Jack Johnson: The Man and The Myth

TyContributor IMarch 5, 2009


John Arthur Johnson, born March 31, 1878, is better known as Jack Johnson. Nicknamed the Galveston Giant, he was arguably the best Heavyweight of his generation. Johnson was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the world, a feat which for this time was tremendously controversial.

Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas as the second child and first son of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson, both former slaves and faithful Methodists.  The Johnson's worked blue collar jobs in order to earn enough to raise six children—the Johnsons had nine children, five of whom lived to be adults and one adopted son. Jack Johnson had five years of formal education.

Jack Johnson fought his first bout, a 16-round victory, at age 15. He turned professional around 1897, fighting in private clubs and making more money doing so then he had ever made. In 1901, Joe Choynski, a small Jewish Heavyweight, went to Galveston, Texas to train him. Choynski, an experienced boxer, knocked Johnson out in three rounds, and the two were arrested for engaging in a illegal contest and put in jail for 23 days. Joe Choynski began training Johnson while in jail but was never charged.

Johnson's fighting style was very distinctive. He had a more patient approach than was customary in that day, playing defensively, waiting for a mistake, and then capitalizing on it. He always began a bout cautiously, slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. Johnson often fought to punish his opponents rather than knock them out, endlessly avoiding their blows, and striking with swift counters. He always gave the impression of having much more to offer and if pushed, could punch quite powerfully.

By 1902 Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both black and white opponents. He won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating Denver Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted when World Heavyweight Champion James Jeffries refused to face him. Johnson however was able to fight former Champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July, 1907; he knocked Fitzsimmons out in the second round.

Johnson eventually won the World Heavyweight title on December 26, 1908 when he fought the Canadian World Champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted 14 rounds before being stopped by the police in front of 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee's decision as a TKO, but he had severely beaten the champion during the fight. Johnson had mocked both Burns and his ringside crew; every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up again, punishing him more.

The camera was stopped just as Johnson was finishing off Burns, careful not to show Burns' defeat. As the World Heavyweight Champion, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as "Great White Hopes" often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Victor Mclaglen, Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and Middleweight Champion Stanley Ketchel. The match with Ketchel was keenly fought by both men until the twelfth and final round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson's head, knocking him down. Slowly regaining his feet, Johnson threw a straight right jab to Ketchel's jaw knocking him out, along with several of his teeth.

Johnson died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946, at the age of 68, just one year before Jakie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. He was buried next to Etta Duryea at Graceland cemetery in Chicago. Johnson's grave is unmarked, but a stone that bears only "Johnson" stands above the plots of him and two of his wives.

Jack Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, and is on the roster of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame.  He ended his career with a record of 92 wins, 14 losses, 11 draws, 14 no contests, with 51 knock outs out of 124 fights.

Jack Johnson: the Man, the Myth.            


                                Jontre D. Goodman