In Sydney on Boxing Day in 1908, two remarkable boxers took to the ring in Rushcutters Bay to contest the World Heavyweight Championship. One was Jack Johnson, who was remarkable because he was the first African American man to successfully compete for the title. The other was Tommy Burns, a Canadian boxer remarkable for a wedgie he had inadvertently given himself by the end of the eighth round.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the World Heavyweight Championship was usually off-limits to African Americans because a ‘colour bar’ existed within professional boxing. The biggest title a black heavyweight boxer could hope to win was the World Coloured Heavyweight Championship (which Jack Johnson won in 1903 and held for five years). White boxers would not accept title bouts with anyone who wasn’t also white. At the time it was par for the course in the southern United States, where racial segregation was an officially sanctioned way of keeping things nice (for white people of course).
But Jack Johnson didn’t give a rat’s arse about all that rubbish. He wanted a shot at the title, so he did what any self-respecting giant of a man with a big dream and even bigger shoulder muscles would do – he followed the reigning champion Tommy Burns around the world and teased him until he gave in.
And so it came to pass that Tommy Burns was beaten about the head and body (all professional-like) for fourteen rounds until the police had to step in and stop the fight, and Jack Johnson, the home-schooled son of ex-slaves, was declared the World Heavyweight Champion.
A lot of white people (the kind who liked having their iced tea served by black people) weren’t happy. The heavyweight championship was in the hands of someone with different-coloured skin!
Almost immediately after Johnson’s victory, the search for the ‘Great White Hope’ – a boxer with a sufficiently pale epidermis who could rescue America from the shame of having an ethnic minority succeed in a punching contest - began.
Great White Hope contenders came and went, and Johnson won fight after fight. Then in 1910, former heavyweight champion James Jeffries stepped up to challenge Johnson, and everyone got so excited about it that the bout was dubbed “The Fight of the Century”*. At least, that’s what it was called before the fight took place. Afterwards, it was generally known as “That One In Which Jack Johnson Punched The Crap Out Of The Other Guy”.
To say that Johnson’s victory further increased the animosity between black and white boxing fans would be an understatement. To say it caused race riots in 25 states in which 20 people were killed would be more historically accurate.
So what was Jack Johnson, the tall, imposing, deliciously fit and capable boxing legend, really like? Courageous? Yes. Determined? Most definitely. Humble? Hardly. Pleasant? No.
Johnson’s personal life was a rich patchwork of flamboyant spending, infidelity and domestic violence. In-between boxing, racing cars and prostitutes, he was married three times. His first wife, Etta Terry Duryea, committed suicide after months of abuse by her husband. His second wife, Lucille Cameron, stayed with him through a conviction for being with a prostitute before eventually divorcing him for infidelity. Wife number three, Irene Pineau, stayed with him until his death at age 68 in a car accident in 1946.
If Jack Johnson’s life has taught us anything, it’s that courage and determination can change the world; and that devastatingly fine-looking men can still be bastards.
*I imagine “The Fight of the Century” being announced in Pete Smith’s voice while Tony Barber saunters down a short flight of carpeted stairs and is handed a microphone by Victoria Nicholls. Perhaps you don’t know what I’m talking about, in which case you’re probably a little bit younger than me and/or never had an interest in 1980s game shows. And if you are younger than me, you might be unaware that one of the characteristics of people my age and older is the tendency to ramble on and on in a footnote getting further away from any discernible point until they eventually forget what they… um…