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By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating "Denver" Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him. Blacks could box whites in other arenas, but the world heavyweight championship was such a respected and coveted position in America that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it. Johnson was, however, able to fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.
He eventually won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world, taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police in front of over 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee's decision as a T.K.O, but he had severely beaten the champion. During the fight, Johnson had mocked both Burns and his ringside crew. Every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up again, punishing him more. The camera was stopped just as Johnson was finishing off Burns, so as not to show Burns' defeat.
After Johnson's victory over Burns, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that even a socialist like Jack London called out for a "Great White Hope" to take the title away from Johnson — who was crudely caricatured as a subhuman "ape" — and return it to where it supposedly belonged, with the "superior" white race. As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as "great white hopes", often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Victor McLaglen, Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. The match with Ketchel was keenly fought by both men until the 12th and last round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson's head, knocking him down. Slowly regaining his feet, Johnson threw a straight to Ketchel's jaw, knocking him out, along with some of his teeth, several of which were embedded in Johnson's glove. His fight with "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien was a disappointing one for Johnson: though scaling 205 pounds to O'Brien's 161, he could only achieve a six-round draw with the great middleweight.
In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro. Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose around 100 pounds to try to get back to his championship fighting weight.
At the fight, which took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 22,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada, the ringside band played, "All coons look alike to me". The fight had become a hotbed of racial tension, and the promoters incited the all-white crowd to chant "kill the nigger". Johnson, however, proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.
The "Fight of the Century" earned Johnson $225,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson's previous victory over Tommy Burns as "empty," claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.
The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening — the Fourth of July — all across the United States, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, D.C. Johnson's victory over Jeffries had dashed white dreams of a finding a "great white hope" to defeat him. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries and were incensed by Johnson's comments.
Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant, and celebrated Johnson's great victory as a victory for their entire race. Black poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the African-American reaction to the fight in his poem, "My Lord, What a Morning". Around the country, blacks held spontaneous parades, gathered in prayer meetings, and purchased goods with their newly won gambling earnings. These celebrations often drew a violent response from white men.
Some "riots" were simply African Americans celebrating in the streets. In certain cities, like Chicago, the police allowed them to continue their festivities. But in other cities the police and angry white citizens tried to subdue the celebrations. Police interrupted several attempted lynchings. In all, riots occurred in more than twenty-five states and fifty cities. At least 23 blacks and 2 whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured. A few white people were injured when they tried to intervene in a crowd's beating of a black man.
On April 5, 1915, Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a working cowboy who did not start boxing until he was almost thirty years old. With a crowd of 25,000 at the Vedado Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was K.O.'d in the 26th round of the scheduled 45-round fight, which was co-promoted by Roderick James "Jess" McMahon and a partner. Johnson found that he could not knock out the giant Willard, who fought as a counterpuncher, making Johnson do all the leading. Johnson began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th round knockout. Johnson is said to have spread rumors that he took a dive, but Willard is widely regarded as having won the fight outright. Willard said, "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there."
Johnson was an early example of the celebrity athlete, appearing regularly in the press and later on radio and in motion pictures. He earned considerable sums endorsing various products, including patent medicines, and indulged several expensive hobbies such as automobile racing and tailored clothing, as well as purchasing jewelry and furs for his wives. Once, when he was pulled over for a $50 speeding ticket (a large sum at the time), he gave the officer a $100 bill, telling him to keep the change as he was going to make his return trip at the same speed. Johnson was also interested in opera (his favorite being Il Trovatore) and in history — he was an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, believing him to have risen from a similar origin to his own.
Johnson flouted conventions regarding the social and economic "place" of African Americans in American society. As a black man, he broke a powerful taboo in consorting with white women, and would verbally taunt men (both white and black) inside and outside the ring. Johnson was not shy about his affection for white women, nor modest about his physical prowess, both in and out of the ring. Asked the secret of his staying power by a reporter who had watched a succession of women parade into, and out of, the champion's hotel room, Johnson supposedly said, "Eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts.
