First Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion

Heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns alarmed whites, who had dominated boxing, and immediately triggered a quest for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson. This championship boxing match ushered in a new era in American sport history as well as a new period in American race relations.


Summary of Event

The fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson was the biggest news in boxing since the sport’s transformation from savage, bare-knuckle prizefighting in the early nineteenth century into the more respectable art of combat. While colorful personalities such as John L. Sullivan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Mike Donovan represented the more gentlemanly aspects of boxing among high society, racial diversity in the squared arena was virtually nonexistent. Jack Johnson represented the destruction of this color barrier. Sports;boxing
Boxing
Great White Hope
[kw]First Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion (Dec. 26, 1908)
[kw]Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion, First (Dec. 26, 1908)
[kw]Heavyweight Boxing Champion, First Black (Dec. 26, 1908)
[kw]Boxing Champion, First Black Heavyweight (Dec. 26, 1908)
Sports;boxing
Boxing
Great White Hope
[g]United States;Dec. 26, 1908: First Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion[02270]
[c]Sports;Dec. 26, 1908: First Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion[02270]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 26, 1908: First Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion[02270]
Johnson, Jack
Burns, Tommy
Jeffries, James Jackson
London, Jack

Born in Galveston, Texas, Johnson remained a relatively obscure figure in American sporting culture until the first decade of the twentieth century. After realizing that his large size limited his abilities as a horse jockey, Johnson turned to boxing, even though post-Civil War segregation laws forbade African American participation in sporting events with whites. He relied on work as a janitor and a sparring partner for most of his income, and in the process he gained a formidable reputation in the Texas boxing community. By 1901 he had decided to leave Galveston for a professional career as a boxer. For the next several years, Johnson won fights against fellow African American boxers and lesser-known white pugilists, although the widespread racial prejudices of the time meant that most white heavyweight champions and contenders avoided Johnson and other African American fighters.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Noah Brusso also came from a poverty-stricken background and held several jobs before deciding on a boxing career. He changed his name to Tommy Burns in order to keep his mother from reexperiencing the embarrassment she felt after her son had brutally pummeled an opponent. In 1906, Burns was crowned the heavyweight champion of the world after the retirement of James Jackson Jeffries in 1905. Jeffries had quit the sport because of declining revenues and the growing movement bent on outlawing prizefighting.

Burns tried to avoid fighting Johnson: He fought matches with white opponents and went abroad to defend his title in England, Ireland, France, and Australia. Johnson followed, fighting several matches in England and pressuring boxing officials to schedule a championship match with Burns. Burns’s demand of thirty thousand dollars to fight Johnson was one of the major stumbling blocks, but eventually a fight promoter in Australia agreed to the price. In contrast, Johnson was to be paid five thousand dollars, a sum he grudgingly accepted. As in the United States, racial divisions and discriminatory practices were common in Australia, and the prefight news coverage was replete with racial slurs against Johnson.

Controversy surrounded the match from both sides; one of the biggest arguments was over who would serve as referee, especially given that the fight was to be filmed (an attempt to garner additional revenue). Although the fight was scheduled for 11:00 a.m., huge crowds amassed as early as 6:00 a.m. to witness the spectacle at Rushcutter’s Bay in Sydney. Sports enthusiasts and gamblers placed odds in Burns’s favor. Entering the ring first to a round of racial insults, Johnson appeared in his familiar faded gray robe and boxing attire; he remained cool and only smiled in response to the venomous verbal abuse. The champion, by contrast, came to the ring in a blue suit, which he removed and placed delicately in a suitcase. Johnson extended his hand to Burns, but the latter refused to shake it. As the men stood face-to-face in the ring, issues regarding bandaged elbows and other potential illegalities immediately arose. However, after consultation with the officials, the match began at 11:07 a.m.

Despite the prefight controversies and troubles, the contest was clearly a mismatch. Johnson, who towered over his opponent, dominated the fight, and Burns was knocked down several times. Johnson clearly wanted to punish and humiliate Burns, who was confident in his abilities to defeat his African American opponent. Each player taunted the other throughout the rounds; Burns levied some especially vulgar slurs. Burns, a white supremacist, believed that black fighters had weaker stomachs, less endurance, and smaller brains than white fighters. At the time, “scientific” theories of race and physicality reinforced Burns’s beliefs, and many people thought that Burns’s racial heritage would help guarantee his victory.

In the first round, Burns immediately charged toward Johnson, who delivered a right uppercut, his best punch, and put Burns on the mat for an eight count. Throughout the match, Johnson toyed with Burns, landed punches at will, and refrained from scoring an early knockout. As a result, Johnson proved himself to be the more adept and skilled fighter. By the end of the second round, Burns’s right eye was visibly swollen and his mouth was bleeding profusely. During the middle rounds, Johnson continued to punish Burns, whose blood began to cover his shoulders and the ring’s canvas. Spectators began calling for the contest to end in the thirteenth round, and police entered the ring to stop the fight. However, protests from Burns convinced the referee to let the fight continue. In the fourteenth round, Johnson continued his vicious onslaught, and the police once again entered the ring. This time, the referee stopped the fight—over Burns’s desperate cries of protest—because the bloody, battered Burns could no longer defend himself against Johnson’s brutal assault. With approximately twenty thousand people in attendance and tens of thousands outside the arena, spectators could not believe what had happened—an African American had won the world heavyweight championship.

Reporting for the New York Herald, noted author Jack London expressed his disdain for Johnson’s victory and called for the return of James Jeffries, who London said could return the crown to the white race. Like most of his contemporaries, London accepted pseudoscientific notions of white supremacy and believed that Johnson’s victory was a great stain on the history of the white race. London’s disgust and his cry for Jeffries to return to the ring began the quest for the “Great White Hope”: a boxer who would defeat Johnson and restore boxing’s title and prestige to white men.



Significance

The heavyweight championship fight between Johnson and Burns challenged theories about racial superiority and helped break the color line in boxing, especially in championship bouts. African Americans heralded Johnson’s victory, which increased black pride, threatened theories of white supremacy, and forever altered the racial makeup of the sporting world. The Johnson victory also led to a renewed interest in prizefighting as some boxing fans hoped for a white heavyweight champion. After numerous challenges from white contenders, including a devastating victory over Jeffries in 1910, Johnson lost the heavyweight title in 1915 to Jess Willard—who was younger, bigger, and white—in round twenty-six of a contest in Havana, Cuba. Sports;boxing
Boxing
Great White Hope



Further Reading

  • Hietala, Thomas R. The Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2002. Places the fight between Johnson and Burns in the larger historical context of American race relations in the twentieth century and the emerging Civil Rights movement.
  • Roberts, Randy. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. New York: Free Press, 1983. The standard historical biography of Jack Johnson. Contains excellent coverage of the 1908 championship fight and the continuing search for the “Great White Hope.”
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Popular biography published to accompany a PBS documentary on Johnson’s life. Provides analysis of the fight and its significance.


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