MENU

Photo: AP Photo

The tale of the first black heavyweight champ, two fights and an enduring sports myth

Under the hot Reno, Nevada, sun, Jack Johnson—the first black heavyweight boxing champion—entered the ring and smiled. He stood there waiting for his opponent while a ring-side brass band, rumored ready to play “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” instead decided on “a selection of national airs.” The tunes inflamed the crowd’s already-high patriotism. After all, it was July 4th and tens of thousands had gathered to not only watch the “Fight of the Century” but to witness Jim Jeffries—the Great White Hope—reset the supposed proper racial order.

As Jeffries worked his way through the delighted throngs and into the ring, he carried with him the hopes of an entire race that had begged him to unretire and, as Jack London put it, “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face.” In 1910, Jeffries finally heeded those demands, feeling a duty to at least try to regain the title for the white race. Jeffries said, “I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”

As the fight began, the challenger showed the confidence and pride of a man expecting to win. He was a heavy favorite; it mattered little that six years had passed since Jeffries last fought, or that Johnson was younger and in the prime of his athletic prowess. Jeffries was white and with that came—per the day’s “science”—inherent mental advantages that were enough to overcome any physical disadvantages. “The superiority of the brain of the white man to that of the black,” wrote Current Literature, “is undisputed by all authorities. The white man’s brain is a finer intellectual instrument than is that of his black brother.” With “all the laws of science and reason,” Jeffries was the assumed victor.

The “science” was wrong, and Johnson—described by The San Francisco Call as “a natural, grinning savage”—battered Jeffries. It was the beginning of his unwitting contribution to the creation of the Great White Underdog, an enduring mythology forged during two of Johnson’s fights held on the nation’s birthday.

In the 15th round, the seemingly impossible happened: Johnson knocked down the previously unbeaten Jeffries who then struggled to his feet. Jeffries went down twice more, standing up only with help from ringside spectators. With a knockout appearing inevitable, the crowd yelled for the referee to stop the carnage, “Stop it! Stop it! Don’t let him be knocked out!

The referee heeded their call, and the beaten Jeffries stumbled back to his corner aided by trainers and supporters. He exited the hastily built wooden amphitheater the same way he came in, but unlike his entrance, he left bruised and bleeding. One journalist in attendance said he “looked like a man who [had] lost all this world [had] to give. He looked that most pathetic of things—the conquered master. It seemed as though we ought to weep. And yet one could not weep.”

As for Johnson, he was unsurprised by his triumph. “I won just as I thought I would,” he said. “Right from the start I knew that I would win.” Johnson’s victory over the Great White Hope incited race riots across the country, leading to numerous African American deaths. And yet, noting both the momentous event as well a sense of desperation within their horrid societal conditions, some members of the black community believed the deaths—although tragic—were a suitable price to pay for Johnson’s victory. “It was a good deal better for Johnson to win and a few Negroes to have been killed in body for it,” the Chicago Defendera leading African American newspaper—wrote, “[t]han for Johnson to have lost and all Negroes to have been killed in spirit by the preachments of inferiority from the combined white press.”

The day after the fight also signaled the beginning of boxing’s social decline, at least for the time being. Some cities, fearing further riots, barred the fight film from being shown. Another reason offered for banning the fight: it dishonored Independence Day. Prize fighting did not end, but a black man holding the heavyweight championship drastically altered it.

 

Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion, fighting approximately 113 bouts and losing only six. Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. AP Photo

Johnson’s next fight came two years later, again on July 4th, when he faced Fireman Jim Flynn. But unlike his previous bout, where the public considered him an underdog based on racial inferiority, Johnson was the overwhelming favorite against, “the gamest and the toughest of all the heavyweights.” Conversely, in an era of eugenics, newspapers repeatedly portrayed Jack Johnson as a Brute Caricature—“innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal.” Leading up to the fight, papers repeatedly mentioned the size discrepancy between Flynn and Johnson, reinforcing the monumental task the challenger faced.

The San Francisco Call noted Flynn’s perfect condition as he entered the ring, pointing to the pink glow that made him “a nice picture of health and manhood.” The same paper referred to Johnson as “black battler” and “tar baby.”

Expectedly, Johnson dominated Flynn. Outclassed, Flynn resorted to headbutts, leaping upwards when he found his head under Johnson’s chin. The illegal moves drew several warnings, but Flynn continued, claiming, “The —— nigger’s holding me … he holding me all the time.” Confronted with complete dominance by a black man, white supremacists grasped at the absurd to maintain white superiority and excuse Flynn’s cheating.

“Flynn fought one of the roughest fights in ring history,” wrote The Day Book. “In one department of the game, at which the black race is supposed to excel, the white man showed his superiority. He had the hardest head.”

In the ninth round, police stopped the fight, and though he was never close to hurting Johnson, some portrayed Flynn valiantly, casting him as the “brave fireman…who defied Jack Johnson for nine rounds on the Glorious Fourth.” Accounts of the fight made Flynn the aggressor and disparaged Johnson’s “slow, coldly scientific chopping” style. Randy Roberts, author of Papa Jack, one of several Johnson biographies, described the boxer’s way of fighting: “He generally fought with his weight on and his shoulders directly above his back foot. His hands were only held chest high, and he always had a clear view of his opponent. He looked like an artist leaning back from a canvas to evaluate the picture from a distance.”

Johnson’s style was reliant on skillful defense, but white fans misrepresented it as cowardly and lazy—attributable to his race—similar to reporters of the time noting Johnson’s smile, hinting at the Sambo caricature.

Jess Willard knocked out Jack Johnson April 5, 1915 in Havana, Cuba. This photo of the white victor standing over the defeated black man became a favorite decoration in speakeasies. AP Photo

The Johnson-Flynn fight was likely the first time a white male—athlete or otherwise—was an underdog against a black man in such a public setting. Flynn, facing the superior size and athletic talent of a black opponent, was lauded and celebrated for his savviness, determination and intelligence. In the search for the Great White Hope, during these two fights on Fourth of July, the trope of the underdog white athlete was born. More than a century later, it persists.

After defeating Flynn, Johnson fought four more times before losing to white boxer Jess Willard in 1915. “Willard became an instant hero,” explains historian Jeffrey T. Sammons, “one who brought renewed confidence to the physical and moral strength of white America.” The photo of Willard knocking out and standing over Johnson became a common speakeasy decoration.

Johnson—who lived in self-exile after a racially motivated Mann Act conviction—maintained he intentionally lost to Willard. “It was hinted to me in terms which I could not mistake, that if I permitted Willard to win, which would give him the title, much of the prejudice against me would be wiped out,” he wrote in his autobiography, Jack Johnson In the Ring and Out. Authorities never reversed the conviction and Johnson continued living in exile until 1920, when he returned and served his sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary. On the day of his incarceration, the front page of The Dallas Express, an African American newspaper, included a picture of Johnson with the headline, “Jack Johnson still wears his ‘Golden Smile’ as he enters iron gates of Leavenworth Prison.”