Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world in 1908 when he stopped Tommy Burns in the 14th round in Sydney, Australia. This came after he had held the “colored” heavyweight title for five years, and defended it 17 times.
Despite Johnson’s one-sided victory, many people still considered unbeaten James J. Jeffries as the true champion.
Jeffries had retired to a life of farming in 1905, but the media hounded him to return to the ring to challenge Johnson.
As noted American writer Jack London put it, “Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you."
On a sweaty, dusty, 110-degree Fourth of July in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, Johnson and Jeffries entered the ring for a championship fight that was scheduled to go 45 rounds.
Billed as the “Battle of the Century,” promoters built a wooden bowl to house the ring. More than 16,000 people crammed in, with another 1,500 or so rushing the gates at fight time.
Johnson needed only 15 rounds to knock Jeffries through the ropes.
It was Johnson’s sixth title defense as the world champion in two years, and he would hold the title until 1915, when he lost to Jess Willard in 26 rounds in Havana, Cuba.
After Johnson’s loss, no black fighter would fight for the heavyweight championship until Joe Louis won the title in 1937.
Born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, as the son of two former slaves, Johnson was brash and flamboyant both in the ring and outside of it.
He was one of America’s first celebrity athletes, earning product endorsements and making headlines for racing automobiles.
He married three different white women in his life, drawing significant ire from a country mired in segregation.
Johnson was twice arrested for violating the Mann Act, which involved “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.”
He was convicted in 1913, and fled to France soon after. Johnson didn’t return to the United States until 1920, though he continued to fight in exile.
Johnson would continue to fight for much of his life, finally retiring in 1931 at the age of 53 with a record of 79-8 with 46 knockouts and 12 draws.
Ultimately, Johnson’s taste for fast cars cost him his life. He was killed at the age of 68 in a car wreck outside Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 10, 1946.