Jack Johnson, born as John Arthur Johnson, is often regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Nicknamed the Galveston Giant, he was the first ever black boxer to win the world heavyweight boxing championship. The son of former slaves, he had to drop out of school at an early age to find work in order to supplement his family income. Tall and well built, the youngster planned on taking up boxing and made his professional debut in a boxing match at the age of 20. He was once arrested for illegal prizefighting with veteran boxer Joe Choynski and the two were imprisoned together—this turned out to be a boon in disguise as the young Johnson got the opportunity to learn the techniques and nuances of the sport from the older and experienced Choynski. Johnson became a very successful boxer and became the world Coloured heavyweight champion—a title he defended 17 times. Bigger success was to follow when he defeated white boxer Tommy Burns to become the first black world heavyweight boxing champion. Accorded the status of a celebrity athlete, he also had his share of controversies mainly because of his involvement and subsequent marriages with white women which was a rarity during those times when interracial marriages were virtually unheard of.
Childhood & Early Life
Johnson was born to former slaves Henry and Tina in Galveston, Texas. His parents worked hard to raise their large family consisting of several children.
Due to family circumstances the young Jack had to drop out of school at an early age to work as a dock boy and support his family.
He began boxing locally as a teenager.
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He started fighting professionally in 1898 at the age of 20 and won the Texas State Middleweight Title defeating Charley Brooks.
He got his first big opportunity in 1899 when he fought against the African-American heavyweight John Haines who fought under the name of ‘Klondike’. Johnson lost the fight on a technical knock-out in the fifth round.
He fought experienced boxer Joe Choynski in 1901 and lost out to him in the third round. Since their fight was considered illegal at that time, both the boxers were arrested and imprisoned. During their time together in jail, Choynski became Johnson’s mentor and taught him many boxing skills.
In 1903, he won his first title--the World Colored Heavyweight Championship—by beating Denver Ed Martin in a 20-round match. He defended this title 17 times and held it till 1908.
With his eyes now on the World Heavyweight Championship, he challenged the reigning champion James Jeffries. Jeffries, a white boxer, however, refused to fight with a black man.
The Canadian boxer Tommy Burns became the World Heavyweight Champion in 1906 and he challenged boxers of all races and ethnicities to come and fight with him.
In December 1908, Burns agreed to spar with the black boxer and Johnson created history by beating Burns to become the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World.
The former world champion James Jeffries who had retired undefeated years ago decided to come out of retirement to take on Johnson. In 1910, the two boxing greats fought each other in what was called ‘The Fight of the Century’ which Johnson won easily. The triumph of a black man over a white one led to racial tensions and riots all across the U.S.
Johnson decided not to fight against black boxers during the initial years after becoming the world champion and he was criticized for denying other blacks a chance at winning the championship.
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Johnson was the reigning world champion till 1915 when he was knocked out by Jess Willard in the 26th round of the fight in the heavyweight title and Willard took the championship.
He continued fighting professionally till the age of 60.
He created history by beating Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908 to become the world’s first black heavyweight champion.
He beat the former undefeated world champion James Jeffries in what was dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century’ in 1910.
Awards & Achievements
He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.
He was named on the list of 100 Greatest African Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was often romantically involved with white women, a subject which created much controversy during his times. He married thrice and all of his wives were white.
His first marriage was to Etta Duryea in 1911. The marriage was troubled from the very beginning. He physically abused his wife who later committed suicide in 1912.
He married Lucille Cameron in 1912. His second wife divorced him in 1924 because of his infidelity.
His third marriage was to Irene Pineau.
He was arrested in 1912 for violating the Mann Act and sentenced to a year in prison. Today, however, it is widely accepted that it was a racially motivated attack perpetrated by white racists.
He was killed in a car crash on June 10, 1946 at the age of 68.
The 1970 movie ‘The Great White Hope’ is based on the life of this boxing champion.
He was one of the first athletes of the modern era to achieve celebrity status.
This famous boxer was nicknamed as the Galveston Giant.