Today, Dec. 26, 2008, is known as Boxing Day in the British Empire. It is also a historic anniversary that we as boxing fans must stop to recognize and perhaps celebrate.
One-hundred years ago today, Dec. 26, 1908, Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world by knocking out Tommy Burns at the end of the 14th round in Sydney, Australia.
Many remember Jack Johnson as the free-wheeling, devil-may-care, playboy champion whom raced automobiles, administered a saloon in Chicago, performed on vaudeville, had many romances with a series of “Sporting” women, (most of whom were white), and rarely defended his title.
Jack Johnson was certainly all of these things, a playboy, a philanderer, a drunk, a gambler, and a lover of fast cars. But he was something else as well: exceptionally talented.
Jack Johnson was one of the greatest who ever lived. His speed rivaled that of Ali and his defense was second to none. He was not a Dempsey, Marciano, or Frazier, who would storm forward eating leather and eventually land that “one big punch.” No, Jack Johnson was a fast counter-puncher with an uppercut that sliced men to ribbons.
He had to be good to make it in an era of overt racism. In fact, before Jefferies retired, in 1905 and 1906, the call was put out for Johnson to challenge the “Boilermaker” for the heavyweight crown. The fight didn’t happen at that time, and the “vacant” title was won by Marvin Hart, who soon lost it to Tommy Burns.
Johnson had to chase Burns across America, to England, back across America, and down to Australia, and guarantee $30,000 before he got his shot at the title. Johnson won easily.
Eventually, after he beat Jefferies in 1910, Johnson was chased out of America on false charges from the Mann Act. Life as an ex-patriot was difficult and eventually, for monetary reasons, he was forced to fight Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. That fight truly displays how good Johnson was.
Johnson was 37-years old, did not train, and the fight was held in 105° heat under the scorching Caribbean sun. Johnson eventually fell in the 26th round, and may even have quit on the canvas after finally having had enough.
What I’m saying is this: At an extremely advanced age, having not fought in two years, with no training, in an extreme environment, it took 26 rounds to defeat Jack Johnson, and he may have quit. Forget the 12-round era comparison, if it were a 15-round fight, Johnson would have won.
Today, to most, “The Dark Menace”, a nickname that reveals the rampant and accepted racism of the day, is nothing more than an asterisk in history books.
But today, on the centennial of his crowning victory, should we not turn a page in history and remember Jack not for the color of his skin, but for the supreme and unmatched skills he possessed?
He was a man and he tried to live his life as such, regardless of color. Admittedly, like all celebrities, he made his mistakes, many of which were public. But the price he would eventually pay far outstripped his sins.
Jack Johnson was one of the best, and was hailed as the best in his era. We should admire his positive qualities, in and out of the ring, and respect his free-spirit that would not be chained by the white establishment.
So today, just for ol’ Jack, raise a glass of gin in toast and remember “The Big Smoke” for his great ability and even greater spirit.
Happy Jack Johnson day.