Ring master in white lions' den

The Anniversary: Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion 90 years ago
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JACK JOHNSON changed the sporting world on a summer's afternoon in Australia 90 years ago. In a specially constructed arena at Rushcutter's Bay, near Sydney, Johnson, a 30-year-old Texan, became the first black world heavyweight champion when he outclassed Tommy Burns of Canada in 14 brutally one-sided rounds.

Johnson was an extraordinary man who defied the sporting establishment throughout his eventful life. For years before he defeated Burns he had been the best heavyweight in the world, but was excluded from taking part in championship fights because he was black.

Rather than risk everything against Johnson, for more than two years Burns, a former ice hockey player from Canada, preferred to fight far less able challengers such as England's Gunner Moir, Jem Roche of Ireland and the celebrated "Boshter" Bill Squires from Australia. Squires was flattened in 129 seconds and uttered one of the great post-fight quotes in sporting history: "I got a bloody good lickin' and I'm goin' 'ome."

Eventually, an Australian entrepreneur, Hugh D - known as "Huge Deal" - McIntosh paid Burns an unprecedented pounds 7,500 to fight Johnson on Boxing Day 1908. McIntosh's suspicion of Johnson was extreme. In refusing a cash advance - Jack was a little strapped, as usual - he pulled a gun on him. He also took to carrying a piece of lead piping wrapped in sheet music "in case that black bastard tries any funny business". In spite of this, "Huge Deal" was shrewd enough to bet a sizeable sum on Johnson and referee it himself.

Johnson helped to build up publicity by a series of ridiculous stunts. He chased and caught a rabbit and a greased pig, and won a race with a kangaroo, which promptly dropped dead, either out of shock or old age. He also did enough orthodox training to drive himself into wonderful condition.

Before the fight Burns, six inches shorter and 24lb lighter, told the world he would win - not because of his skill, punch or experience, but because Johnson's skin colour meant he had "a yellow streak a mile wide". There was a nonsensical misconception that because of the residues of their slave mentality, black figures could not cope with body punching.

It's impossible to imagine the kind of courage Johnson must have possessed to ignore it all and to walk into hostile arenas time and again to prove himself... and then to walk out, past white faces with anger fuelled by drink or lost bets.

In Sydney The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News set the tone: "Citizens who have never prayed before are supplicating Providence to give the white man a strong right arm with which to belt the coon into oblivion."

Men travelled for miles to reach the stadium, by boat, train, horseback and even on foot, to fill the new arena. It was a slow, dreadfully one- sided contest. Burns took a steady pounding. Along the way the big Texan offered him free shots at his stomach, smiling: "Go on, Tommy. Hit me here." Burns was cut, and bled from the nose, but abused Johnson loudly in the clinches. Johnson laughed and told ringsiders how he intended to spend his winnings. In round 14, with the Canadian tottering after getting up from a knockdown, the police intervened and stopped it.

Fears that a Johnson victory would spark a black revolution across the world, or at least America, proved a wild exaggeration. The main incident appears to have been at the Manassas Club in Chicago, where black people hired white waiters for a celebration banquet.

Nevertheless, for those who believed in the old racial stereotypes, it must have been a dreadful dawn. The novelist Jack London, commissioned to report from ringside by the New York Herald, called for the legendary James J Jeffries, who had retired as undefeated champion three years earlier, to emerge from his Californian farm. "Jeff, it's up to you."

Two years later, Jeffries was humiliated by Johnson in a fight which did spark race riots. Burns, who eventually became an evangelist, admitted in old age: "I lost because of tension caused by racial hatred."

Johnson held the title for seven years and became even more hated because of his preference for white women, which eventually forced him to flee criminal charges. He returned to serve a prison sentence and died in a car crash in 1946.

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