The first African-American heavyweight champ lived life to the fullest in an era designed to prevent him from doing so
The United States righted one of its wrongs yesterday with President Donald Trump’s pardon of former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. After years of legislative efforts and advocacy by Senator John McCain, President Trump finally signed an order pardoning Johnson for his wrongful conviction of the Mann Act, which prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
In 1913, Johnson was convicted for literally just traveling with one of his girlfriends, Belle Schreiber, a former prostitute. He left the country and fought overseas before losing his title to Jess Willard in Havana in 1915. Johnson returned to the United States in 1920 and served a 10-month sentence in Leavenworth. He was killed in an automobile accident near Franklintown, North Carolina (a small town near Raleigh), in 1946 at the age of 68.
The conviction haunted Johnson throughout his life, but if you have ever watched the documentary or read the book, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise of Fall of Jack Johnson, you know that Johnson was a man who lived life to the fullest in an era designed to prevent him from doing so. Now that the pardon has been issued, he would probably want us to forget the Mann Act and talk about the other aspects of his amazing life. So in that spirit, here are five little-known facts about the first African-American heavyweight champion in boxing history.
1. Galveston hurricane
Johnson was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, and lived there until adulthood. On Sept. 8, 1900, Galveston was hit by the worst natural disaster in American history, a hurricane that killed more than 6,000 people and left 30,000 more homeless. While Johnson's home was destroyed, he survived and was one of the few residents of Galveston who did not lose a family member.
2. The greatest defensive heavyweight boxer of all time
Johnson did not win the heavyweight title until he was 30 years old and after that films were made of his major defenses, including his win over Jim Jeffries in the "Fight of the Century." The recordings give you a sense of how great he was, but did not fully capture him in his prime. In an era where fights could go as long as 45 rounds, Johnson would literally play defense until his opponent wore himself out and then destroy him. According to Damon Runyan, "No greater defensive fighter than Jack Johnson ever lived," and the late boxing historian Bert Sugar ranks Johnson as the fourth-best heavyweight of all time behind Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Jack Dempsey.
3. The first vicious knockout in boxing history
We all have seen the highlight reels of Mike Tyson’s knockouts and Rocky Marciano’s dropping of Jersey Joe Walcott. However, Johnson’s beatdown of Stanley Ketchel may be the first savage knockout ever recorded on film. He and the middleweight champion met in 1909 with the agreement that they would split 40 percent of the proceeds of the fight film’s box office sales. Because Johnson was much bigger than Ketchel, the two agreed that the fight would go at least 12 rounds to attract more filmgoers. But in the 12th round, Ketchel sucker-punched Johnson with a right hand and put him on the canvas. The heavyweight champion got up with the attitude of, "Okay, we're actually doing this" and... well, just take a look. The punch knocked out Ketchel’s two front teeth, which were embedded in Johnson’s glove.
4. Barney Oldfield
Johnson loved driving fast in the newly invented automobile and challenged racing legend Barney Oldfield to a contest. Oldfield had set the world speeding record at 131.724 miles per hour in March 1910. The two raced in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay that October, with Oldfield leaving Johnson in the dust.
5. The Cotton Club
After getting out of prison, Johnson teamed with Budd Levy to open the Cafe de Luxe nightclub in Harlem in 1923. The club was such a hit that gangster Owney Madden decided to muscle his way in to take it over and force Johnson and Levy out. Once he did, Madden gave it a new name, The Cotton Club.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)