Born as John Arthur Johnson in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, Jack was the first son and third child of Henry and Tina Johnson. His parents were ex-slaves.
Johnson received 5 years of formal schooling before taking odd jobs to supplement his parents meagre income. His father was a supervising school janitor and Johnson helped sweep out school rooms. He also accompanied a milkman on his early morning rounds, watching the horse whilst the milkman made his deliveries.
At 12 years old, Johnson had yet to display signs of his outstanding physique of later years. He was so thin the family physician thought he might be tubercular. As an adolescent, he laboured on the Galveston docks, swept out a barber shop and worked as a bakers assistant before hitching a ride on a train to Dallas and becoming an apprentice carriage painter. The shop owner, Walter Lewis, was a keen boxing afficionado and enjoyed sparring after work. It was he who suggested to Johnson that he ought to consider a career in the ring.
By age 16, Johnson was 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and powerfully muscled arms. He briefly contemplated a career in cycling but quit after suffering a crash that put him in bed for a week. He saved up and bought two pairs of gloves and began challenging friends to contests. He began to fight matches with travelling boxers. Many of his opponents were grown men who far outweighed him, but, nevertheless, he began to accumulate an impressive tally of victories.
The early years of Johnson’s boxing career were tumultuous. He hitched rides on trains to various cities and steadily worked his way up the boxing ladder. He often had so little cash that in many of his bouts he hadn’t eaten properly for several days. And, despite a host of negro talent, the upper echelons of the boxing world were still considered the preserve of white fighters. As an outspoken, talented and strong black boxer in a white-dominated sport, his refusal to do anything other than what he wanted earned him many enemies and lost him more than one manager.
By 1903, Johnson was the Coloured World Heavyweight Champion but his attempts at the World Title were balked by the refusal of the Champion, James or ’Jim’ J. Jeffries, to fight a negro. However, Jeffries retired and the mantle of World Champion was passed to Tommy Burns. Johnson pursued Burns for 2 years before easily defeating him in Sidney on December 26, 1908, thus becoming the first black World Heavyweight Champion in history.
The Great White Hope
An outraged white public immediately began a search for ‘A Great White Hope’ to restore the Championship to the white race. The burden fell squarely on the shoulders of the retired Champion, Jim Jeffries. He was persuaded to come out of retirement to face Johnson on July 4, 1910. Jeffries had ballooned to 300 pounds in weight in the six years he’d been out of the ring, but nevertheless managed to lose over a hundred pounds and quit a seven to fifteen pack a day chain smoking habit before the bout.
The fight, touted beforehand in the press as the ‘Battle of the Century’, was fought over fifteen rounds in the blazing midday heat in Reno, Nevada. Johnson clinched and battered the increasingly wearying Jeffries, breaking his nose and easily deflecting the ex-champ’s efforts at penetrating his defence. Jeffries corner retired in the 15th round to prevent him from getting knocked out by a negro.
Jack Johnson’s Boxing Style
Existing film footage shows Johnson to be an elegant, refined fighter. In the early 1900’s, boxing gloves were smaller than their modern counterparts and afforded less protection to the head and body. Thus, boxers adopted a much wider ’guard’ than is used nowadays, the better to block or deflect incoming blows with their hands and arms. Johnson was a master of defence, nimbly parrying, head-rolling and retreating before an opponent’s blows before counterpunching. One of his favoured tactics was to smother his opponents in clinches and then slam devastating uppercuts to the head or body in the breakaway.
He died in an automobile crash on June 10, 1946.