maulana Karenga, the chair of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach. The seven-day holiday, which has strong African roots, was designed by Dr. Karenga as a celebration of ...read more

Jack Johnson wins heavyweight title

Jack Johnson becomes the first African American to win the world heavyweight title when he knocks out Canadian Tommy Burns in the 14th round in a championship bout near Sydney, Australia. Johnson, who held the heavyweight title until 1915, was reviled by whites for his defiance ...read more

Bugsy Siegel opens Flamingo Hotel

Well-known singer and comedian Jimmy Durante headlined the entertainment, with music by Cuban band leader Xavier Cugat. Some of infamous gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel’s Hollywood friends, including actors George Raft, George Sanders, Sonny Tufts and George Jessel were in ...read more

Patton relieves Bastogne

On this day, General George S. Patton employs an audacious strategy to relieve the besieged Allied defenders of Bastogne, Belgium, during the brutal Battle of the Bulge. The capture of Bastogne was the ultimate goal of the Battle of the Bulge, the German offensive through the ...read more

Truman dies

On this day in 1972, former President Harry S. Truman dies in Independence, Missouri. Then-President Richard Nixon called Truman a man of “forthrightness and integrity” who had a deep respect for the office he held and for the people he served, and who “supported and wisely ...read more

The Exorcist opens

On this day in 1973, The Exorcist, a horror film starring the actress Linda Blair as a girl possessed by an evil spirit, makes its debut in theaters; it will go on to earn a reputation as one of the scariest movies in history. The Exorcist was based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 ...read more

Bathory’s torturous escapades are exposed

On this day in 1609 or 1610 (sources are not conclusive), Count Gyorgy Thurzo makes an investigative visit to Csejthe Castle in Hungary on orders from King Matthias and discovers Countess Elizabeth Bathory directing a torture session of young girls. Bathory was already infamous ...read more

Carmaker Preston Tucker dies

On December 26, 1956, the visionary carmaker Preston Tucker dies of lung cancer. He was just 53 years old. Tucker began his career in the auto industry as a mail messenger at General Motors. He quickly worked his way out of the mailroom, however, and before he turned 30 he was ...read more