Today, a bit of boxing history in Background Buzz: Tuesday 4th July 2023 marked 247 years since the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
For boxing historians it also marks the 113th year in the long history of boxing, since the “Fight of the Century.”
In a ring constructed in the center of the city of Reno, Nevada, packed with 20,000 spectators, Arthur John Johnson, more widely known as Jack Johnson, of Galveston, Texas, the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World, faced the undefeated James J. Jeffries, who was called “The Great White Hope” returning from a six-year retirement especially to fight Johnson.
In truth, the fight was not a boxing match; it was really a confrontation between two ethnic groups, with the ultimate aim of proving the superiority of one race over the other, in the centuries-old struggle between blacks and whites that still persists to this day.
Jack Johnson, the 32-year-old champion, descendant of emancipated black slaves, with a perennial smile flashed by gold teeth, irreverent, who mocked racial barriers, was flamboyant, dapper, dandy, arrogant, insubordinate, mocking, sure of his sporting and human worth.
Two years earlier, Johnson had won the first authorized world championship fight between heavyweights of different skin color, when he knocked out Canadian, Tommy Burns in 14 of 20 rounds in Sydney, Australia, on boxing day 1908, whom he had chased and challenged for two years to give him the title shot.
Johnson was defending the belt for the 4th time against Jeffries, 35 years old, undefeated in 25 fights with 16 by KO and 2 draws before prematurely quitting boxing.
Jeffries had returned in response to the requests and pleas of white fans who condemned the fact that a black man was sitting on the throne.
In that group of followers stood out the reputed journalist Jack London, creator of the denomination of “Great White Hope” that was foisted on Jeffries, his idol, who when he was the champion had said contemptuously of Johnson, “He is a good boxer, but he is black. If I wasn’t the champion I’d fight him like anyone else. The title won’t go to a black as long as I can help it.”
At 6’3″, an inch taller than the Texan, Jeffries had dropped some 43 kilos for the fight and seemed in perfect physical condition to contain the champion; of impressive muscle mass, who liked to fight defensively, waiting for the slightest carelessness or gap to attack with devastating fury, not stopping until his opponent collapse.
That was exactly the tactic Johnson used in the ring that 04 July 1910 to frustrate Jeffries, who from the first bell, tried to approach and attack him, while Johnson hit him and then sought to clinch.
He repeated the dose and gradually undermined the resistance of the challenger. In round 15, Johnson hit Jeffries with a hard left to the head and the former champion went to the floor for the first time in his career.
At the time, there was no rule of sending the standing fighter to the neutral corner, so Johnson charged again, knocking Jeffries down for the second time with two hard punches and after a third knockdown the referee and promoter Ted Rickard protected Jeffries, while from his corner a white towel was thrown into the ring, at 2 minutes and 20 seconds of the round.
It was the end of the “Great White Hope” and the death also of the illusions of the more than 20,000 fans – all white, as blacks were not allowed to enter the arena.
When the result of the fight was made public in Reno and spread to other parts of the 52 cities and 25 states of the Union, euphoric masses of black people expressed their joy publicly, only to be immediately repelled by angry mobs who are called today – white supremacists.
Riots went on for several days, with police powerless to stop the joy on one side and the fury unleashed on the other. The exact death toll is unknown but estimated at about twenty people with more than two hundred injured.
A couple of years after his victory over Jeffries, Johnson would fall victim to his relentless persecutors and powerful enemies. He was imprisoned in 1912 “for immoral purposes,” – marrying a white woman, his second wife Lucille Cameron – an offense punishable by the Mann Act of 1910, for which a jury of 11 white people sentenced Jack Johnson to a year in prison.
Johnson fled to Europe, where he stayed for a time and fought, and also traveled to Argentina, Mexico and Cuba, where he lost his title in Havana to Jess Willard on 05 April 1915 at 2 minutes 20 seconds of the 26th round of a 45 round fight.
Johnson later claimed that he had given up the fight in order to return to the US, after an agreement with the State Department.
On returning to the US, Jack Johnson was imprisoned between September 1920 and July of the following year, after which he returned to boxing in his early forties and fought 11 times for six wins, the last one against Brad Simmons, whom he knocked out in two rounds.
Jack Johnson, considered one of the 10 best heavyweights in history, left boxing with an unofficial record of 77 fights won, 48 of them by KO, 13 defeats, 14 draws and 19 no decisions.
Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, Johnson, born on 3rd March 1878, died at the age of 68 on 03 June 1946 in a traffic accident at the wheel of one of his many luxury automobiles on a highway in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Minutes earlier he had stormed out of a restaurant where he was refused service because of the color of his skin.
In April 2018, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, in response to a petition led by Sylvester Stallone, granted Jack Johnson a pardon for his conviction.