Just How Good was Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson?
By: Ken Hissner
Ring Magazine founder Nat Fleischer rated Jack Johnson as the best heavyweight he ever saw. This writer would have to say he would be in anyone’s top five and possibly as high as No. 2.
Johnson was born in Galveston, TX, in March of 1878, and passed in June of 1946 at the age of 68 while living in Raleigh, NC. His record was 56-11-8 (36) and 15-0-3 NWS. He lost 5 of his last 7 matches between the ages of 48 and 53 when he retired in April of 1931.
Johnson’s height was 6’0½ with a first recorded weight of 185 in 1902 while the heaviest was 242 in 1916. In title defenses he was 7-0-2. His trainer was Henry “Pop” Blanken. His managers were George Little, Sam Fitzpatrick and Alex MacLean. Johnson was inducted into the IBHOF in 1990 and also inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame. His career started in 1897 and finished in 1931.
Johnson won his first 3 matches by knockout before losing to Klondike Haynes (was black) in 1899 by technical stoppage in 5 rounds due to exhaustion. He would go onto fight Haynes to a draw in 1900 in June and in December stop him by technical knockout in 14 rounds. In February of 1901 he was knocked out by Joe Choynski. In November of that hear he lost a decision in 20 rounds to Hank Griffin. They would fight 2 more times with both ending in a draw.
One of the best colored boxers was Sam McVea whom Johnson defeated in over 20 rounds in February and October of 2003. In April of 2004 Johnson would knockout McVea in the 20th round. In March of 2005 he would lose a close if not controversial bout to Marvin Hart who was suspected to have only vision in one eye. Just 4 months later Hart would win the vacant heavyweight crown stopping Jack Root. Then lose it on his first defense to Tommy Burns.
At the early part of his career Johnson being black was not allowed to fight white boxers which would change over time. In February of 1903 he won the “Colored Title” with a 20 round decision over Denver Ed Martin. One of the best colored boxers was Joe Jeannette whom Johnson fought 5 times. In their first meeting in May of 1905 Johnson W3NWS, In November he lost by DQ in 2. In December he W6NWS and in January of 1906 Won 3 and in March won in 15 in a defense of his “Colored Title”.
In April of 1906 Johnson defeated Sam “The Black Tar Baby” Langford, 32-4-15, over 15 rounds. Johnson being outweighed Langford 185 to 156 ½ knocking him down in the 6th round. It would be year’s later when then world champion Jack Dempsey would say “I only ducked one man and that was Sam Langford.”
In July of 1907 Johnson would knock out former 3-division champion Bob Fitzsimmons, 61-6-4, in 2 rounds. In November of 1907 he knocked out “Fireman” Jim Flynn, 33-8-13, 11 rounds which put him in line for a possible title fight with Burns. In July of 2008 he stopped Ben Taylor, 23-13-3, in the 8th round in the UK.
In order to get a title fight and being the first black to get that chance Johnson’s backers had to guarantee Burns 30k which was double what anyone ever got in a heavyweight title fight. Named “The Little Giant of Hanover” Burns, 42-2-8, was only 5’7″ and gave away 5½ inches in height to Johnson and only weighed 168½ to Johnson’s 194 and with a record of 36-5-7.Johnson stopped Burns in 14 rounds in Australia. It was the Canadian Burns third fight in the country “down under.”
In Johnson’s first title defense in May of 1909 he took on the former light heavyweight champion “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien, ending in a draw 6 NWS. The decision was received by mixed feelings. Johnson came in at 205 to O’Brien’s 162½. In October of 1909 Johnson defended against Stanley “The Michigan Assassin” Ketchel, 48-3-4, who won the middleweight title in his in November of 2008. In the 12th round Ketchel dropped Johnson who had his hands to his side. Johnson immediately got up and tore into Ketchel knocking him out with a right to the chin. It was said Johnson had 2 of Ketchel’s teeth embedded into his glove from that blow.Johnson weighed in at 205½ and Ketchel 170¼.
In July of 2004 the former unbeaten heavyweight champion James J Jeffries, 19-0-2, who hadn’t fought in 5 years and 11 months while his weight reached 300 came out of retirement. He was more or less forced to come out as a “white hope” to stop Johnson. It lasted until the 15th round when the referee/promoter Tex Ricard waved it off if favor of Johnson after Jeffries was down twice.
Johnson had lived in Spain, Mexico and France. He was fluent in French and Spanish. He fought in those three countries along with Cuba and Canada. It would be 2 years since the Jeffries fight when Johnson returned to the ring. He gave a rematch to Flynn and won by DQ in 9 rounds. Johnson was arrested in 2012 and put into prison over the Mann Act and escaped through Canada and ended up in Paris, France.
In December of 1913 in France Johnson took on Battling Jim Johnson, 20-6-2, who was black and they waltz to a 20 round draw. In June of 2013 Johnson defeated Frank Moran, 21-6-2, over 20 rounds. In April of 1915 Johnson went to Havana, Cuba to fight the giant Jess Willard, 20-3-1. In the 26th round Johnson hit the canvas onto his back. He raised his arms to block out the sun. He didn’t beat the count and Willard became the new champion.
Johnson would move to Spain and score 3 wins. Then off to Mexico for 5 more wins. He would return to Cuba after an absence of 3 years to post 2 more wins. In 1924 he went to Canada to post a win. It would be another 2 years of inactivity when he got a win in Mexico. Just 4 weeks laterin Mexico he suffered his first defeat in 11 years since losing to Willard. He was 48 years old. His 13 fight winning streak was broken. He would lose 5 of his last 7 fights fighting up until the age of 53 when he defeated Brad Simmons, 28-13-3, after having lost to him twice.
Johnson’s career ended after 34 years. After retiring Johnson attempted to train future world champion Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis, but the managers felt it would be a mistake and passed.
As you can see Johnson defeated many men smaller than him. His career really ended with the Willard loss and we will never know if he took a dive or not. He may have been a better boxer prior to winning the title.His arrogance made him a very unpopular champion along with crossing the line marrying a pair of white women. He was without a doubt one of the greatest boxers in the history of boxing.
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