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Jack Johnson

Titles: heavyweight champion 1908-1915
Record: 68-10-10 with 17 no decisions

Born: Aril 10, 1878 in Galveston, Texas (USA)    

Years active: 1897-1928
Nickname: The Galveston Giant or Lil Arthur

In 1908, 39 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league 
baseball, Jack Johnson became the first black man to hold the world heavyweight 
championship. Johnson is still considered one of the best heavyweights ever 90 years 
after he gained the title. He is also considered one of the most powerful counter
punchers to ever stepped in a ring regardless of weight class. His defensive skills 
are only rivaled by Muhammad Ali and Gene Tunney in heavyweight history. Johnson's 
infighting and short hooks were perhaps his most effective offensive weapons along 
with his constant feinting. The great boxing writer Nate Fleischer who founded The Ring 
magazine said of Jack Johnson "I have no hesitation in naming Jack Johnson as the 
greatest (heavyweight) of them all." Fleischer had seen every heavyweight from James 
J. Jeffries to Joe Frazier.  Once Johnson won the title, he would not relinquish it 
for more than six years, consider also that Johnson was 30 by this time and probably 
past his prime. But Johnson is often remembered more for a flamboyant lifestyle that, 
coupled with his skin color in "White America," inspired unprecedented controversy. 
He transformed himself from a dockworker from Galveston, Texas, to a early 20th 
century icon. Johnson had his own jazz band, owned a Chicago nightclub, acted on 
stage, drove flashy yellow sports cars, reputedly walked his pet leopard while 
sipping champagne, and flaunted gold teeth that went with his gold-handled walking 
stick. Born March 31, 1878, The son of a former slave John Arthur Johnson would 
spend much of his childhood working on the boats and sculleries of his native 
Galveston.  He grew to be 6 feet, 1 1/4 inches and a giant of a young man who hung 
out with older fighters in Chicago, New York and Boston. Johnson turned pro in 1897 
against Jim Rocks who he knocked out in four rounds. In a strange twist of fate the 
first man to defeat Jack Johnson (knocked him out in three rounds) was also the man 
who probably turned him into a great fighter. Joe Choynski a white man and Jack 
Johnson were jailed together after their bout for staging a fight between a white 
man and a black man. While in jail both men often fought each other for the 
entertainment of the other prisoners and Jack Johnson soaked up every ounce of 
knowledge he could from a fine technical boxer like Choynski. In 1903 Johnson won 
the black heavyweight title from Denver Ed Martin in a 20 round exhibition of counter 
punching from Johnson. Jack Johnson defended the title 4 times in 2 years and he 
would later prove his dominance over Martin by knocking him out in two rounds. During 
this time he fought many of the other great heavyweights like Joe Jeannette, Sam 
Langford, and Sam McVey with great success. It wouldn't be until Dec. 26, 1908, that 
Johnson would finally get his shot at the world heavyweight title. He got it for the 
simplest of reasons. Champion Tommy Burns was guaranteed $30,000 to fight him, a 
fortune for that time. The bout was held on the outskirts of Sydney. While Australia 
may have been a hotbed of boxing at the time, it was no more sympathetic to a black 
than "White America" was. Accounts of the fight indicated that few among the 20,000 
at Rushcutter's Bay cheered for Johnson. Tommy Burns, who was 24 pounds lighter than 
the 192-pound Johnson, was clearly beaten and practically out on his feet by the 
14th round when the police jumped into the ring and stopped the fight. Referee Hugh 
McIntosh awarded the championship to Johnson. With that a new era in boxing had 
arrived. As the new champion Johnson fought two exhibitions and three no-decisions 
before meeting middleweight champ Stanley Ketchel on Oct. 16, 1909, in Colma, Cal. 
The fight was agreed upon before hand to be declared a draw so both men could reap 
the rewards of a rematch but things got a bit out of hand. The 205 1/2-pound Johnson 
knocked out the 170 1/4-pound Ketchel in the 12th round with a devastating right to 
the jaw dafter Ketchel caught Johnson with a wicked right hand that sent the champion 
to the canvas. Johnson was enraged and proved he could have ended the fight anytime 
he wanted to by knocking out Ketchel within seconds of being knocked down. The punch 
that ended the fight was one of the hardest blows ever delivered. Five of Ketchel's 
teeth were ripped off at the roots and two of them became inbedted in the gloves of 
Johnson! If there was one fight that forged Johnson's celebrity, and hate among the 
white community it was against Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champ who had 
been in retirement five years. Famed promoter Tex Rickard lured more than 22,000 
fans to Reno, Nev., on July 4, 1910 for the first "Fight of the Century," the bout
matching the outspoken African-American against "The Great White Hope."  Johnson 
became the first to floor Jeffries, whose corner gave up in the 15th round. "I could 
never have whipped Johnson at my best," Jeffries said. "I couldn't have hit him. No, 
I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years. After whipping Jeffries, Johnson didn't 
fight for two years, but he made waves out of the ring. In January 1911, he married 
for the second time. The bride was Etta Duryea, a white divorced woman from high 
society. The marriage ended  tragically only eight months later, when Duryea 
committed suicide. A week after successfully defending his championship against Jim 
Flynn in a good fight on July 4, 1912, Johnson opened Cafe de Champion, his Chicago 
nightclub. Johnson became a  fugitive for seven years, having been accused of 
violating a white slavery act with a woman who would become his third wife. In the 
court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future commissioner of baseball, Johnson 
was charged with taking Cameron across state lines for "immoral purposes," a violation 
of the Mann white slavery act. With the charge hanging over him, Johnson married 
Cameron on Dec. 4, 1912. The following spring, Johnson was convicted, sentenced to 
a year and a day in prison and fined $1,000. Johnson was free pending an appeal when 
he and Cameron fled the country and headed to Europe. Johnson spent the next seven 
years on the lam. In Paris, he took on a series of farcical matches against wrestlers 
and others. He fought exhibitions in Buenos Aires for measly purses. He finally met 
his match in Havana, Cuba, on April 5, 1915 when more than 25,000 came to see him 
take on 6-foot, 6 1/4-inch, 230-pound Jess Willard. At age 37, Johnson had a very 
noticeable paunch and looked anything but ready for the scheduled 45-round bout. 
Still, he dominated the fight until the 20th round. In Round 26, Willard penetrated 
Johnson's withering defense with a hard right to the head. Johnson was knocked out, 
and Willard was the new champ. There have been rumors ever since that Johnson threw 
the fight but only Johnson really knows for sure, most now think that age and the 
sweltering heat as much as Willard defeated the mighty Jack Johnson. Johnson went 
to Spain, then Mexico, fighting off and on until he returned to America and prombtly
surrendered to federal authorities in 1920. He was sent to prison in Leavenworth, 
Kansas, where he boxed five times before being released on July 9, 1921. In his 40's, 
Johnson fought in Cuba, Canada and Mexico before returning to the United States for 
the last two sanctioned fights of his career, knockout losses in Kansas to Ed 
"Bearcat" Wright and Big Bill Hartwell in the spring of 1928.  Johnson was 50. By 
then, Johnson had divorced Cameron and married Irene Pineau, another white woman. 
If that wedding was not perceived as trouble enough for Johnson, his non-sanctioned 
fights in 1931 against Brad Simmons led to his being banned from boxing in Kansas. 
If Johnson lived in the fast lane, he died there literally, in an automobile accident 
in Raleigh, N.C., on June 10, 1946 at the age of 68. Arthur Ashe called Jack Johnson 
the most significant black athlete in history. 

Jack Johnson

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