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Jack Johnson's Unstoppable Rise to the Top

Johnson's historic moment arrived on December 26, 1908, when he became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world.


Galveston, TX, USA (November 1, 2023) - Jack Johnson's life is a remarkable tale that unfolded across the globe in the early 1900s. Hailing from Galveston, Texas, the top heavyweight would go on to become the most renowned African-American in the world, largely due to his achievements in boxing.

Top Heavyweight Jack Johnson's smile was as powerful as his boxing ability

Johnson's boxing journey began with a significant victory against former black heavyweight champion Frank Childs on October 21, 1902. The fight ended in Johnson's favor via a 12th-round TKO, as Childs' corner signaled that he couldn't continue, claiming a dislocated elbow.

By 1903, Johnson's official record showed nine wins, three losses, five draws, and two no-contests, but unofficially, he had already secured over 50 victories against both black and white opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, when he defeated Denver Ed Martin in a 20-round match for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. He held this title until he won the world heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, on Boxing Day in 1908. Johnson's reign as colored heavyweight champion lasted 2,151 days, making it the third longest in the history of the colored heavyweight title. Only Harry Wills and Peter Jackson held the title longer. Johnson defended his colored heavyweight title 17 times, second only to Harry Wills' 26 title defenses.

While holding the colored championship, Johnson faced formidable opponents, including ex-colored champions Denver Ed Martin and Frank Childs. He also fought future colored heavyweight champions Sam McVey three times and Sam Langford once. Johnson managed to defeat Langford on points in a 15-round bout and never granted him another shot at the title.

In their reign as colored champion, Johnson faced Joe Jeanette seven times, winning four times and drawing twice. Their first encounter ended in a draw in 1905, but in the second match on November 25, 1905, Johnson was disqualified in the second round of a scheduled six-round fight. Johnson continued to claim the title despite the disqualification.

Johnson's historic moment arrived on December 26, 1908, when he became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world by defeating Tommy Burns. Racial tensions and animosity were high, with the media fueling the fire by referring to the need for a "Great White Hope" to reclaim the title from Johnson.

During his reign, Johnson was constantly challenged by fighters billed as "great white hopes." Notably, he defended his title against Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel in 1909. The fight against Ketchel, initially considered an exhibition, turned serious in the 12th round when Ketchel knocked Johnson down. In response, Johnson retaliated with an uppercut that knocked out Ketchel and sent his front teeth embedded in Johnson's glove.

In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. After a 15-round bout, Johnson dominated the fight, and Jeffries' corner threw in the towel to prevent a knockout. Johnson silenced critics and earned $65,000 for his victory.

Despite achieving victory, Johnson's triumph ignited race riots across the United States on the Fourth of July. Whites who had hoped for a white champion to defeat Johnson were disappointed, while blacks celebrated Johnson's win as a significant step forward for racial equality.

Johnson's legacy lives on as a boxing legend and a symbol of courage and determination in the face of racial prejudice. His journey from Galveston to the pinnacle of the boxing world left an indelible mark on the sport and on American society.

See Jack Johnson's fight page here.

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