Before Robinson, There Were Johnson and Louis – Part One

By Chris Le

As February comes to an end, so does Black History Month. In these short 28 days, classrooms and communities across the nation have commemorated the determination and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and of course, Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. There’s no underestimating Robinson’s impact on sports and American culture as he undoubtedly paved the way for future athletes and changed the general perception of African-Americans. But early pioneers such former heavyweight champions, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, tend to be lost in Robinson’s enormous shadow. I believe it’s time to bring them into the light along with one truth: without Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, there is no Jackie Robinson.

In the early to mid-1900s, boxing was the sport in America, well ahead of football, basketball, and even baseball, which is now considered the nation’s pastime. Title fights were front page material, super fights literally stopped traffic and the Heavyweight Championship was the most coveted title in all of sports. So needless to say, white America didn’t want it’s most revered champion to be a black man. White titleholders such as Jim Jeffries avoided black contenders like the plague, refusing to fight them as they were “unworthy” of such an honor, while nothing was further from the truth.

If anyone deserved a title shot in 1908, it was Jack Johnson, who even before his reign as champion was clearly a proven great fighter. As he climbed the ranks, Johnson was avoided by the majority of good white boxers, but still solidified his status as the number one contender by defeating other avoided, black fighters likes Sam McVea, Joe Jeannette, and the incomparable Sam Langford, whom Johnson knocked down twice in the first round. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that his resume prior to gaining the title was Hall of Fame worthy.

But the greatness of Jack Johnson isn’t just encapsulated in who he beat; one has to see him in action to appreciate how he elevated the sport. Always calm and collected, Johnson never lost control of a fight even when it didn’t always appear so. Seemingly every move he made, no matter how subtle, turned the tide of the bout in his favor. Watching him on film, underneath his somewhat boring and slow clinching style, one can’t help but marvel at his skill level, particularly his defense, which was decades ahead of its time. The way he parried opponent’s jabs, his use of feints, and unparalleled footwork helped evolve the sport into what it is today. It is even said that he was able to dodge an incoming punch and land one of his own in the same move. Considering his uncanny skill and gargantuan size for the time (around 6’1” and 205 pounds), you’ll get no arguments from me if you say that Jack Johnson was the best defense heavyweight in the history of boxing (yes, even better than Muhammad Ali).

Seeing how utterly dominant Johnson was during his rise, a title shot was unavoidable. He was too good not to get a chance at the championship. It also didn’t hurt that Johnson followed then champion, Tommy Burns, everywhere he went, publicly goading him into a match. So it was set up—on December 26, 1908, Jack Johnson was to face Tommy Burns for the heavyweight crown. And on this date, Johnson changed the course of American sports by stopping Burns in 14 rounds to become the first black heavyweight champion in history. This momentous feat, to no shock at all, caused quite a stir around the country. Though it wasn’t just that a black man held the belt, it was that a black man like Jack Johnson was champion.

In and out of the ring, whites resented the way “The Galveston Giant” conducted himself. They hated how he mocked his vastly inferior and mainly white opponents, frequently refusing to quickly knock them out in order to prolong their beatings. However, as much as whites disliked Johnson’s in-ring antics, it was nothing compared to how enraging his personal lifestyle was. Crass and crude, he lived life as if there was no tomorrow, partying day and night, and candidly denigrating whites everywhere he went. But aside from his flamboyant arrogance, what really got underneath the skin of many was the fact that he openly fooled around with white women. This pushed the hate to immeasurable proportions, as it was seen as the worst violation a black man could do.

Clearly, whites wanted nothing more than to regain the heavyweight crown; and from this desire sprang forth the search for “The Great White Hope,” the one that could dethrone the current champion who was all too black. Johnson detractors believed they found the answer in former champion Jim Jeffries, who at the time was viewed as the greatest heavyweight in history before he retired with an undefeated record of 18-0-2 (15 KO). The bout was billed as “The Fight of the Century,” but fell short of expectations when those in attendance witnessed a one-sided beating. Johnson toyed with the over-the-hill Jeffries, taunting him on his way to a 15 round TKO victory. Riots and lynches quickly ensued.

Looking past his controversial lifestyle, it’s undeniable that Johnson altered sports forever. Even contemporaries in a racially torn time acknowledged his true worth. Nat Fleischer, founder of Ring Magazine, who saw everyone from Jeffries to Ali, said Johnson was the best heavyweight of them all. In the end, Johnson instilled hope in the heart of the black community. His accomplishments and influence were acts to look up to. And because of him, blacks aspired to be great despite resistance. That in itself makes Johnson worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Stay tuned for Part 2

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