Unforgivable Blackness – Jack Johnson the original fighter

Jack Johnson: the original great black fighter

In light of the events over the past 10 days, and the mass protests across the world for Black Lives matter, it is fitting that we take a look at the original great Black fighter; Jack Johnson. 

A man who was hated by a country because of his colour, but who would not be denied his greatness because of it. He would not be the last great, Black heavyweight to upset the establishment, and you could argue that without Jack Johnson there would be no Muhammad Ali. 

Professional boxing came naturally for the 6 foot ‘Galveston Giant’ who had learnt his trade in the barrooms and back streets of his home town in Texas where White men would pay a handful of dollars to see ‘the last negro boy standing’. 

And, according to the documentary Unforgivable Blackness, Johnson was often the last man standing. 

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Tired of being shunned

Tired of being shunned by the heavyweight world champion Jim Jeffries, Johnson made it his mission to win the title. 

By 1907 he had beaten every available contender both Black and White and was hunting down the new champion Tommy Burns, eventually finding him in Sydney, Australia.

The fight itself was a massacre and newspapers at the time would remark at the ‘barbaric’ way that Johnson taunted an embarrassingly inferior Burns. Johnson used every element of his superior size and boxing skill to tie up the much shorter champion and punish him repeatedly, all whilst speaking to the baying crowd at ringside. 

The film footage of the fight which was distributed worldwide did not show the eventual knock out win and instead was cut short by the police who unsurprisingly did not condone the triumph of an African American world champion over a White man. 

Denied his moment in the sun

Sadly, even after winning the title and proving that he was perhaps the best boxer ever up until that point, the racially charged society of the time would not let him enjoy his moment in the sun. 

The public demanded a ‘great, White hope’ and thought they had found it in the form of former undefeated champion Jim Jeffries. Jeffries who, despite drawing the colour line when he was champion, was pressured into making a return almost 6 years after retiring. 

Echoing the zeitgeist at that time, Jeffries said this in the build-up:

“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a White man is better than a Negro.” 

In a pattern that would repeat many times in years to come, Johnson proved that an active, prime champion would always have the edge over one that has long since retired. There was to be no racial superiority for Jim Jeffries who was outgunned from the first round and eventually dropped twice in the 15th, calling a halt to the contest. 

The fight would prove that two men squaring off with gloves is the great equalizer and only the best man would win regardless of creed or colour. This was a notion that Jeffries appeared to concede after the event.

“I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.” said Jim Jeffries after the fight.

Jack Johnson’s long career

Jack Johnson reigned for a further 4 years and 9 months after the Jeffries fight until he lost his title under suspicious circumstances against the ‘Pottawatomie Giant’ Jess Willard in Cuba, 1915.

He would fight on for many years and still box exhibitions well into his 60’s before he was tragically killed in a motor car accident on his way to watch a Joe Louis fight in 1946. 

When asked about his views on race, Jack Johnson was quoted as saying; “I have found no better way in avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist.”

I think this is something we can all take into consideration.

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