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Jack Johnson

Success In The Ring

Between 1902 and 1908, Johnson fought fifty-seven official fights, predominantly against other black boxers. Johnson, whose fighting style was fast and nimble, with a strong defense and tremendous power in both fists, won fifty-four of those fights. He was also known for his flamboyant personal style: Johnson joked with the crowd, taunted his opponents, and would defiantly flash his "golden smile" (several teeth had been replaced with gold). In 1902, Johnson defeated the former world light-heavyweight champion George Gardiner. He went on to defeat Denver Ed Martin in 1903, becoming the unofficial black world heavyweight champion. White boxers, including world heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, refused to fight Johnson because of his race.

On December 26, 1908, Johnson finally was allowed his chance to fight the world heavyweight champion. The 6-foot, 200 pound Johnson faced 5 foot 7, 175 pound Tommy Burns, a white Canadian fighter, in a match in Sydney, Australia. Even though Johnson was forced to agree to allow Burns's manager to referee the match, he won easily in the fourteenth round when police stopped the match. Although he was the undisputed winner of the bout, Johnson received just $5,000 of the $40,000 purse and some boxing experts refused to acknowledge him as world champion because of his race.


1878 Born March 31 in Galveston, Texas
1897 First professional fight
1898 Marries Mary Austin
1902 Defeats George Gardiner, former light-heavyweight world champion
1903 Defeats Denver Ed Martin, becoming unofficial black world heavyweight champion
1903 First wife dies
1908 Defeats Tommy Burns, becoming world heavyweight champion and sparking controversy because of his race
1910 Defeats Jim Jeffries, retired world heavyweight champion, and defends his title; race riots break out, and the public cries out for the "Great White Hope"
1911 Marries Etta (Terry) Duryea, a white divorcee from Brooklyn, provoking public outrage
1912 Second wife commits suicide
1912 Marries Lucile Frances Cameron, his white bookkeeper at the cabaret
1913 Convicted of violating the Mann Act, sentenced to one year and one day in prison
1913 Flees to Europe
1915 Loses title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba; insists fight was fixed
1920 Returns to United States and serves prison term
1924 Divorces third wife
1925 Marries Marie Pineau, a white divorcee
1946 Dies in car crash in North Carolina

Johnson was disliked and ridiculed not just for being black, but also for his unabashed flamboyance. When he wasn't boxing, Johnson performed in a vaudeville act, singing, dancing, playing the fiddle, and giving speeches. He had tastes for fast cars, stylish clothes, and loose women. His brashness outside the ring (and the outrage that a black man held the world title) led critics to call for another fight, this time with Jeffries, who had retired as the undefeated champion. Novelist Jack London wrote in the New York Herald, "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."

Jeffries finally agreed to fight Johnson on July 4, 1910. The match was held in front of a crowd of 16,000 in Reno, Nevada, and was billed as "The Hope of the White Race vs. The Deliverer of the Negroes." Johnson entered the ring in an ivory satin robe, gold chains, and a turquoise feathered scarf. His confidence was warranted: he won the fight in a knockout in the fifteenth round. Johnson's victory sparked race riots around the country, and eleven people died in the violence. There followed a nationwide call for competitions to find the "Great White Hope" who could stop the champion Johnson.

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Famous Sports StarsBoxingJack Johnson Biography - Early Training, Success In The Ring, Chronology, Controversial Figure, Legacy As A Boxer