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You are in: London > History > History of London Boxing > Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson, circa 1910. Getty Images

Jack Johnson, circa 1910. Getty Images

Jack Johnson

A special screening in London has celebrated 100 years since the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World

Jack Johnson

  • Born March 31 1878; Galveston, Texas
  • Became the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1908
  • Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”
  • Won 77 out of 123 fights
  • Died in a car crash in 1946

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson charts the remarkable story of the boxer who became the first African-American to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

The film, shown by Sport Synergy and ESPN Classic, was screened at the London Southbank University as part of Black History Month.

At four hours long, split into two parts, you first wonder how a documentary about one man so little-known outside the boxing world can span that length of time.

But the film is about much more than Johnson. It portrays the shocking attitudes towards race and the position of black Americans within society at that time.

Early Days

Arthur John Johnson, better known as Jack, was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31 1878. His mother and father were former slaves who worked hard to give their six children an education.

Jack Johnson 1878-1946

Jack Johnson (1878-1946). Getty Images

His first taste of the fight game was when he took part in 'battles royal' where young black boys would fight in a group to entertain white men until there was only one winner. Jack was often the last boy standing.

He became a professional boxer in 1897 and went on to win The World Colored Heavyweight Championship [sic] by defeating 'Denver' Ed Martin in 1903. This title was issued to black boxers in the early 20th century at a time when black boxers were not deemed worthy enough to fight for the World Heavyweight Championship.

James Jeffries, the reigning white champion at that time, refused many times to fight Johnson.

Johnson's boxing style was patient and defensive combined with awesome power and speed, a style not really widespread at the time. He stood at over 6ft and weighed nearly 200 pounds.

He went on to win scores of fights and defeated former title holder, and the first Briton to win the Heavyweight title, Bob Fitzsimmons in 1907.

World Title

In 1908 Johnson was finally given a shot at the title and became the first black man to do so. He fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia.

Archive film shows how easily Johnson won the fight, smiling at, and mocking, the opposition corner.

He won in the 14th round after police stepped in to stop the match -  an agreement made prior to the fight. Police and officials were worried that if Johnson were to win or knock out Burns there could well be a riot.

In fact the film cameras were turned off just before the fight finished to save the spectacle of a white man losing to a black man. Boxing films at the time were re-run in cinemas across the US.

Johnson arriving in Fleet Street, London

Johnson arriving in Fleet Street, London. (Getty)

The victory did nothing to please writers and critics. The all-pervasive racism at the time was reflected by the newspapers which were highly derogatory. One writer, Jack London, called for a "Great White Hope" to reclaim the title.

White fighters came forward to fight Johnson but were not naturally gifted, fit enough or skilled as boxers. They were all defeated.

Fight of the Century

Incredibly, Jack London wrote: "Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face … Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued."

Jim Jeffries before the fight. Getty Images

Jim Jeffries before the fight. Getty Images

In 1910 former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement for the 'Fight of the Century'. It had been six years since his last fight but he trained hard and the film shows him looking fit for his age.

The fight took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4th amid high racial tension and once again armed police were on guard. The fears of Johnson being murdered, especially if he won, were very real. There was worldwide interest in the fight with magazines and newspapers printing stories weeks in advance..

Crowds followed the fight with specially installed ticker-tape machines and actors even portrayed the fight, round by round, in front of large audiences on street corners.

Johnson proved fitter and stronger than his opponent and won the fight in the 15th round after knocking Jeffries down twice. His corner stepped in to save Jeffries from being knocked out. Johnson won 60% of the $225,000 purse, a huge sum of money in 1910.

The crowd silently left the stadium but this victory proved too much for many. Race riots broke out across the United States that left over 20 dead, mostly black, and hundreds injured.


Johnson not only made the headlines for his boxing skill; he lived the celebrity lifestyle by endorsing products, driving fast cars and had a dashing dress sense - common among celebrities today but totally unheard of for a black man in the early 20th Century.

He was also outspoken and lived his life the way he wanted to. He also publicly dated who he wished, often white women, causing uproar to the white and black community.

Jack Johnson in action against Willard

Johnson v Willard, 1915. Photo: Getty

Johnson became despised by many and was eventually convicted in Chicago in 1913 under the Mann Act of transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. An earlier case against Johnson collapsed. He fled the United States for Europe rather than face prison.

He travelled throughout Europe, including London, and had several bouts. In 1915 he fought fellow American Jess Willard in Cuba and, although starting well, he looked out of shape and lost in the 26th round. Amazingly this fight was scheduled for 40 rounds!

Johnson decided to return to the United States. He approached the U.S. Government in 1920 and agreed to surrender himself into custody on the provision he would not be handcuffed and led by a black officer.

He was transported to Leavenworth, Kansas, to serve his sentence and was released a year later.

Later Life

On his release he fought in exhibition bouts, told his life story and opened a bar in Harlem. Like many ex-fighters he eventually drifted into obscurity.

Johnson died aged 68 in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1946 after racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

A  play entitled 'The Great White Hope' opened in 1968 starring James Earl Jones as Johnson. It told the story of how white America demanded a Great White Hope and its affects on Johnson. The play later became a film.

Johnson was inducted in the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and also the two recognized international boxing hall of fames; the World Boxing Hall of Fame (WBHF) and the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF).

In September, 2008, the US Congress recommended that a presidential pardon should be granted to the first black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion for his 1913 conviction.

It states that the conviction was racially motivated, prompted by his sporting success and his relationships with white women. It is hoped, and expected, that President Bush will grant the pardon before he leaves the White House.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is a PBS documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. It was screened by Sport Synergy and ESPN Classic at the London Southbank University as part of Black History Month with permission by PBS.

last updated: 30/10/2008 at 09:24
created: 29/10/2008

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