The very first in an illustrious line

Jack Johnson not only fought his way out of misery, but was also a ruthless heavyweight boxing champion, who spent his entire life changing the rules of the racist society he lived in. He took it out on the long line of white boxers who dared to fight him and taught them a lesson or two.


LONG before Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, even before Joe Louis and so many other black boxers who have dominated the ring over the last 100 years, strode the mighty figure of the very first in this illustrious line of Afro-American heavyweight boxing champions.

His name was Jack Johnson and his massive frame, brutal boxing style and most of all, disdain for the white race enraged America in the early part of the 20th century. That and the fact that he was one of the greatest prize-fighters of all time, pummelling and pulverising one "Great White Hope" after another.

Hatred for Johnson reached epic proportions. It was like a single-minded crusade to find a white boxer who could teach him a lesson and wipe that triumphant smirk off his face.

Jack was born into abject poverty in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. The white man was king and the black man was forced to grovel for what little was thrown his way.

He had two choices — either slave away in the cotton fields for a pittance or use his gloves to fight his way out of a life of misery.

That is the path Johnson took. He never forgave the white man for the insults thrown his way in his youth and took it out on a long line of unfortunate boxers who dared to take him on. He could have knocked many of them out. But instead he chose to inflict pain and suffering on them at a time when referees rarely stepped in to stop a fight till one man was left virtually half-dead in the ring. That was never Johnson's fate.

Usually weighing in at 196 pounds, Johnson beat former British world champion Bob Fitzsimmons to a pulp in two rounds, before earning the right to fight for the world title that had been won by French-Canadian Tommy Burns in 1906.

That moment came two years later on Boxing Day (December 26) in Sydney, Australia. Burns had fought ten white opponents over that two-year period and beaten all of them. Johnson pursued him relentlessly around the world demanding a showdown, with Burns constantly dodging him till there was nowhere to hide.

Like the vast majority of the white race at the time, Burns had only contempt and abuse for people of colour. He regarded them all as inferior and cowards.

That opinion would soon be dramatically changed. Till this fight, deserving black fighters had been barred from challenging for the world title. But Johnson would spend his entire adult life changing the rules of the racist society he lived in.

A huge crowd of 20,000 thronged the venue, a specially constructed arena in Rushcutters Bay. Almost as many were left outside. No doubt everyone was backing Burns and cursing Johnson.

Taunting and goading him, Johnson was immediately all over his tiny opponent, at 5ft. 7in. the shortest champion of all time. Within 20 seconds of the first round an uppercut to the chin landed Burns on the canvas. The crowd could scarcely believe their eyes. He rose at the count of six and settled for a war of attrition, still convinced in his prejudiced mind that his opponent lacked the stomach for a fight.

Burns attacked to the body but Johnson swatted away his feeble attempts, all the while taunting him: "Good boy, Tommy. Good little boy." These taunting tactics would be copied more than 50 years later by the one-and-only Muhammad Ali who would refer to Johnson as the most influential person in his career. Back to the fight. Johnson was by now toying with his furious opponent who was soon reduced to verbal abuse as his physical strength was proving to be pitifully inadequate. "Why aren't you fighting, Tommy? Come, I'll show you how" were the mocking words he had to endure.

Johnson wrote in his autobiography: "I found my opponent easier than I had anticipated. My defence completely baffled him. I led with brisk lefts and rights to his body and face, and administered an awful punishment to him".

By now the reigning champion's sole aim was to prove his bravery. In the 13th round the police stepped in to persuade the referee and fighter — now reduced to a bloody pulp — to end his futile resistance. He refused but by the next round after being knocked to the canvas once again and struggling to rise at the count of eight, the police finally had their way. It was all over. Johnson was the champion.

One journalist wrote in a mix of anguish and awe: "The fight, there was no fight." As Johnson's stature as a boxer grew, so did his refusal to accept an inferior status. After all, he was now world heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson delighted in being insufferable to white society, flaunting his wealth and cavorting with a succession of white women. America was determined to teach him a lesson and put him in his place.

Jim Jeffries, who had retired as undefeated champion six years earlier, was persuaded to uphold the honour of his race and take on the champion in 1910. It proved futile as he was also battered into submission by the 15th round. Racial riots spread across the US resulting in 14 deaths. Things were getting out of hand and Johnson left for Europe to allow things to cool down.

His last major professional bout was in Havana, Cuba, on April 5, 1915. At the age of 37 and well past his prime, he was knocked out in the 26th round by Jess Willard. Johnson would always claim the fight was fixed and he had taken a `dive'.

After eight years away from home, he finally returned to the US in 1920 to see his ailing mother. A previous conviction meant he was sent straight to jail. But he continued to fight exhibition bouts till a year before his death in 1946. A few weeks after his 68th birthday his fascination for fast cars saw him involved in a fatal crash.

There would be great white champions like Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey. But the century largely belonged to the black boxer and Johnson had paved the way. He was truly a pioneer.