Johnson married Etta Terry Duryea in late 1910 or early 1911. A Brooklyn socialite and former wife of Charles Duryea, she met Johnson at a car race in 1909, and their romantic involvement was turbulent. Beaten several times by Johnson and suffering from depression, she committed suicide in September 1911, shooting herself with a revolver. Johnson then married, on 4 December 1911, Lucille Cameron, a young prostitute. Both Duryea and Cameron were white, a fact that caused considerable controversy at the time. After Johnson married Cameron, two ministers in the South recommended that Johnson be lynched. The couple fled via Canada to France soon after their marriage to escape trumped-up criminal charges in the U.S. Cameron divorced him in 1924 on the grounds of infidelity. The next year Johnson married Irene Pineau, also white; she outlived him. Johnson had no children.
After fighting a number of bouts in Mexico, Johnson returned to the U.S. on July 20, 1920 and surrendered to Federal agents for allegedly violating the Mann Act against "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes" He was sent to the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth to serve his sentence of one year, and was released on July 9, 1921. There have been recurring proposals to grant Johnson a posthumous Presidential pardon. The latest, a bill requesting President George W. Bush pardon Johnson in 2008, has passed the House, and a companion bill is going through the Senate, sponsored by John McCain.
While incarcerated, Johnson found need for a tool that would help tighten loosened fastening devices, and modified a wrench for the task. He patented his improvements on April 18, 1922, as US Patent 1,413,121
Johnson continued fighting, but age was catching up with him. After two losses in 1928 he participated only in exhibition bouts.
Johnson died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1946, after racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He was 68. He died just one year before Jackie Robinson broke the "color line" in Major League Baseball. He was buried next to Etta Duryea Johnson at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. His grave is unmarked, but a stone that bears only the name "Johnson" stands above the plots of him, Etta, and Irene.
Johnson's story is the basis of the play and subsequent 1970 movie, The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones as Johnson (known as Jack Jefferson in the movie), and Jane Alexander as his love interest. In 2005, filmmaker Ken Burns produced a 2-part documentary about Johnson's life, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, based on the 2004 nonfiction book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward.
Johnson's skill as a fighter and the money that it brought made it impossible for him to be ignored by the white establishment. In a time in which African-Americans enjoyed few civil rights and in which lynching was an accepted extra-legal means of social coercion in many parts of the United States, his success and defiant behavior were a serious threat to the racist status quo. In the short term, the boxing world reacted against Johnson's legacy. But Johnson foreshadowed, in many ways, perhaps the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Jack Johnson. He identified with him because he felt white America ostracized him in the same manner because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. In his autobiography, Ali relates how he and Joe Frazier agreed that Johnson and Joe Louis were the greatest boxers of all.
Sixty-two years after Johnson's death, in September, 2008, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recommend that the President grant a pardon for his 1913 conviction, in acknowledgment of its racist overtones, and in order to exonerate Johnson and recognize his contribution to boxing.
I'm Jack Johnson. Heavyweight champion of the world. I'm black. They never let me forget it. I'm black all right! I'll never let them forget it!
Folksinger and blues musician Leadbelly references Jack Johnson in a song about the Titanic. "Jack Johnson wanna get on board, Captain said I ain't hauling no coal. Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well. When Jack Johnson heard that mighty shock, mighta seen the man do the Eagle rock. Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well." (The Eagle Rock was a popular dance at the time.) In 1969, American folk singer Jamie Brockett reworked the Leadbelly song into a satirical talking blues called "The Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic." There is no convincing evidence that Johnson was in fact refused passage on the Titanic because of his race, as these songs allege.
Alt-country performer Tom Russell wrote a song entitled Jack Johnson and it was recorded in 1993, with Barrence Whitfield singing lead vocals, on the album Hillbilly Voodoo. It is both a tribute to Johnson and a biting indictment of the racism he faced: "here comes Jack Johnson, like he owns the town, there's a lot of white Americans like to see a man go down...like to see a black man drown."
Wal-Mart created a controversy in 2006 when DVD shoppers were directed from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Planet of the Apes to the "similar item," Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.
41st street in Galveston, Texas is named "Jack Johnson Blvd." after him.