Jack Johnson, the Original Ali

By Tom Donaldson
Updated: January 15, 2005
Jack JohnsonMuhammad Ali
With the upcoming Ken Burns special Monday on Jack Johnson, the following is an excerpt from my book, Boxing in the Shadow, scheduled for release at the end of the year. Boxing in the Shadow reflects upon some of the great black boxers and with Black History month upon us, I will release excerpts of other chapters over the next six weeks- Tom

NEW YORK, NY—Jack Johnson was the original Muhammad Ali, possessing quick hands and defensive skills ahead of his time. Early boxing reporters and some boxing historians considered him one of the greatest and Jack Johnson became a hero to his race when he captured the heavyweight championship.

His conduct outside the ring challenged every taboo of prevalent attitudes of White America. If he was not knocking out white men in the ring, he was bedding white women outside the ring. Arrogant and fun loving, Johnson lived life at a reckless pace and his public life was an irritant to white America, essentially giving White America the middle finger. With Johnson accession to the heavyweight championship, white promoters began a search for the Great White Hope. Unfortunately, no white challenger could match Johnson skills.

Johnson, for one, changed the rules of boxing by depending upon guile as much as brute strength. In the early part of the century, strength was the key factor. Gentleman Jim Corbett could not handle the power of James Jefferies, despite being the superior boxer. As one boxing historian stated, “If Jeffries could not outbox an opponent, he could certainly outlast the best of them.” With fights lasting as long as 45 rounds, strength and endurance played key roles in winning championship fight. Corbett’s first fight with Jefferies demonstrated this point as he easily dominated most of the fight. By the end of the 23rd, Jefferies strength eventually wore the flashy conqueror of the great John Sullivan.

Born with a knockout power, Johnson broke Stanley Ketchel’s teeth, cracked Jim Flynn’s jaw and broke Sam Langford’ nose. (Langford was one of the best fighters in the early part of the century.) Callis quoted early boxing historians by stating, “There was no denying Johnson’s ability. He was a superb boxer with a punishing blow in either hand and amazingly fast for a big man.” As Johnson dominated the Heavyweight Division, a search for a Great White Hope began. The first man to be that White Hope would be James Jefferies.

When Johnson defeated Burns, he defeated an excellent fighter. Burns was small in stature but fast in feet and hands. He would hold his hand low and he had the ability to dart in on larger opponents. With a large reach for his size, Burns had a devastating left hook.

After winning his title from Tommy Hart, Burns went on a world tour defending his title over a dozen times. (Hart actually defeated Jack Johnson in a very close and controversial decision in 1905. As they say in boxing, Burns beat the man who beat the man, so to speak. So this added to the intrigue of the fight as Burns had already defeated the man, who supposedly beat Johnson.) Interesting enough, Burns nearly fought Sam McVey for the title in Paris a few months before he actually fought Jackson but the negotiations fell through. McVey almost became the first African-American to fight for the heavyweight title. (McVey would later lament that Jack Johnson would never give him a shot at the title.)

In the first round, Johnson set the pattern of the fight as the bigger Johnson crashed a right on Burns chin and sent Burns to the canvas. Burns was up against a fighter who matched his quickness and who was bigger and stronger. Burns swung widely against Johnson repeatedly but Johnson avoided the shots while mocking the smaller Burns. Johnson dominated every round and in the fourteenth round, Johnson ended Burns championship reign.

Johnson- Jeffries

Jim Jeffries was the dominant fighter as the 20th century began. Having taken the title from Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899, Jeffries dominated the Heavyweight division including two defeats of Gentleman Jim Corbett, one of boxing best fighters. A big man at 6’2” and 220 pounds, Jeffries would pound a fighter for round after round and with superior endurance; he would outlast his opponent. In 1904, Jeffries retired from boxing after beating all the major white opponents in his division. Jeffries refused to fight Jack Johnson due to Johnson skin pigment. There was an unofficial sign on the heavyweight championship belt that read, “Blacks need not apply.” Boxing, like sports in general, was segregated and black athletes were denied access to the mainstream of America’s sports. Peter Jackson, a slick boxer/puncher was denied a chance at both Corbett and Sullivan title in the 1890’s. He fought Corbett to a 61 round draw before Corbett wrestled the championship from Sullivan and Corbett never gave Jackson a rematch after obtaining his belt. Both Jeffries and Corbett were willing to fight Peter Jackson in non-title fights. Jeffries would knock out an aging Peter Jackson one year before winning his crown. Like Corbett, Jeffries was not averse to fighting black fighters- just not for a championship.

