Posts Tagged ‘Jack Johnson’


The Heavyweight championship of the World stands among few other sporting achievements. It transcends sport, it exists in the conscience of people who otherwise care nothing about the events on the back pages of the tabloid news. The men’s Olympic 100 metres final, the Kentucky Derby, The Masters, The Monaco Grand Prix. All exist on a plane that rises above mere sporting excellence, but none quite so much as the glamour division in boxing.

Children in Sub-Saharan Africa have heard of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ageing British men still recall with glassy eyes the night that ‘our ‘Enry’, Henry Cooper took on Ali in Highbury, London for the heavyweight title, only losing after sustaining a horrific cut when he was ahead on the scorecards.

At the height of the heavyweight ‘golden era’ George Foreman stood in Kingston, Jamaica about to face the undefeated, undisputed champion, ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier. George was struck by the surreality of the occasion. He later described it as if he’d been watching a TV show called ‘The Heavyweight Championship of the World’ for years, and in the humidity and heat of Jamaica, the star of the show was standing, snarling, pacing opposite him across the ring. It wasn’t quite real. It was bigger than George, bigger than Frazier. It was utterly indescribable. Gene Tunney, champion from 1923 to his retirement in 1928 once said that upon waking on the morning after his defeat of then champion Jack Dempsey, he ‘wondered if the proceedings of the night before had been a dream, it was hard to believe that I was the world’s heavyweight champion’

Champions of the modern era hold no less fascination for the general public. Kids in the Bronx today know of Mike Tyson, despite his first championship reign taking place 20 years before they were born. The people of the Ukraine obsess over their legendary Klitschko brothers, who hold the current day division solely in the grasp of one family. Germany’s citizens are no less enthusiastic in the support of the brothers, having made Hamburg their home in the 1990’s.

But all champions should be aware that their reign is temporary, they’re only custodians to the throne, temporary holders to a title that is greater than any individual. The Heavyweight Championship of the World was here before them, and it will still be with us long after their name has faded from the neon lights outside the arenas of Vegas or New York.

The first widely recognised heavyweight champion was known as ‘The Boston Strong boy’, John L Sullivan. His reign spanned the end of the bare knuckle era (under the rules of the London Prize Ring) and the start of the gloved Marquess of Queensberry rules. Sullivan knocked out Paddy Ryan, the American Heavyweight champion, in the ninth round of their 1882 bout and was proclaimed as the Champion of the World. His championship stayed with him for a decade, though he never took on all-comers, and played a role in enforcing boxing’s colour line, stating ‘I will not fight a Negro. I never have, and I never shall’

In 1892 Sullivan reluctantly agreed to fight James J Corbett, also known as ‘Gentleman Jim’ in New Orleans. It was to be the first championship bout held under the Queensberry Rules. The fight took place on 7th September, and Corbett’s ‘new’ style of fighting, which involved using the ‘jab’ and feints to keep an opponents ‘rushes’ at bay proved successful as Gentleman Jim knocked Sullivan out in the 21st round.

Corbett was immensely proud of his title and defended it only once, preferring to use it as a self promotional tool for his acting and boxing exhibitions. He returned to his families homeland, Ireland for a successful tour of exhibition matches.

Corbett retired from boxing in 1895, and announced his successor as Australia’s Steve O’Donnell, though tradition dictated that the championship had to be won in the ring. O’Donnell was beaten by Peter Maher of Ireland in a contest billed as being for ‘The World’s Heavyweight Championship’ Maher was in turn beaten by Cornishman Bob Fitzsimmons the following year, who went on to lose a bout (by disqualification) against Tom Sharkey in a bout refereed by the infamous law-man Wyatt Earp! In 1896, James Corbett returned to the ring, and these four ‘interim champions’ are commonly ignored by most championship records.

On March 17 1897 in Carson City, Nevada, Bob Fitzsimmons won the championship indisputably, knocking out Corbett in the 14th round of their championship contest. Corbett was 14lbs heavier and considered the more skilled of the two combatants, and indeed out-boxed Fitzsimmons for much of the fight, knocking him down in the 6th round. Corbett tired however, and the Cornishman took advantage, winning with a punch to the solar plexus. Fitzsimmons was regarded as a very heavy hitter, and Corbett slumped in agony at the impact of the shot.

The entire bout was captured on film, and shown in cinemas, entitled The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight. It was at the time the longest recording ever placed on film, and the first ever to be shot in wide-screen.

Fitzsimmons held the title until June 9 1899, when he met James J Jeffries in Brooklyn, New York. The Cornishman was favoured, despite height, weight and youth being on the side of the challenger. Jeffries dropped Fitzsimmons three times before finally knocking him out in the 11th round.

Jeffries defended his title seven times before he retired on May 13 1905. (though he would return for one last fight in 1910, at the age of 35, to face Jack Johnson)

For the first time since the inception of the Heavyweight championship, the champion had relinquished the title.

Two months later Jeffries was back in the ring in Reno, Nevada. This time his job was to referee the bout for the vacant championship between Jack Root and Marvin Hart. Root was far more experienced and three years prior had already beaten Hart. Surprisingly Hart knocked Root out in the twelfth round to take his place as the champion.

Hart dropped the title in his first defence in February 1906, to ‘The little Giant of Hanover’ Tommy Burns. As his nickname suggested, he gave up a large height advantage to Hart (as indeed to most opponents – he stood just 5’7” tall). The fight was decided on a points decision after twenty rounds, the first time the title had changed hands by means other than knockout.

Burns was often unfavoured in fights, due to his small stature, but went on to defend the championship successfully twelve times before eventually losing it on Boxing day, 1908.

