Johnson, John Arthur ("Jack")

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JOHNSON, John Arthur ("Jack")

(b. 31 March 1878 in Galveston, Texas; d. 10 June 1946 in Raleigh, North Carolina), first African American to hold the heavyweight boxing championship who was considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight of all time.

Johnson was the son of Henry Johnson, a former slave and a school janitor, and his wife Tiny, who had six children, of whom Johnson was the third. The boy's formal schooling ended after the fifth grade when he left Texas to roam the United States, riding the rails. Returning to Galveston in the mid-1890s, Johnson held back-breaking, muscle-building jobs, picking cotton and working as a stevedore on the rough-and-tumble waterfront. It was here that he honed his self-defense skills, participating in the notorious "battle royals," brutal competitions where groups of African-American youths, blindfolded and often naked, engaged in no-holds-barred brawls, while white southerners mockingly tossed pennies. The last standing contestant, often Johnson, was rewarded by being allowed to keep the change.

In 1897 or 1898 Johnson married Mary Austin, the first of his four wives and the only African American; they permanently separated in 1901 after she tired of her husband's repeated marital infidelity. Johnson never had children. He became a professional boxer with a third-round knockout of Jim Rocks in 1897. Prizefighting was then illegal in Texas, so he left to seek bouts up north. After returning home a few years later, he fought the older, more experienced veteran Joe Choynski, a Polish Jewish immigrant, who had earlier earned a draw against James J. Jeffries, the undefeated heavyweight champion. Johnson was knocked out by Choynski on 25 February 1901, and both were locked up after the illegal bout was raided by the Texas Rangers. Incarcerated together for a month, Choynski taught Johnson the tricks of the boxing trade.

After his release from prison, Johnson once again left Texas and lived the life of a hobo, traversing the western states from 1901 to 1903. In Los Angeles on 3 February 1903 he beat "Denver Ed" Martin to capture the "colored" heavyweight crown via a twenty-round decision. A defensive specialist, Johnson won fifty-seven bouts between 1902 and 1907, mostly against other African-American fighters. Johnson's style was a lethal combination of strength, speed, and skill. He was practically unhittable at times. He possessed an uncanny ability to avoid punches and demonstrated two-fisted knockout power. A classic counter-puncher, his specialty was a rapier-like left jab, followed by what has been called the all-time greatest right uppercut. In addition, he was a master of repartee, often taunting and abusing opponents. He loved to dare slower opponents to hit his exposed body, dropping his gloves low, teasing, and, all the while, chatting with ringside spectators. Extremely articulate, he was also a master of ring psychology.

Johnson issued several challenges to Jeffries, the world champion. But sensing little to gain and much to lose, the Caucasian Jeffries maintained the boxing color line, refusing Johnson a title shot and retiring undefeated in 1904. Johnson soon began to stalk the new champion, Tommy Burns, seeking a title shot. Burns ducked Johnson, but the promoter Hugh J. "Huge Deal" McIntosh finally arranged a bout between the two at Ruschcutter's Bay in Sydney, Australia, on 26 December 1908. Burns, a defender of white supremacy, charged that Johnson was "yellow." He was guaranteed the unheard sum of 6,000 pounds sterling, the equivalent of $30,000, to Johnson's $5,000. Burns, actually a fattened-up middleweight, was an undersized 168 pounds compared to Johnson's 192 pounds and six feet, one inches, and believed the myth that African Americans had hard heads and weak stomachs. Thus Burns concentrated on hitting Johnson's body.

In front of 20,000 spectators Johnson hit Burns at will, dropping him in the first round and breaking his nose in the second; the champion's face was soon covered in blood, with his eyes swollen shut. Johnson displayed no urgency to end the slaughter. Finally, in the fourteenth round, he smashed Burns to the canvas and a new champion was crowned. Johnson was the first African American to win the world's heavyweight championship and became the seventh champion in the gloved era.

