Jack Johnson is a common face in many boxing clubs. His portrait hangs on the walls of clubs as a reminder of the commitment a boxer should have. Nicknamed ‘The Galveston Giant,’ Jack Johnson was the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. His triumph came at a time when racial discrimination was rampant in the United States. It was impossible for an African-American to get adequate training and pursue a career in boxing but Johnson’s relentlessness saw him stay in the ring. He became a legend at the height of the Jim Crow era.
Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. He was the first born in a family of nine and his parents, Henry and Tina Johnson, worked blue collar jobs as a janitor and a dishwasher. The small city was secluded and generally poor. Although Galveston was in the south, Jack admitted that he experienced little racial discrimination. He grew up with white children. The residents in the city were united over common struggles in poverty, and their racial difference was not a critical societal problem. When remembering his childhood, Johnson said,” No one ever taught me that white men were superior to me.” After quitting school, he worked numerous jobs, but his new apprenticeship under Walter Lewis set him off on his boxing career. Lewis was a carriage painter, and he loved watching his friends spur. Johnson’s curiosity led him to learn the art of boxing.
Working as a janitor at a gym, Johnson saved enough money to buy a pair of boxing gloves. He ceased every opportunity he got to train. It wasn’t long before he put his skills to task and took on opponents. On November 1, 1989, Jack Johnson made his debut as a professional boxer when he knocked out Charley Brooks for the Texas State Middleweight Title. Although prizefighting was illegal in Texas, Jack Johnson and Joe Choynski, an experienced heavyweight, battled out in Galveston. Johnston was knocked out in the third round, and the two were arrested spending 23 days in jail. Unlike most boxers who learn their skills in boxing clubs, Johnston admitted that he gained most of his boxing skills while in jail. Choynski and Johnson sparred in the jail cell for days on end. After his jail term, Johnson had the brains to go with his brawn.
By 1903, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against black and white opponents. He became the World Coloured Heavyweight Champion and earned an unparalleled reputation. Johnson held the title for 2151 days, the third longest reign over the title. He defended the title 17 times defeating ex-coloured champions and future coloured heavyweight champions. The World Heavyweight Championships were off limits to black competitors, and Jack Johnson was not any special. James Jeffries refused to face Jack for the world heavyweight title. After two years of taunting the World Heavyweight Champion, Tommy Burns, Jack finally got a shot at the title. The fight ran for fourteen rounds and before being stopped by the police. The title was awarded to Jack on account of the referee’s decision.
Following Jack’s victory, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that they called out to James Jeffries to take back the title. James was already six years into his retirement, and his journey back to the ring meant loosing over 100 pounds to get to his championship weight. Many critics belittled Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns, but the match against James hammered the nail into the coffin. The former champion, James Jeffries, threw I the towel in the 15th round for the first time in his career. Jeffries was humbled by his loss in the match that was dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century.’ On the other hand, many whites took to the streets to protest the victory. The race riots occurred in over 25 states and fifty cities. Unfortunately, more than two dozen people were killed across the US, and hundreds more were injured.
Jack Johnson fought in the ring till he was 67. Although he lost his title in 1915, his popularity remained strong. He passed on June 10th, 1946 following a car crash. In 1954, Jack Johnson was inducted into the boxing hall of fame. His legacy inspired numerous successive generations of boxers including the great Mohammed Ali. Films and documentaries were also made based on Jack Johnson’s life. The Galveston Giant remains one of the most influential legends in boxing. His passion for the sport and commitment to boxing training set the standard for most of the boxing greats that came after him. Despite the racial tension and discrimination that tormented his era, Jack proved that anyone could be a great boxer. The secret lies in the commitment to training.