- NAME: Jack Johnson
- OCCUPATION: Boxer
- BIRTH DATE: March 31, 1878
- DEATH DATE: June 10, 1946
- Did You Know?: Jack Johnson is the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion.
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Galveston, Texas
- PLACE OF DEATH: Raleigh, North Carolina
- Originally: John Arthur Johnson
- Nickname: Lil' Arthur
- AKA: Jack Johnson
- Nickname: The Galveston Giant
- AKA: John Johnson
Best Known For
Jack Johnson, nicknamed "the Galveston Giant," was the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion.
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Boxer Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. In 1908 he became the first African-American to win the world heavyweight crown when he knocked out the reigning champ, Tommy Burns. The fast living Johnson held on to the title until 1915 and continued to box until he was 50. He died in an automobile accident in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946.
"The fight between life and death is to the finish, and death ultimately is the victor. ... I do not deplore the passing of these crude old days."
The first black heavyweight champion, John Arthur "Jack" Johnson was born on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas. The son of ex-slaves and the third of nine children, Johnson possessed an air of confidence and drive to exceed beyond the hardscrabble life his parents had known.
After a few years of school, Johnson went to work as a laborer to help support his family. A good deal of his childhood, in fact, was spent working on boats and sculleries in Galveston.
By the age of 16, Johnson was on his own, travelling to New York and later Boston before returning to his hometown. Johnson's first fight came around this time. His opponent was a fellow longshoreman, and while the purse wasn't much—just $1.50—Johnson jumped at the chance and won the fight. Not long after he earned $25 for managing to stick out four rounds against professional boxer Bob Thompson.
Eager to get out of Galveston and try and forge a life around boxing, Johnson left his home again in 1899. By the early 1900s, the 6'2" Johnson, who'd become known as the Galveston Giant, had made a name for himself in the black boxing circuit and had his eyes set on the world heavyweight title, which was held by white boxer Jim Jeffries. But Jeffries refused to fight him. He wasn't alone. White boxers would not spar with their black counterparts.
But Johnson's talents and bravado were too hard to ignore. Finally, on December 26, 1908, the flamboyant Johnson, who often taunted his opponents as he beat them soundly, got his chance for the title when champion Tommy Burns fought him outside of Sydney, Australia.
Burns, who had succeeded Jeffries as champion, had only agreed to fight Johnson after promoters guaranteed him $30,000. The fight, which novelist Jack London attended and wrote about for a New York newspaper, lasted until the 14th round, when police stepped in and ended it. Johnson was named the winner.
From there, Johnson continued his calls for Jeffries to step into the ring with him. On July 4, 1910, he finally did. Dubbed the "Fight of the Century," more than 22,000 eager fans turned out for the bout, held in Reno, Nevada. After 15 rounds, Johnson came away victorious, affirming his domain over boxing and further angering white boxing fans who hated seeing a black man sit atop the sport.
Jeffries was humbled by the loss and what he'd seen of his opponent. "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best," Jeffries said. "I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years."
For the fight, Johnson earned a purse of $117,000. It would be five years before he relinquished the heavyweight title, when Johnson fell to Jess Willard in a 26-round bout in Havana, Cuba.
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