Within a year, Johnson successfully defended his title five times, all versus white boxers, including a victory over the future film star Victor McLaglen. White fans openly called for Johnson's dethronement and began a search for the "Great White Hope" who could beat him in the ring. Johnson, displaying a supremely arrogant demeanor, openly defied societal norms, enraging many white Americans. An enormous hero to the African-American community, he nevertheless worried the African-American bourgeoisie who viewed him as an impediment to racial progress. The conservative African-American leader Booker T. Washington urged him to act in a less brazen way. At times, Johnson affected a British accent, wore attire of clashing colors, sported a trademark shaved head, and filled his mouth with gold teeth. He paraded with a pet leopard and drove open-air roadsters, often in the company of white women.

In 1909 he defended his title against Stanley Ketchel, known as the Michigan Assassin and a great middleweight champ. Johnson weighed 205 pounds compared to Ketchel's 170 pounds, and the Colma, California, fight included a backroom deal to extend it for the benefit of motion-picture cameras. Johnson carried Ketchel into the twelfth round and then ended it with a knockout. Leading the continued call for a "white hope" was the journalist Jack London, who beseeched Jeffries to come out of retirement; the ex-champ, who had ballooned to more than 300 pounds, was eventually persuaded to return. The famed promoter George "Tex" Rickard's attempts to stage this "fight of the century" in California were stymied by the state's antiboxing forces, so he shifted the fight's locale to the dusty mining town of Reno, Nevada.

The fight was held on 4 July 1910 in Reno's sweltering heat. Jeffries, who had shed eighty pounds, was now thirty-seven and well past his fighting prime. Johnson, in contrast, was at the very apex of his powers. The media built up the event as much more than a mere athletic competition. The white press saw it as a racial struggle, opining confidently that Jeffries had "Runnymede and Agincourt behind him, while his black opponent had nothing but the jungle." The Chicago Defender, a leading African-American journal, wrote that Johnson would be battling "race hatred, prejudice, Negro persecution.… the future welfare of his people forms a part of the stake." With the fear of racial violence, alcohol was banned and handguns were checked at the gate.

The bout started slowly, but the second round decided the outcome. A Johnson left hook to Jeffries's left eye caused what was later deemed "irreparable damage to his eye and psyche." Johnson beat Jeffries to a bloody pulp—his face was a mass of pink welts and his eyes swollen shut. In the twelfth round, openly gasping for air, Jeffries spit out a huge wad of blood. After fifty-six minutes the Galveston Giant emerged victorious. Raucous celebrations erupted in many African-American communities, while inconsolable white mobs rampaged and race riots ensued, especially in the American South. Eleven blacks were murdered. Johnson made a cross-country victory tour via train back to Chicago. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, the U.S. Army's African-American Ninth Calvary, the celebrated Buffalo Soldiers, turned out en masse to honor and salute their warrior. At Chicago's Northwest Station, throngs of African Americans welcomed him home, making the event an unofficial holiday.

But Johnson faced new challenges outside the ring. In an attempt to crack down on commercialized vice and to calm the hysteria generated by the white slave trade, the U.S. Congress in 1910 passed the Mann Act, making it a felony to transport women across state lines "for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery, or any other immoral purposes." Johnson, who continued to defy the racial and sexual taboos of the era, openly traveled with white consorts and habitually boasted of his sexual conquests. In 1911 he married Etta Terry Duryea, a recently divorced Long Island socialite. Duryea subsequently was ostracized by her friends and suffered from depression; she committed suicide at Johnson's Chicago jazz club, the Café du Champions, in 1912.

When Johnson began to travel with Lucille Cameron, his eighteen-year-old private secretary, her mother leveled charges that he had abducted the young lady. The furor caused by the scandal resulted in his nightclub's loss of its liquor license and Johnson's indictment for violation of the Mann Act. While the charges were true in a technical sense, Cameron refused to corroborate them or to testify against her lover, and they married on 4 December 1912. After Johnson's acquittal, he was indicted a second time on similar charges.

Belle Schreiber, a well-known prostitute from Chicago's Everleigh Club, was the prosecution's star witness; she had suffered physical violence from Johnson's hand, and he had paid her travel expenses from Pittsburgh to Chicago for "immoral purposes." Convicted by an all-white jury in May 1913, Johnson was fined $1,000 and sentenced to a year and a day at the federal penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois. Out on bail and disguised as a member of an African-American baseball club, he fled the country. Accompanied by Cameron, he escaped to Canada and then to France. For the next seven years Johnson lived in exile, claiming his only crime was beating a white hero, Jeffries.

