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April 4th, 2012
Bartee Haile: The boxing champ America loved to hate

This Week in Texas History: A column

Jack Johnson climbed into a Havana ring on Apr. 5, 1915 to defend the heavyweight boxing title he had held for seven stormy years. So universally despised was the over-the-hill champion even the Cuban crowd booed his entrance.

Born John Arthur Johnson in 1878, the proud papa of the future pugilist was a Galveston janitor and part-time preacher who soldiered on the Confederate side in the Civil War. A rebel in his own right at the age of 12, young Jack ran away from home only to reappear five years later.

An odd job in Boston as a sparring partner piqued the youth’s interest in boxing, and back on the Island he jumped at the chance to master the ancient art. In all-black melees known as “battle royals,” Johnson developed his unique style of defense and the most devastating right uppercut ever seen.

By 1901 Johnson had whipped the local competition several times over, so a Galveston entrepreneur arranged a bout with the West Coast champion. The contest was just the break the hungry 23 year old had been waiting for, but he was badly outclassed by the polished professional. Down for the count in the third round, he was saved not by the bell but the Texas Rangers, who carted everybody off to jail for violating the state law that prohibited prize fighting.

Soon after Johnson was turned loose, he left Galveston for good to roam the country in search of worthy opponents. A rock-hard 210 pounds at an inch over six feet, his powerful punches leveled all that dared to put on the gloves with him.

While boxing was the only sport at the turn of the century which permitted blacks to compete against whites, titleholders were under no obligation to accept a challenge from a black contender. As a result, Johnson spent many frustrating months chasing Tommy Burns halfway around the globe in a vain attempt to goad the Canadian into giving him a crack at the heavyweight crown.

Burns ignored the persistent pest until December 1908, when an Australian promoter handed him $35,000 in cold cash for a clash with Johnson. The day after Christmas in a jam-packed Sydney stadium, the Texan became the first fighter of color to win a championship belt.

In the opening seconds of the down-under encounter, Johnson flattened Burns with a savage shot to the chin. As the champ staggered to his feet, Jack needled him with his trademark taunts. “Poor little Tommy. Who told you you were a fighter?”

Johnson punished the battered Burns for 14 rounds before finally putting him away. The loser in a candid interview blamed his own bigotry for the disgraceful defeat. “The idea of a black man challenging me was beyond enduring,” Burns confessed. “Hatred made me tense.”

News of Johnson’s stunning victory hit main-street America like a thunderbolt. Eight years into the twentieth century, the idea of a black man being the best at anything was unthinkable.

During his flamboyant reign, Johnson indulged an insatiable appetite for high living and a personal need to thumb his nose at white society. Already outraged by his very presence, the champion’s marriages to three white women were the last straw for most Americans.

As public hostility intensified, apprehensive black leaders joined the critical chorus. “Jack Johnson has harmed rather than helped the race,” observed educator Booker T. Washington.

Convicted under the Mann Act for the alleged transportation of a female across state lines for immoral purposes, Johnson fled the country in 1913. With a prison term of a year and a day hanging over his head, he partied across Europe until the money ran out.

Down to his last dime, Johnson signed a contract to battle Jess Willard, a six-and-a-half-foot giant, at Havana in April 1915. Though 37, overweight and woefully out of shape, he agreed to a 45-round marathon. Johnson’s only chance was a quick knockout.

Round after round the champion hit his huge adversary with everything but the kitchen sink, but Willard simply shook his head and came back for more. Meanwhile, Johnson visibly wilted as the hot Cuban sun sapped his strength. Then in the 26th round Willard caught him flush in the face, and the lights went out.

Until his dying day in a 1946 car crash, Johnson swore he took a dive in order to persuade U.S. authorities to reduce his jail time. Ringsiders rejected this tale insisting the pariah got his comeuppance fair and square.

If, in fact, the Willard fight was fixed, Jack Johnson must have had serious second thoughts after returning from exile in 1920. His sentence was shortened by only a third, and he still wound up spending eight months behind federal bars.

As deals go, it was rather raw.

For a limited time, order any two of “Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Other Disasters,””Secession & Civil War” or “Revolution & Revolution” for just $22.00 – a savings of $6.40 — from Bartee Haile at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

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