Jack Johnson was the second of six children of Henry and Tiny Johnson. After leaving school in the fifth grade and working odd jobs in South Texas, Jackson started boxing as a sparring partner. His early fights were matches with other black voters for white audience with white patrons throwing his pay into the ring after the end of each match. He turned pro in 1897 but he left Texas because boxing was considered a criminal profession. As the Negro Heavyweight champion, Johnson followed Tommy Burns around the globe before finally getting Burns in the ring for the heavyweight championship. Johnson spent most of the fight taunting Burns, as he knocked out the out manned white champion in the 14th round. Police forced the cameramen to discontinued filming the fight as Burns stumbled to the ground. The police would not allow a film showing a white man hitting the canvas as a result of a black fighter’s punch.

With a black man in possession of the most prized title in sport, many promoters and white boxing fans clamored for a white hope to take the title back. Jack London, the noted author, demanded that Jim Jeffries take up the white man’s burden and relieve Johnson of his title. Jack Johnson would not be considered the official champion until he defeated Jeffries and for white America, the great Jeffries was the man to reclaim the title for the Caucasian race. Jeffries was the “Great White Hope.”

Fans remembered the Jeffries who retired six years earlier and at his peak was a magnificent specimen. Rugged beyond belief and armed with a granite chin, no one could knock Jeffries out. But the Jeffries that fought Johnson was out of shape and no longer the fighter of yore. Before starting his training, he was close to 300 pounds and lost 80 pounds training for this fight.

Fighting in a crouch, Jefferies had a powerful left hand and his size hid a quickness rarely seen in big fighters of his era. John Sullivan once noted, “the fastest big man I ever saw in the ring.” In his prime Jefferies was an indestructible machine, who would move forward. In his prime, Jefferies appeared to be like a man sparring with boys.

Johnson adopted a different strategy. In many ways, Johnson resembled Ali’s style. Like Ali, Johnson had the strength to take punishment and could deliver knockout punches in return. With long fights, strategy demanded cautious beginning and Johnson was the master boxer, who could fend off other fighters’ attack. Like Ali, Johnson could handle the power of others; and with superior defensive skills, he could avoid punches. Like a young Ali, he enjoyed taunting his opponents and destroying their will before finishing them off.

Jack Johnson’s personal conduct outside the ring scandalized White America, as modesty and humility were not part of his make up. Jack Johnson essentially gave White America the middle finger as he violated every taboo of his time. Jack Johnson found white women more to his liking as he said, “Every colored lady I ever went with two-timed me, and white girls didn’t.” And when he was not bedding white women, he was beating white heavyweights. He did not just beat his opponent; he taunted and tortured them before beating them. Ring Lardner described Jack Johnson as that “grinning Negro whose delight was in whipping Caucasian fighters with taunts pouring from his mouth.” During his training in Reno, he openly appeared with his white wife. The message was clear, “you can not intimidate me.”

Jack Johnson battered the aging Jeffries and spent a portion of the fight taunting his outclassed rival. “Mr. Jeffries, where is your punch,” he would ask the bewildered Jeffries. Though the fight was scheduled for 45 rounds, it was obvious that this fight was not going the distance. By the 15th round, the end was close. In this fateful round, Johnson knocked Jeffries down three times. The crowd gasped and the fans leaving the stands resembled a funeral march. Silence spread through the crowd. Remarkably, no riots happened in Reno after the fight but in other parts of the country, whites retaliated against blacks who openly celebrated Johnson’s victory. Seven people died in the violence.

As for Reno, this event attracted worldwide attention and was a golden harvest for local businesses. As for Johnson, he was forced into exile due to the Mann Act, which outlawed “taking women across state line for immoral purpose”; Johnson spent the last years of his championship reign outside the country. He eventually lost his title to Jess Willard under the scorching Havana sun.

This fight demonstrated the great divide that existed in America where racism was more open and violent. Throughout the South, lynching was common and Jim Crow laws dominated many states even in the Midwest. Segregation existed nation wide and in spite of that, Boxing was the most integrated of all sports. Blacks were allowed to fight white fighters and earn an income. Johnson personal behavior insulted white America and this assured that a black fighter would not be allowed to fight for the Heavyweight championship for another two decades.

The closet that a black came to fighting for the title before Joe Louis was Harry Wills, who had a signed contract with Dempsey for Dempsey’s title.

Unfortunately, money needed to support the fight never appeared and then the aging wills lost a key fight that ended his hope for a title shot. Joe Louis would win the title in 1937 and reigned for twelve years as one of the greatest boxers in heavyweight history and beloved athlete. Jack Johnson’s victory over Jeffries established black athletes as equal to whites and no matter what white media reported, Johnson speed and ring savvy erased the various stereotypes of black inferiority. It will take nearly six decades before this lesson would eventually be accepted as truth


Who is James Robert Mann and why should we care about him as sports fans? For one, this congressman would have the greatest effect upon one of America’s great sportsmen in the early 20th century. Representative Mann fought for women’s suffrage, and in 1910, he pushed a bill that bears his name preventing, under heavy penalties, the transportation of women from one state to another for immoral purposes.