In Paris, Johnson defended his title three times. During the summer of 1914 he left Europe at the outbreak of hostilities between France and Germany. Traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, he performed in farcical wrestling matches, lived in Mexico, then relocated to neutral Spain, where he resided from 1915 to 1919. Having squandered his considerable fortune on a lavish lifestyle, he struggled financially. He was desperate for cash and wished to return to his homeland, so another "white hope" match was arranged. Jess Willard, a six-foot, six-inch Kansan known as the Pottawottamie Giant, was scheduled to fight Johnson at the Havana, Cuba, Oriente Racetrack in a forty-five-round bout. In scorching heat of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, Johnson, now thirty-seven and under the mistaken impression that charges would be dropped against him if he lost, appeared out of shape. The slow and lumbering Willard tried to hold on and wear down the older champion. In the twenty-sixth round Johnson fell to the ring floor and was counted out by the referee Jack Welch. Boxing historians have forever debated whether he took a dive; contemporary accounts varied.

After the Willard episode Johnson's skills clearly deteriorated. In 1919 he was befriended by the Mexican president Venustiano Carranza and opened a thriving saloon in Tijuana. After Carranza's 1920 assassination, now without a local protector, he decided to end his seven-year exile. Surrendering to federal authorities at the U.S. border, he served nine months at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. A model prisoner, he was made the athletic director and fought five exhibitions at the jail. He continued to fight until 1928, but also earned a living with a unique vaudeville routine: dancing, juggling, and playing the bass fiddle while giving lectures. In 1924 he divorced Cameron and married Irene Marie Pineau, his fourth wife. At the 1933 Chicago World's Fair he was a human punching bag; youngsters sparred with him for a dollar.

In the late 1930s Johnson began a decade-long association with Hubert's Museum in New York City, a famous Times Square penny arcade, sideshow, and flea circus. There he regaled customers with tales of his life story, often adding to and fictionalizing his already glamorous past. During the years of World War II, he encouraged African Americans to enlist, and in 1945 he staged boxing exhibitions at New York City bond rallies. Always consumed by speed and a lifelong reckless driver, Johnson met his death on the road in June 1946. Driving eighty miles per hour, he attempted to avoid a truck, swerved, and hit a tree on Route 1 near Franklinton, North Carolina. He died of massive internal injuries at Raleigh's Saint Agnes Hospital. He is buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.

In 1954 Johnson was a charter inductee in the Boxing Hall of Fame. While he always insisted on his personal right to equality, he showed no apparent concern for the plight of his race. Nat Fleischer, a boxing expert and the longtime publisher of Ring Magazine, wrote, "After years devoted to the study of heavyweight fighters, I have no hesitation in naming Jack Johnson the greatest of them all." While Johnson's exact ring record is cloudy, between 1897 and 1928 he had at least 114 recorded bouts, winning 80, with 45 by knockout.

The literature on Johnson's life and career is voluminous, but must be studied with caution as much myth and fiction has melded with fact. Johnson's two memoirs, Mes Combats (1914), written in French while he was in exile, and Jack Johnson—In the Ring and Out (1927), republished as Jack Johnson Is a Dandy (1969), are notoriously unreliable as factual documents. The lucid and detailed biography by Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (1985), is authoritative and contains an excellent annotated bibliography. An informative account of the Jeffries fight and the race issue is Lerone Bennett, "Jack Johnson and the Great White Hope," Ebony (Apr. 1994). For analysis of Johnson's national impact and context among other African-American athletes, see also Rex Lardner, The Legendary Champions (1972); Nat Fleischer, An Illustrated History of Boxing (1975, 1997); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977); and Joe Dorinson, "Black Heroes in Sport," Journal of Popular Culture (winter 1997): 115–135. An obituary is in the New York Times (11 June 1946).

Jeffrey S. Rosen