On December 26th 1908, yes how ironic that is Boxing day, Jack Johnson became the first black man to be crowned heavyweight champion of the world.
Johnson was already a big name in the heavyweight division and deserved his shot at the title much earlier than when it eventually came, but being an African American at the time and the racial divide as strong as it ever was, black fighters were denied their chance at fighting for the title. Johnson was however the coloured heavyweight champion of the world, which he won in 1903 – that was a year after the ‘Old Master’, Lightweight Joe Gans became the first African American to win a world title, so there was hope that Johnson would get his shot at the heavyweight title but it would take a monumental effort to consistently keep his name in the discussion for the heavyweight title. Johnson did this by stalking the reigning world champion of the time, Tommy Burns and taunting him for a match. After two years of following Burns and trying to get a match made between the two, Burns eventually agreed after he was promised $30,000 by promoters – this was at the time the most largest purse ever given to a boxer.
The fight took place on the other side of the world, down under in Sydney, Australia and in front of 20,000 fans crammed inside the stadium, there was said to be more than 20,000 fans outside the stadium watching the fight too, with most climbing up trees or roofs and anywhere else they could find a decent view. The bout itself was as one sided as they come, Johnson dominated the fight, often continuing the taunting inside the ring he had served to Burns outside the ring whilst chasing his title for two years. Eventually it wasn’t the fighter, his corner or the referee who called an end to the fight – but the police! Johnson was declared the winner on points and was the first black heavyweight champion of the world. As expected the public outcry quickly began and the whole saga of ‘The Great White Hope’ first erupted, calls were made for former champion James.J.Jeffries to come out of retirement to face Johnson to claim back the title from the black race and a host of white fighters were served up to Johnson in the hopes one of them could take the belt from him. These included fighters who weren’t even really heavyweights – mind you even Tommy Burns was only 168lbs for the fight, which is todays divisions would be a Super Middleweight. Some of the names who challenged Johnson included all time greats and legends such as the Middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel.
For all the commotion on a black man becoming heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson himself did not better the cause for his people. Whilst it may be said that it was a thing of proudness for black americans to have one of their own as the champion, the situation was no different for black fighters – if they thought Johnson would open the doors to more opportunities they were vastly mistaken. Johnson knew there was a clamouring for the great white hope and took advantage of the racial tension from a business view, the most money to be made was by hyping each of his fights against yet another ‘great white hope’, this meant that Johnson refused to give his fellow black fighters a shot at winning his world heavyweight title. Having vacated the coloured title when he became world champion, Johnson denied some of the same fighters he had taken on as coloured champ a chance to fight for the heavyweight title. This included one of the all time greats Sam Langford. Langford was a fighter who at 5’7 had started as a Lightweight and come up all the way to heavyweight – although he wasn’t really fighting at a ‘heavy’ weight. Langford had famously beaten Joe Gans as a lightweight and despite being outweighed by 29lbs, had already fought Jack Johnson, losing a close points decision over 15 rounds, a fight in which Langford had more than his fair share of fans calling it a win for him and not Johnson. Johnson continued to deny Langford a shot at the heavyweight title when he became champion though his reason was that Langford could never come up with the $30,000 purse he demanded to fight him.
It would be until 1913 that Johnson eventually fought another black man in the ring and that was against an opponent Sam Langford had already defeated, Battling Jim Johnson. The coincidence wasn’t just in the surname, both Johnsons also happened to be born in Galveston, Texas. The bout oddly ended in a draw and the title remained with Johnson.
Jack Johnsons victory on this day in 1908 would eventually open the floodgates for many great African American heavyweight champions, Joe Louis would be the next great black heavyweight champion, then there was Muhammad Ali, whose similarities with Johnson include his outspoken nature at a time of racial sensitivity. Not long after Ali there was Mike Tyson and thus African Americans have written so much of the great history of heavyweight boxing.
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