The Day Jack Johnson Punched Through The Color Line
By: Sean Crose
If I were to be asked which fighters would still be remembered in a hundred years from now, the list would be rather small indeed. That’s no knock on boxing.
I’m sure the same rings true for most endeavors. How many athletes of any sports are remembered throughout the decades? How many politicians? How many celebrities? With that in mind, I would have to say that Mike Tyson would be the most recent fighter to attain such longevity. Ali would obviously come next, followed by Dempsey and Sullivan. And, of course, Jack Johnson. Yup, Johnson was that iconic of a fighter.
For Johnson, like his handful of companions on the list, had an impact that went beyond the prize ring. Tyson captured Reagan era dominance on a global scale. Ali was a civil rights pioneer. Dempsey ushered in the age of mass media.
Sullivan became the very picture of aggressive masculinity with his handlebar moustache and menacing stare. And Johnson, well Johnson proved that the powers that be of any era simply can’t deny a great talent. Let’s also keep in mind that, like the others named here, Johnson was a legitimately great fighter – a defensive wizard, if you will.
He was also mouthy and at times obnoxious, like Sullivan and Ali (the other names on the list, Tyson and Dempsey, were silently menacing). That often didn’t help Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion (and, along with that tile, international sports celebrity). Still, being a black champion in a racist country was never going to endear Johnson to the mainstream. More genteel African Americans may have condemned Johnson’s extravagant behavior (and understandably so), but was the man really any more degenerate than some other famous figures of his era? Had Johnson been affable and polite, he would have been viewed as a moronic clown. Instead, he chose another route.
A product of Galveston Texas, Johnson went on to pick up boxing at a time where a black youth had about as much chance succeeding the prize ring as he did anywhere else. Those who find innocuous microagressions to be in the same camp as stone cold racism would do well to read up on Johnson. For he existed in a time where, according to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, groups of blacks would entertain whites by fighting until only one combatant was left standing. Not exactly an open minded or civilized endeavor. Johnson, however, would prove to have far greater success in the prize ring.
For Joe Choynski, a talented fighter himself, was imprisoned with Johnson after the two men had fought (boxing was still illegal in much of America at the time). The white Choynski had beaten Johnson in the ring, but then took to showing the lad how to fight at the top level himself. And it was all uphill from there for the Texas native. Marvin Hart. Former heavyweight champion Bob Fitzimmons, fellow African American Denver Ed Martin. Johnson bested them all. He was not, however, able to land a shot at the prized heavyweight title.
Racism, after all, was prevalent, so Johnson’s skin color kept him on the margins, in spite of his size, skill and impressive record. It’s been said that Jim Jeffries, an undefeated powerhouse heavyweight champ of the era, was willing to fight Johnson in a basement for a cash prize, but not in the ring, where it would appear undignified. Johnson, however, was not one to be held back. By the time Canadian Tommy Burns held the title, Johnson is said to have decided to follow his man around, hounding Burns for a shot at glory.
A fight was finally arranged in Australia, where entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh not only acted as promoter, but worked the bout as referee, as well.
Indeed, it’s said McIntosh was the only white man Johnson would trust with the responsibility. And so, the day after Christmas, 1908, Johnson and Burns faced off in an outdoor arena specifically built for the occasion outside of Sydney. Needless to say, Burns, who was exceptionally small for a heavyweight, never stood a chance. Not that more size would have made a difference. For Jack Johnson let the world know just how good he was that day.
Make no mistake about it, Burns was game and brave, but Johnson was such a deft defensive combatant, that he made the entire affair seem easy. And that’s simply because it was. Jabbing, holding, throwing occasional power shots, Johnson smiled and openly mocked Burns throughout the bout. Burns kept coming like a true sportsman, but it was to little avail. In a sense, it literally seemed like a man versus a boy, given the difference in size and skill level between the two men. Finally, in the fourteenth round, Johnson really unloaded on the champion.
And then came one of the strangest endings in heavyweight title history.
The police, yes, the police, rushed the ring and stopped the fight. It was a moment that was saved for posterity as the film recording of the event shows Johnson thrashing Burns, and then – nothing. The picture freezes forever, with Burns appearing to be on his way down to the canvas. Perhaps the defeat of a white champion at the hands of a black man was considered too demeaning to record. No matter. If people didn’t want the world to see Johnson beating Burns, no one should have recorded the fight to begin with. The match was simply that one sided. Burns looked overwhelmed from the opening seconds on.
And so the color line was not only broken by Johnson that day – it was smashed. The heavyweight champion of the world, the most esteemed member of the international sporting community, was now an African American from Texas. Needless to say, the rage among some was palpable. Jack London, the famous writer, called for Jeffries to come out of retirement and best Johnson in the ring. It would be easier said than done, as the world would eventually find out. For Jack Johnson was not simply going to roll over and give up the championship he had spent so long pursuing.