Died on this day: Jack Johnson

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He was a fearless brawler on both sides of the ring ropes, where he took against most ferocious foes of his time from Stanley Ketchell and Jim Jeffries – all the way to Jim Crow. Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson died on June 10, 1946.

Born John Arthur Johnson on March 31, 1878 to formerly enslaved parents in Galveston, Texas, Johnson had his share of tough street hustle early on in his life, and after attending school for only five years he set out to make a living for himself, traveling to various cities working odd jobs. Johnson would eventually find his way to New York for a brief apprenticeship under legendary welterweight Barbados Joe Walcott before returning to Texas, where he had his debut in an illegal prizefight in his late teens. At one point in his early 20s he was incarcerated along future all-time great Joe Choynski, and both of them were forced to spar against each other at the local police station where they were detained. Johnson would later name Choynski as his best tutor.

With the “color line” of the infamous Jim Crow era still in effect, Johnson was forced to face some of the greatest black fighters of his time in several separate occasions. Sam McVey, Joe Jeanette and the great Sam Langford were an integral part of Johnson’s fistic education in those years, but Johnson’s ambitions were much greater than being the best man on just one side of the racial divide.

He set out to challenge heavyweight champion Tommy Burns anywhere in the world, and often traveled to taunt and provoke Burns wherever he presented himself.  He finally was able to corner Burns in Australia, and after a brutal beating he was declared the winner of the fight when the police had to intervene to halt the bout and save his foe from further punishment.

Jeffries (left) un-retired after a year-and-a-half of public pressure to challenge Johnson. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

The hunt was on for the man who would “retrieve the honor of the White race,” as declared by writer Jack London among others. That search for the “great white hope” led to former champion Jim Jeffries, who had retired undefeated as a heavyweight champion several years ago, being asked to return to action. On a sweltering day on July 4, 1910, Johnson dished out a brutal beating to the aging Jeffries in what was dubbed as the “Fight of the Century.” The result of the fight sparked racial riots across America that were not equaled until the Los Angeles riots of the ‘90s in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers involved in the beating of motorist Rodney King.

Unable to dethrone Johnson in the ring, the racist mob bent on destroying him chose a different approach, and soon they found an opening in Johnson’s guard. The fighter’s taste for white women caused him to be detained and briefly incarcerated for violations to the Mann Act, an outdated law aimed at thwarting interracial relationships.

Tired of being persecuted in his own country and forced to travel the world to secure fights and other appearances, Johnson was allegedly offered to return to the US but only after losing his title. He managed to do that when he was stopped by Jess Willard in Cuba in 1915.

Returning to the United States, Johnson continued cashing in on his celebrity status, endorsing several products and businesses to sustain his lavish lifestyle, opening a few nightclubs and other businesses, and even receiving a patent for an improvement on a popular tool.

He did, however, remain a convicted felon for the rest of his life due to his Mann Act violation. The dispute would be settled a century later when president Donald Trump, at the urging of Sylvester Stalonne and other public figures, pardoned Johnson posthumously.

True to his taste for the fast life, Johnson finally died in a car crash in 1946 at the age of 68. He finished his career with 54 wins against only six defeats and eight draws, with 34 knockouts. He faced the best of his era, including middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel, “Fireman” Jim Flynn, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Bob Fitzimmons, Marvin Hart and many others.

His career stretched for over 33 years, and his legacy beyond boxing as one of the most defiant and fearless challengers of the racist laws of his days has no parallels in his era. It would take some 50 years for a young Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) to barely equal him in that realm.

He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1990.

Diego M. Morilla has written for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.

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