‘The Galveston Giant’, Jack Johnson was the man who finally wrenched the title from Burns’ hands, in Sydney, Australia. Until Burns accepted the bout, no black fighter had ever challenged for the Heavyweight Championship. Many opponents hadn’t even allowed the possibility. After all, they had their own championship. (On Feb 3rd, 1903 Johnson had won the World ‘Coloured’ Heavyweight Championship) Burns had no such prejudices. He would defend his title against any man, anywhere in the world. Johnson was undoubtedly the number one contender, having knocked out former champion, Fitzsimmons, in 2 rounds in the summer of 1907

The Police stopped the fight in the 14th round, though it went down as a referee’s decision knockout.

Racial prejudices among the public went into overdrive following the result. There were open calls for a ‘Great white hope’ to come along and beat Johnson, and return the Heavyweight championship to it’s ‘rightful place’ among white athletes.

Back in Reno, James J Jeffries put himself forward as that great white hope, coming out of retirement in 1910 to challenge Johnson. “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro” Jeffries was quoted as saying before the fight.

It took place on 4th July 1910, offers to referee had been telegrammed to writer Arthur Conan Doyle and even to President Taft, both were declined and Tex Rickard was given the job. Independence day would have been a fitting occasion for The President of the United States to referee a championship contest!

20,000 people filled the purpose built stadium, the majority whites hoping to see the champion dethroned, but they were not in luck. The younger, stronger champion dominated proceedings from the start, and Jeffries was dropped twice (for the first time in his career) en route to a 15th round finale when his corner threw in the towel to avoid a knockout being placed on his otherwise unblemished record.

The result caused racial tensions to overflow across the country. Riots were reported in 25 states, and around 13 people died (mainly black citizens), with hundreds more injured.

Jack Johnson’s championship reign ended in Havana, Cuba on April 5th 1915. The bout took place in front of 25,000 people.

Jess Willard, of Kansas was the opponent. He seemed outmatched for much of the fight, with Johnson clearly winning the majority of the rounds until the 20th, when he seemed to tire. Willard started to gain an upper hand, and eventually knocked Johnson out midway through the 26th round. Johnson later claimed to have taken a dive though it’s widely disputed, and the footage (though not of great quality) seems to suggest he was genuinely beaten by Willard, who later told the press “If Johnson throwed [sic] it, I wish he throwed it sooner. It was hotter than hell down there.”

Willard made several appearances in the ring over the next few years, though only officially defended the championship once, defeating Frank Moran in March 1916.

On 4th July 1919 Willard defended the title for the second time, in Ohio, against The ‘Manassa Mauler’, Jack Dempsey.

Dempsey was far shorter than Willard (most fighters were!) at 6’1” and was giving up a weight advantage, but administered a sound and severe beating. Dempsey put Willard on the canvas seven times in the first round alone, and broke his jaw in the process, as well as causing many cuts and contusions. Willard bravely fought on, making it through the third round before his corner retired him. It remains one of the most savage beatings in heavyweight boxing history.

There was talk for many years about Dempsey wearing plaster of Paris wraps during the fight, though these really hold no substance, tests confirmed that plaster of Paris quickly disintegrates when hitting the heavy bag, and Willard checked Dempsey’s wraps prior to the fight and was happy that they were legal. The logical conclusion is simply that a fired up Dempsey served up a high calibre performance that Willard just couldn’t handle.

Dempsey didn’t defend his title until 1920 (Beat Billy Miske in 3 rounds) but certainly wasn’t taking a rest, numerous exhibition matches, public appearances and even a Hollywood movie appearance (Entitled ‘Daredevil Jack’ – with Dempsey in the lead role).

4 more successful defences of the championship followed, including one in 1923, at New York’s Polo Grounds, against Argentine Angel Firpo. Famously Dempsey was knocked out of the ring by Firpo, though he made it back between the ropes to take victory by second round knockout.

After some time off, Dempsey returned in 1926 to defend against ‘The Fighting Marine’ Gene Tunney on September 23rd in Philadelphia.

Tunney was considered the underdog. Despite Dempsey no longer carrying his fearsome power or hand speed. The ex-Marine from New York outboxed Dempsey for 10 rounds and took a clear points decision.

The Ring magazine, which had been in print since 1922 and recognised Dempsey as their undisputed Heavyweight champion, called the result ‘The Upset of the Decade’ and the majority of the 120,557 (At that time a new attendance record in championship boxing) inside the stadium would likely have agreed with them.

Tunney only defended the championship twice, the first time a rematch with Dempsey. This was the famous ‘Long Count Fight’. Under new rules that weren’t yet universal, fighters had to return to a neutral corner upon knocking their opponent to the canvas. When Dempsey knocked Tunney to the ground in the 7th round, he stood and observed the floored Tunney. The referee shooed Dempsey to the corner before starting his count, but the precious seconds lost meant that Tunney was probably given 13-14 seconds to recover from the knockdown. Nonetheless, Tunney got back into the fight, and as in their first meeting, went on to win by a points decision after 10 rounds.

An 11th round technical knockout of Tom Heeney in July 1928 followed, and Tunney announced his retirement from fighting a few days later.

Though he wasn’t the first champion to retire with his crown (that honour belongs to James J Jeffries) Tunney would be the first to stay retired and not be lured back into the ring. He left the sport with just one defeat to his name, and none in the heavyweight division.

The championship would remain vacant for almost two years after ‘The Fighting Marine’ walked away at his peak. During a time when political events in Europe were slowly beginning to align towards a cataclysmic explosion, the next heavyweight to sit atop the world would be a German, Max Schmeling