History of London Boxing
Jack Johnson, circa 1910. Getty Images
A special screening in London has celebrated 100 years since the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World
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.
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). 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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