By John F. McKenna (McJack)
John Arthur (Jack) Johnson, AKA “The Galveston Giant”, AKA“Lil Artha” was one of those larger than life Heavyweight Champions who comes along once in a generation. Johnson was born on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. He was the son of former slaves Henry and Tina Johnson who worked at blue collar jobs to provide for their six children. Young Jack dropped out of school after five or six years of education to get a job as a dock worker in Galveston and as a youth he began to exhibit an interest in boxing.
As great fighters often do, Jack Johnson developed a style that was unique to him. He learned to fight defensively in a style that was years ahead of it’s time. He would wait patiently for his opponent to make a mistake and then capitalize on it. America was a very racist country at the time and his style was referred to by many boxing writers as cowardly. “Gentleman” Jim Corbett on the other hand, whose style was not all that different from “Lil Artha’s”, was considered a ring genius just ten years prior. Johnson frequently tormented and taunted his opponents He seemed to enjoy torturing opponents rather than knocking them out. He always gave the impression that he could knock his opposition out whenever he chose to. Part of the problem was that Johnson was far superior to anyone he fought and he would toy with his opponents rather than try to end the fight.
Johnson was trained by the great light heavyweight fighter Joe Choynski. Choynski, who scored a KO victory over Johnson earlier in his career, had one of the more interesting nick names in boxing. He was called “Chrysanthemum Joe” because of his blonde hair. Choynski instilled his scientific approach to boxing on Johnson. That is, to diffuse the power of your opponent, then wreak havoc on him. Choynski was not only “Lil Artha’s” trainer, he was also his sparring partner and good friend. In 1901 when Johnson was still young and on the way up the fistic ladder he fought Choynski in Galveston, Texas. Choynski knocked out Johnson with a left hook in the 3rd round. Johnson and Choynski were imprisoned for 23 days because it was illegal for a black man and white man to engage in a boxing match. While in prison “Chrysanthemum Joe” tutored Johnson on the nuances of defensive boxing. The metamorphosis took place while Jack Johnson was in prison that ultimately led to him becoming one of the greatest Heavyweight Champions of all time.
Johnson won the World Heavyweight Colored Championship in 1903, but his shot at the
World Heavyweight Championship was still five years away. With over fifty fights under his belt, Johnson began in earnest to pursue the big prize. Finally in 1908 Johnson, after years of following Heavyweight Champion Tommy Burns halfway around the world, caught up to him in Sydney, Australia. On December 26, 1908 Jack Johnson became the first black man to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. This was a full six years after Lightweight Champion Joe Gans became the first African American champion. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before the police rushed the ring and halted proceedings. Johnson was awarded a 14 round TKO by the referee. After the fight author and journalist Jack London called for a “Great White Hope” to win the championship back for the white race. Boxing promoters hyped each contender Johnson fought as a “White Hope”. Many of the fights were exhibitions. Stanley Ketchel, the great Middleweight Champion attempted to double cross Johnson by uncorking his patented right cross in an exhibition fight. Johnson went down, but jumped up immediately and KO’d Ketchel. On May 19, 1909 Johnson fought to a disappointing six round draw with defensive whiz, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Johnson weighed 205 lbs to O’Brien’s 161 lbs.
The fervor for a White Hope continued to grow. Former Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries, who had not fought in six years and whose weight had ballooned to 300 lbs was cajoled into making an ill advised comeback. The bout was held on July 4, 1910 in a ring constructed for the occasion in Reno, Nevada (Jack Johnson vs Jim Jeffries – You Tube). Jeffries, who had lost 80 lbs in preparation for the fight, was but a shell of his former self and was soundly thrashed. Johnson, as was his custom, taunted and tortured the once great champion, which served to enrage not only the white fans in attendance, but white fans across America. Riots across America would break out that evening, the Fourth of July. Some of the “riots” were merely African American citizens celebrating the victory over Jeffries. Riots occurred in over fifty cities across America. Johnson earned $65,000 for his victory over Jeffries, a huge amount of money for the time. A number of American film companies filmed the fight with the intent of making a documentary about the “Fight of The Century” as it was billed. Immediately a movement was started in several states to prevent the distribution of the film. In addition, Congress banned prizefight films from being distributed across state lines in 1912.
Finally a “White Hope” was found who was a legitimate threat to Jack Johnson’s reign as Heavyweight Champion. Jess Willard, a rugged, confident, hard working cowboy from Kansas, who had started his boxing career just six years prior, challenged Johnson for the title. Big Jess at 6’6”, 245 lbs had nowhere near Johnson’s skill as a fighter. What he did possess was a great deal of strength and stamina. The fight between Jack Johnson and Jess Willard was scheduled for 45 rounds and was held on April 5, 1915 (Johnson vs Willard – YouTube) in Havana, Cuba. Willard’s style was unorthodox, which caused Johnson problems. Johnson found that he could not knock out his huge challenger. Jess Willard, AKA “The Pottawatomie Giant” was a counterpuncher and he forced Johnson to do all the leading. It was a strategy that Willard hoped would tire Johnson out, who at 37 years old was four years older than Willard. Johnson as expected won all the early rounds, drawing on his skill and experience. Whenever Jess had the opportunity, he dug in punches to Johnson’s body. He had noted early on Johnson’s reaction to his powerful body shots. After the 20th round Johnson began to tire and reacted visibly every time Jess scored with a body punch. Finally Jess connected in the 26th round with a powerful right hand to the jaw. Afterwards many people, including Johnson himself insinuated that Jack had taken a dive. The film taken of the fight however, shows a different story. Further, it is illogical to fight for 26 rounds under a hot Havana sun and then decide to fall down. Willard himself stated: “If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he had done it a lot sooner. It was hot as hell out there!” Thus the reign of one of the greatest and the most controversial Heavyweight Champions was over. After Jack Johnson, no black fighter got a title shot for twenty two years, until Joe Louis won the title from Jimmy Braddock in 1937. Joe Louis’s image was carefully cultivated to draw the distinction between him and Jack Johnson, which enabled him to get the shot at Braddock.
Jack Johnson was an extremely complex man, shaped to some degree by the times he grew up in. He snubbed his nose at white America. His preference for white woman was well known and he in fact married three white women. In June of 1913 he was convicted by an all white jury of violating the Mann Act, even thought the acts took place before the law went into effect. It was another “Gotcha” moment for those that wanted to get Johnson. White America was not about to stand idly by while Johnson cavorted around the country with white woman. He was found guilty of taking a white woman across state lines for an immoral purpose. Johnson received a prison sentence of a year and a day. He promptly skipped bail and left the country. Eventually he would report to Leavenworth Penitentiary to serve out his prison sentence.
Johnson, in addition to being years ahead of his contemporaries in his boxing style, was similar to today’s superstars in the celebrity status that he achieved. He wore stylish clothing, drove expensive cars and frequently endorsed various products for which he was handsomely rewarded. He appeared regularly on radio programs and in films.
He was an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte and enjoyed the opera. In 1920 Johnson opened a nightclub in Harlem. Three years later he sold it to reputed gangster Owney Madden who renamed it the Cotton Club.
Johnson once stated: “I made a lot of mistakes out of the ring, but I never made any in it.”
Another of Johnsons quotes: “The fight between life and death is to the finish, and ultimately death is the victor……I do not deplore the passing of these crude old days.”
Jack Johnson lived life to the fullest. He was killed in an automobile accident near Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946.
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