Fox's 20th Century: Boxing - 1905-10: Jack Johnson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN BRITAIN the star of the era was the brilliant Welsh footballer Billy Meredith, but Jack Johnson was of greater international and social significance because in 1908 he became the first black American to win the world heavyweight boxing championship.

Johnson, who was insufferably arrogant, and mocked a succession of inferior white challengers, nevertheless played a crucial role in the progress of black sportsmen. Yet his own career ended as a prematurely old man earning a few dollars hammering out rhythms on a punchball in a New York museum.

He was born in 1878 in Texas. Attempting to escape typically impoverished circumstances, he worked in racing stables at 12 and started to box in 1899. He was 30 before white prejudice relented and he got his first chance at the world title. Then his slow, defensive style, short hooks and uppercuts kept him at the top for seven years.

Before Johnson, a Canadian, Tommy Burns, had successfully defended the title 11 times. He feared Johnson and travelled widely to avoid him but eventually they met, appropriately on Boxing Day in Sydney. The bout was so punishing on the 5ft 7in Burns that the police stepped in to stop it. Johnson had lost only two of his previous 63 bouts and went on to defend his title five times, outclassing and sneering at all the "great white hopes". Among the sufferers was Jim Jeffries, champion in 1899 and outrageously persuaded to make a comeback. The inevitable knock-out sparked a race riot.

Johnson lapsed into easy living. He had numerous affairs with white women and was charged with transporting a prostitute across state borders. He was given a one-year prison sentence but bribed his way out, crossed into Canada and moved to Europe.

On a visit to London he found bouncers blocking his way into the National Sporting Club. They claimed he had broken his word about defending his title. Henry Cooper, whose grandfather George was among the bouncers, says the real reason was that the club members could not accept that Johnson had married a white woman.

Finally, in 1915, he was knocked out by a 6ft 6in cowboy, Jess Willard, but only after 26 rounds in Havana. He later tried to sell Ring magazine a story that he had thrown the bout in return for a promise that he could return to the States without finishing his prison sentence. Ring refused to believe him and in 1920 he served time. He died in a car accident in 1946.