This act began, as a movement to cripple prostitution, would end up as the bill that would prohibit consensual sexual conduct outside of marriage. In the early part of the century, the prohibition movement extended from a movement to ban alcoholic beverages, recreational drugs and other vices like sex. Fornication was made illegal in many states. By 1920, nearly half of the states regarded habitual consensual sex a punishable act and in many of these states, one act was enough to bring a conviction. Widespread prohibition against all aspects of sexual activity made enforcement impossible and many juries proved unwilling to convict for illegal sex acts. One boxing historian told me that the only other person ever convicted was Charlie Chaplin. Jack Johnson, when he became champion, scandalized America. According to Boxing historian Mike DeLisa, there were some within the black community that were as equally scandalized by his behavior as many whites. He openly dated white women and he even married some of them. When Johnson defeated James Jeffries in 1910, the search for the great White Hope began. While promoters conducted tournaments to find the white boxer who could challenge Johnson, others decided to use the law- the Mann Act – to cripple the Champion. For many blacks, Johnson restored pride to them. The following poem detailed the feelings that many blacks had after Johnson slaughtered Jeffries:

O my Lord What a morning, O my Lord, What a feeling, When Jack Johnson Turned Jim Jeffries’ Snow-white face to the ceiling.

Many whites resented Johnson for his life style and resented the positive effect that he had on blacks after the Jeffries debacle. In the eyes of many whites, Johnson was the “uppity” black that needed to put back in his place. Johnson was convicted in 1913 for “transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purpose.” The woman in question was his fiancée and soon to be his wife. The charges were trumped up and certainly the worst you could say, Johnson was found guilty of having consensual sex with a woman and then taking her across state lines, which his job demanded. Johnson appealed this decision but in the meantime, fled the country. He first went to Canada, then to Europe, Mexico and South America. He defended his title in Paris twice and finally agreed to fight Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba.

Under a scorching sun in a fight scheduled for 45 rounds, Johnson started quickly against the taller and bigger Willard. He dominated those rounds but as the rounds went by, his years of running, lack of good training and age caught up with Johnson. After the 20th round, Willard began to take command and in the 26th round, he ended Johnson’s Championship reign. But Johnson’s fight with the United States government did not end. He returned to the United States in 1920 and served eight months for violation of the Mann Act. While serving his sentence, he was appointed athletic director of the prison. He continued to fight after he was released from prison but his years as heavyweight contender were over. He finally called it quits in 1928 at the age of 50. He spent the rest of his life as a lecturer and show – business performer. Married three times to white women, he never had children.

It could have been worse. Jack Johnson could have been lynched. In the what is called the Jim Crow period, over 2500 African-Americans were lynched and no fewer than 50 were lynched on an annual basis. Nor were these crimes limited to the old South. In 1908, just a half a mile from the home of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Virginia, two African-Americans were lynched and their property destroyed. As Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote in the Oxford History of the American People, “The common excuse for lynching is that it was restored to only for rape, or attempted rape, of white women. The statistics prove that sexual assaults were not even alleged in more than one case in five, and that many of those lynched for it were innocent or the alleged assault was imaginary.”

In Waco, Texas, cheering crowds of men, women and children attended one lynching. This crowd shouted as a Negro, convicted and sentenced to death for murder, was burned alive and his flesh carried away as a souvenir.

Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote, “The Negro’s daughters were free to all the lusty white lads of the neighborhood and nothing was done about it; but if a African-American leered at a white girl of notoriously low morals, he was liable to be lynched by a mob in defense of the alleged purity of Southern womanhood.”

The Mann Act was originally designed to stop prostitution but it broadened over the years to cover consensual sex acts, targeting sex with “minor women.” Johnson’s only real guilt was becoming the Heavyweight champion. His victory over Jeffries sparked race riots and the Texas Legislature banned films of his victories, because of the fear of even more violence. Johnson would die in a car crash on June 10, 1946 near Raleigh, North Carolina. As he was being buried, the Heavyweight championship was in the hands of another black fighter, Joe Louis. Joe Louis was one of America’s beloved sport figures, and was the first African- American fighter to be accepted by white sports fans. Johnson, on the other hand, was one of most feared black athletes for he refused to play by the rules of White America. While White America would use trumped up charges to force Johnson out of the country and conspire to take his title, Johnson never surrendered to White America.

Representative James Mann gave White promoters the legal tool to stop Johnson but they could never take away the fact that a Black man for seven years was the reigning champion and best fighter in the world.

After his championship days, Johnson was never allowed any chance to regain his championship and for many white Americans, he was man soon to be forgotten. His accomplishments could not be ignored but after his championship reigns, no African-Americans were allowed near the championship belt for over 20 years. History has judged Johnson and they found him to be a great champion. No amount of racism could change that.