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Johnson's win breaks boxing's racial barrier

Jack Johnson had to go to Australia to become first black to win heavyweight title.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 1999

Long before there was a Joe Louis -- "a credit to his race," white America said of the black heavyweight champion -- there was Jack Johnson.

He was a symbol of racial tension at the turn of the century. His athleticism and lifestyle challenged codes of white supremacy and racial segregation in and out of the boxing ring.

On Dec. 26, 1908, Johnson shattered the barrier that had kept black boxers from even challenging for the heavyweight boxing title, much less winning it.

White heavyweights, including John L. Sullivan and Jim Jeffries, refused to fight him, claiming that to do so would tarnish the sport. But he had an international following.

Finally, Tommy Burns accepted a $30,000 offer to defend his title against Johnson in Rushcutter's Bay, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. Johnson would receive $5,000.

He was 30 when he stepped into the ring, weighing 200 pounds to Burns' 175 and 7 inches taller than the champion. The fight was scheduled for 20 rounds.

The Texas-born Johnson was known for his defensive smarts and was considered one of the great counterpunchers. He dominated the bout from the opening bell. At the outset, Burns was the aggressor. He rushed Johnson with the hope of a quick knockout, but Johnson's left jab kept Burns out of range. "Johnson was too big and his reach was too great," Burns said afterward.

According to dispatches from ringside, Burns' face was swollen to almost twice its size, his eyes almost completely shut. In the 14th round, police halted the one-sided fight and the referee declared the virtually unmarked Johnson the winner.

Novelist Jack London, covering the fight for a New York newspaper, wrote, "The battle was between a colossus and a pygmy. Burns was a toy in his hands. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Johnson's face. Jeff it's up to you."

Thus was born the phrase "Great White Hope," for decades the mantle assigned to every white fighter who challenged Johnson for the crown, and virtually every white fighter who fought a black champion.

In 1910, Jeffries came out of a five-year retirement. Johnson mauled him until the bout was stopped in the 15th round.

Three years later, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which outlaws transporting women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. He fled the country to avoid a one-year jail sentence and fought several times in Paris.

On April5, 1915, in the brutal heat of Havana, an out-of-shape Johnson fought 6-6, 250-pound Jess Willard. In the 26th round, the exhausted Johnson was knocked down and counted out. A famous photograph that seems to show the floored Johnson shielding his eyes from the sun spurred rumors he had thrown the fight.

Johnson later returned to the United States, served jail time and in 1946 died in a high-speed auto accident.

-- Information from Heavyweight Boxing Championship History by Don Sibrel was used in this report.

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