Jack Johnson Story

On 26 December 1908, Jack Johnson won the Heavyweight Championship of The World, defeating Tommy Burns in fourteen rounds at the open-air stadium at Rushcutters Bay, near Sydney, Australia. He became the first black World Heavyweight Champion and, following the end of his reign in 1915, the last for more than two decades. To that end, Johnson’s mark in boxing history was made. As with all the legendary fighters of the past hundred years though, his legacy is not set in his debut as champion, but during the coming years and the successful defences of his title. What followed, according to author Graeme Kent, was ‘seven years of trouble and madness,’ as the infamous campaign to dethrone Johnson and return the richest prize in sport to a white man got underway.

Great White Hopes: The Quest To Defeat Jack Johnson is the account of those men, who, including the many who were groomed for a tilt at the title but ultimately never got a shot, numbered more than thirty. It is an account of the promoters and managers whose attempts to restore world opinion, and reassure a white-led global political climate that the Caucasian race was superior in every field, was fuelled by the international press. It is the account of the leading social commentators of the day whose starkly racist attitudes prevailed throughout the world of sport and far beyond its realms; even President Roosevelt, an avid boxing enthusiast, fretted over the potential repercussions of having one of the sport’s most prestigious titles held by a black man. Kent’s book, to its credit, is an account though, and not a statement.

There is the occasional and justified quip at the manifest prejudice of the era, but the testimony of those who witnessed Johnson’s championship years first hand paints a sufficiently palpable image. Kent’s accounts, while unbiased, nevertheless communicate a constant underlying current of racism which links almost every aspect of the attempt to overthrow Jack Johnson.

The Hopes come along, gamely at first, with the arrival of Victor McLaglen, who was little more than ‘an unknown substitute’; Tony Ross, who was ‘cannon fodder’ for the champion; Al Kauffman, who gained some respect from the label of ‘The giant fighter’ applied by Johnson himself; and Stanley Ketchel, ‘still rated by some experts as one of the best middleweights of all time.’ They were all defeated with ease by the champion, mostly in unofficial newspaper verdicts which were common at the time, since many fights which did not end in a knockout were declared no-decision contests by prior agreement.

Then, in July 1910, James J Jeffries, former heavyweight champion, was lured out of retirement by unprecedented monetary offerings to take part in the original ‘Fight Of The Century’ in Reno, NV. Scheduled for 45 rounds, the fight was covered world-wide and brought throngs of people to the doors of press offices from Fleet Street to New York in the hope that they might catch word on the fight as it unfurled. Jeffries’s corner were forced to stop the one-sided bout after fifteen rounds, and the riots which followed led to the deaths of many blacks, several at the hands of lynch mobs.

Kent conveys the fervent desire among the white public to overthrow the champion with contemporary buzz-phrases: ‘…because he refused to conform to the image of a ‘good nigger’, the demand for a white heavyweight to beat him intensified.’ And so the search went on frantically for a new hope, but after farcical tournaments staged by crooked promoters, they came and went by the dozen without ever getting a shot at the title: ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, whose scheduled clash with Johnson was halted by racially motivated protests; Carl Morris, former railroad fireman from Oklahoma; ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn; Tom Kennedy, ‘The Millionaire Boxer’, and Luther McCarty, ‘The Cowboy From Driftwood Creek’ who, by 1913 had emerged as one of the hottest prospects off all the White Hopes, knocking out Morris, Kauffman and Flynn among others.

Tragically, during what was hoped to be an eliminator for the championship, McCarty collapsed less than two minutes into the first round as he emerged from a clinch with Arthur Pelkey and was later pronounced dead. To add insult to mortal injury, ‘There were angry cries of ‘Fake!’ from the crowd,’ when McCarty went down without taking a single punch. It was later ruled that the cause of death was from a previous injury, possibly a blood clot on the brain or even a broken neck.

The White Hope campaign begins to flag as the would-be contenders, mis-managed and under-talented, fail one after the other in their attempts to secure a chance at wresting Johnson’s title. Their stories though, as related by Kent, increasingly infused with references to future heavyweight boat-rockers Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey, never cease to engage. The accounts of fights which were staged almost a century ago are wonderfully detailed, such is the extent of witness testimony inherited seriatim by generation after generation.

Ultimately, inevitably, Johnson’s long and successful reign would come to an end, but the legacy of one of the greatest heavyweight champions would shape attitudes towards the sport for decades to come.

The Great White Hopes: The Quest To Defeat Jack Johnson is a triumph which marshals the often refractory subject of boxing history, drawing together the threads of fighter and opponent, managers and promoters and their countless associates, to weave a lucid and methodical account of one of the most prolific boxers in history, which is never less than gripping.

‘I can say that I have been the most persecuted man in the world. The Americans, who definitely cannot accept my victory against Jeffries, the relatively important sums of money I have won nor my lifestyle, seem to have committed themselves to my downfall or at least my financial ruin.’ Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion.

Petition to pardon Jack Johnson

Great White Hopes: The Quest To Defeat Jack Johnson, by Graeme Kent

Available from Sutton Publishing

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