"He was known as “The Big Smoke,” “The Ethiopian,” and “The Dinge.” Jack Johnson, the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, did not back down to anyone despite all he faced during his rise and fall.
Johnson was born in Galveston Texas, the third child and first son of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson, former slaves who worked at blue-collar jobs to raise six children and taught them how to read and write. Jack Johnson had just five years of formal schooling. Johnson's father was born a slave in Tennessee. He dropped out of school after five or six years of education, to get a job.
A century ago, for the first time in U.S history, two champions- one reighning, the other retired but undefeated- were about to square off to determine the rigtful heavyweight king of the world. But more than a title was at stake.
In one corner was James Jackson Jeffries, the "Boilmaker" who had retired undefeated six years earlier, he was six feet one and a half inches tall, and weighed 277 pounds.
In the other corner was John "Jack" Johnson, the "Galveston Giant" who had taken the title a year and a half before, beating the other fighter so badly that the referee stopped the fight in the 14th round.
Jeffries was urged by Jack London to "emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson's face."
The New York Times editorial summed up a common view "If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers with misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than physical equality wiht their white neighbours."
Jeffries was blunter "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro."
The Johnson-Jeffries fight was of such intense interest that it was filmed to be shown in movie theaters worldwide. Once it became clear in the early rounds, that the once-fearsome Jeffries couldn't hurt him, Johnson toyed with his opponent, keeping up a running steam of commentary directed at Jeffries, and at Jim Corbett in Jeffrie's corner. Corbett had showered Johnson with racist incentive from the moment the fighter entered the ring, and the majority of the crowd had joined in. Many were calling for Jeffries to kill Johnson.
Even though blacks and whites met in the ring, the heavyweight title was considered sacrosanct, a symbol of white superiority. Thus Johnson’s demolition of Tommy Burns in 1908 stunned the sporting world, which shunned him as the legitimate champ. Since Jeffries had retired undefeated, the only way Johnson could place his title beyond dispute was to beat Jeffries in the ring.
Instead, Johnson’s swift jab and eviscerating counterpunches began to take their toll as Johnson turned the tables on his tormentors. “Don’t rush, Jim. I can do this all afternoon,” he said to Jeffries in the second round, hitting the big man again. “How do you feel, Jim?” he taunted in the 14th. “How do you like it? Does it hurt?” Dazed and bleeding, Jeffries could barely keep his feet, and Corbett fell silent. In Round 15, Jeffries went down for the first time in his career. Johnson hovered nearby—there were no neutral corners in those days—and floored the former champ again the minute he regained his feet. Now a different cry went up from the crowd: Don’t let Johnson knock Jeffries out. As Jeffries went down yet again, knocked against the ropes, his second jumped into the ring to spare his man, and the fight was over. The audience filed out in near-silence as Tex Rickard raised Johnson’s arm in triumph; across America, blacks poured into the streets in celebration. Within hours scuffling broke out in cities across the country.
In the following days, officials or activists in many localities began pushing to bar distribution of the fight film. There were limited showings, without incident, before Congress passed a law forbidding the interstate transportation of boxing films in 1912. That ban would hold until 1940.
With some of the winnings from the fight, he opened the Café de Champion, a Chicago nightclub, and adorned it with Rembrandts he had picked up in Europe. In October 1910, he challenged race car driver Barney Oldfield and lost twice on a five-mile course at the Sheepshead Bay track in Brooklyn. (“The manner in which he out-drove and out-stripped me convinced me that I was not meant for that sport,” Johnson would write in his autobiography.)
And he continued dating, and marrying, white women. His first wife, Etta Duryea, shot herself to death in September 1912. Later that fall, he was arrested on a bogus charge under the Mann Act, the 1910 law that prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” (The arrest did not prevent his marriage to Lucille Cameron, a 19-year-old prostitute, that December.) Tried and convicted in 1913, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
In 1920, Johnson returned to the United States to serve his year in prison. Released on July 9, 1921, at age 43, he fought, and mostly lost, a series of inconsequential fights. In 1923, he bought a nightclub on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Jack Johnson’s Café de Luxe; the gangster Owney Madden took it over and transformed it into the famed Cotton Club. Divorced from Lucille in 1924, Johnson married Irene Pineau, who was also white, a year later. In 1946, racing his Lincoln Zephyr from Texas to New York for the second Joe Louis-Billy Conn heavyweight title fight at Yankee Stadium, he hit a telephone pole near Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the only crash Jack Johnson failed to walk away from. He was 68."