John Arthur Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), better known as Jack Johnson and nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”, was an American boxer and arguably the best heavyweight of his generation. He was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World, 1908-1915.
1 Early life
2 Boxing career
3 Later days
5 Other interests
7 Further reading
8 External links
Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas to Henry and Tiny Johnson, former slaves, who both worked blue-collar jobs to earn enough to raise six children and teach them all how to read and write. Jack Johnson had only five years of formal schooling. He is reputed to have fought his first fight, a sixteen round victory, at aged fifteen. He turned professional around 1897, fighting in private clubs, and by age 18 was earning more in one night than his father earned in an entire week.
In 1901, Joe Choynski came to Galveston to train Jack Johnson. Choynski, an experienced boxer, knocked Johnson out, and the two were arrested for “engaging in an illegal contest” and jailed for 23 days. (Although boxing was one of the three most popular sports in America at the time, along with baseball and horse-racing, the practice was officially illegal in most states, including Texas.) Choynski began training Johnson in jail.
Johnson developed a more patient style than was customary in that day: playing defensively, waiting for a mistake, and then capitalizing on it. It was very effective, but it was criticized in the press as being cowardly and devious. By 1902, Johnson had won at least 27 fights against both white and black opponents.
He won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating ‘Denver’ Ed Martin over twenty rounds for the Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted as World Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him. Blacks could box whites in other arenas, but the heavyweight championship was such a respected and covetted position in America that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it. Jackson was able to fight former champion, Bob Fitzsimmons, in July 1907 and knocked him out in two rounds.
He eventually won the World Heavyweight Title on December 26, 1908 when he fought the World Heavyweight Champion, Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world, taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee’s decision as a T.K.O, but he had severely beaten the champion. During the fight, Johnson had mocked both Burns and his ringside crew. Every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up again, punishing him more. The camera was stopped just as Johnson was finishing off Burns so that nobody could actually see Johnson becoming the champion.
As title holder, Johnson had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as “great white hopes”, often as exhibition matches. In 1909 he beat Victor McLaglen (who later became a hollywood star), Frank Moran, Jack O’Brien, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. On July 4, 1910 he defeated James J. Jeffries, a champion who had earlier turned him down, with a K.O. in the fifteenth round in front of 22,000 people. The fight earned Johnson $115,000, and shut the mouths of critics who had belittled Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns as empty, referring to Burns as a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated. His victory sparked race riots and certain states banned the filming of Johnson’s victories over white fighters.
But on April 5, 1915 the 37 year old lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. With a crowd of 25,000 for the scheduled 45 round fight Johnson was K.O.’d in the 26th round. The temperature was 105 in the ring. Some claimed that Johnson threw the fight but Willard said “if he was going to throw the fight I wished he’d done it sooner.” He fought a number of bouts in Mexico before returning to the US on July 20, 1920 and surrendering to Federal agents for allegedly violating the Mann Act against “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes” by sending his white girlfriend, Belle Schreiber, a railroad ticket to travel from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Chicago, Illinois. This is generally considered an intentional misuse of the Act, which was intended to stop interstate traffic in prostitutes. He was sent to United_States_Penitentiary,_Leavenworth to serve his sentence of one year and was released on July 9, 1921.
According to legend, Johnson attempted to buy passage on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912 but was denied because of his race, thus gaining the “last laugh” on the racists when it sank. This story is commemorated in the song “Titanic” by Leadbelly and a “toast”, “Shine and the Titanic,” by Arthur “Arturo” Pfister, of New Orleans, Louisiana.
He continued fighting, but age was catching up with him. After two losses in 1928 he participated only in exhibition bouts. He opened a night club in Harlem which later became the Cotton Club. According to a reporter, the story is that his wife, Lucille Cameron, divorced him in 1924 on the grounds of infidelity. Jack Johnson then married an old friend named Ms. Irene Pineau.
Jack Johnson died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946 and was buried next to Etta Duryea in Graceland Cemetery, in Chicago, Illinois. He was admitted to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.
His fighting style was very distinctive. He always began a bout cautiously before slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. He often fought to punish his opponent rather than knock them out, endlessly avoiding their blows and striking with swift counters. He always gave the impression of having much more to offer and, if pushed, he could really damage an opponent.
Johnson is also a member of the modern International Boxing Hall of Fame, which was erected in 1990 at Canastota, New York.
Johnson flouted conventions regarding the social and economic “place” of African Americans. As a black man, he broke a powerful taboo in consorting with white women, usually prostitutes, and verbally taunting white men both inside and outside the ring. Once when he was pulled over for a $50 speeding ticket, he gave the officer a $100 bill, telling the officer he should keep the change as he was going to make his return trip at the same speed. Johnson’s skill as a fighter and the money that it brought him made him unable to be ignored by the white establishment. In the short term, the boxing world reacted against this legacy. Joe Louis was not able to box for the heavyweight title until he proved he could “act white”, and was warned against gloating over fallen opponents or having his picture taken with a white woman. But Johnson foreshadowed, in many ways, perhaps the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Muhammad Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Jack Johnson. He identified with him because he felt white America ostracized him in the same manner because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
In a documentary about his life by Ken Burns, called “Unforgiveable Blackness”, Burns said: “For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous, and the most notorious, African-American on Earth.”
Johnson was also interested in opera (his favorite being Il Trovatore), history, and automobile racing. He was also an inventor, holding at least three patents; two were associated with automobiles (presumably the result of his interest in them), an improved adjustable wrench and an anti-theft device. The third was a steam-powered heavy winch.
When asked why black men were so attractive to white women, Johnson supposedly said, “We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.”
Geoffery C. Ward, The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Knopf, 2004
Bob Burrill, Who’s Who in Boxing, New Rochelle (NY), Arlington House, 1974