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 of the “Jim Crow” racial conventions of early 20th-century America.
The boxer that is still remembered as the greatest defensive boxer in heavyweight history was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. Johnson dropped out of school after fifth grade and worked the docks of Galveston before taking up professional boxing. He proved himself a powerful fighter, but the rarity of champion white boxers agreeing to meet black challengers limited his opportunities and purses. In 1903, Johnson won the “Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World” and the next year issued a challenge to Jim Jeffries, the white American who held the world title at the time. Jeffries refused to meet him, and it was not until 1908 that Tommy Burns agreed to give Johnson a shot at the more prestigious white heavyweight title.
The boxers met at Rushcutter’s Bay on the outskirts of Sydney on December 26, 1908. Few of the 20,000 spectators gathered there cheered Johnson as he dominated Burns and became the heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson’s reception upon returning to the United States was equally lukewarm, and racists were appalled by his marriage to a white woman. Johnson refused to keep a low profile in the face of criticism of his color and character, and instead took on an excessively flamboyant lifestyle. He drove flashy sports cars, flaunted gold teeth that went with his gold-handled walking stick, and engaged in numerous, overlapping romances with women–all of them white. Reporters began calling for a “Great White Hope” to put the heavyweight title back in a white man’s hands.
Johnson defeated several U.S. challengers, and in 1910 Jim Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement to try to beat the black boxer. In a fight held at Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, Johnson became the first boxer to knock down Jeffries, and in the 15th round Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel. The outcome of the match prompted racial violence and rioting across the United States.
In 1912, Johnson was convicted of transporting an unmarried woman across state lines for “immoral purposes,” a law that was drafted primarily to prevent prostitution and the white slavery trade—not to prevent a black boxer and nightclub owner from having an affair with his white secretary. Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison and released on bond pending an appeal. He took the opportunity to flee the United States disguised as a member of a black baseball team.
Johnson lived in exile for the next seven years and continued to defend his title in bouts in Europe and elsewhere. On April 5, 1915, he lost the heavyweight title when he was knocked out by white American Jess Willard in the 20th round of a fight in Havana, Cuba. There were rumors that Johnson threw the championship in order to have the charges against him dropped. The charges were not dropped, however, and when Johnson returned to the United States in 1920 he was arrested by U.S. marshals. He was sent to a federal prison in Kansas to serve his year sentence.
After his release, Johnson boxed occasionally but never regained his former stature. His fortunes steadily diminished, and near the end of his life he worked as a vaudeville and carnival performer. He died in a car accident in 1946.