Jack Johnson was the first black American athlete to break the color barrier, fighting and defeating a world-class white boxer in old-school leather-gloves hand-to-hand combat in 1908 to become the first black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World.
He did this 39 years before Jackie Robinson ever saw a Major League Baseball pitch, at a time when pro baseball games weren't played at night because stadium lighting hadn't been invented yet. It freaked the American media out so bad that the New York Times issued an editorial demanding a "Great White Hope" rise up and put this hotshot back in his place because what the hell are these black people doing thinking they can be good at sports and stuff anyways.
Jack Johnson didn't give a shit. When he wasn't defending the title by knocking out chump after chump during his six-year reign as World Heavyweight Champion, the once-impoverished son of ex-slaves played in a jazz band, owned a badass Harlem nightclub, drove an ultra-fast pimped-out yellow hot rod, walked his pet leopard down the streets of New York City with a glass of champagne in one hand and a gold-plated pimp cane in the other, and allegedly banged everyone from movie star Mae West to German spy Mata Hari and that French chick from the Moulin Rouge.
He's a real-life mix between Jackie Robinson, Mike Tyson, Dolemite, and a big bag of bricks that fucks movie stars.
When I see a ghost, I cut the motherfucker.
Born March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas, Jack Johnson's parents had been living as slaves just 15 years earlier and were now barely scraping a living by working shit jobs as manual laborers. Dirt poor with little in the way of prospects, Johnson dropped out of school after fifth grade, got into fights with local street gangs, and took any job he could find. Eventually he settled into a gig loading cargo onto ships at Galveston Harbor, making extra money by challenging his co-workers to back-alley Fight Club no-holds-barred fucking bare-knuckle fistfights and then having the other guys on the dock throw money into the pot for the winner to take home. His first victory, a beatdown of some hardcore salty pirate motherfucker longshoreman, earned Johnson a buck, which he probably then spent on band-aids and an ice pack for his knuckles.
While kicking his co-workers' asses was probably incredibly fulfilling (I can think of more than a few former co-workers I'd love to go twelve rounds with), it wasn't exactly paying the bills, so Jack Johnson decided to get serious and become a professional face-rearranger. He hitchhiked and train-jumped his way from Galveston to Chicago, where he met up with a couple promoters to try and help him out. In one of his first fights he battled a dude known as The Black Hercules, and was beaten unconscious in just a few rounds. Unsatisfied with the result, Johnson took him on in a rematch, knocking the well-known pro out in the 14th round.
Pretty much anything goes when you're doing the amateur face-punching circuit, and Johnson's first fight with a white fighter came when he knocked out Jim Scanlon in 1900. When Scanlon called bullshit on getting his ass kicked, Johnson offered to do it again in a rematch, but that fight was broken up by Nashville cops because they didn't really like the idea of black guys beating up white dudes on their turf. Johnson, a master counterpuncher with an unbreakable defense, continued to win fight after fight against white and black boxers alike, becoming well-known for his uppercut, his ability to wear down opponents, and the fact that he talked epic amounts of shit not only to his opponents but to everybody sitting ringside that didn't like him, and that he did this not only before and after fights but during them as well.
Eventually Jack Johnson started getting a reputation, so a hardcore pro boxer named Joe Choynski came to Galveston to beat his ass. The fight was broken up by Texas Rangers, who stormed the ring and broke it up because oh yeah boxing was fucking illegal in Texas, not that this ever seemed to stop Johnson from doing it. The two guys were thrown in prison, the Rangers charged admission to fans who wanted to come see Choynski and Johnson spar in their jail cell like some crazy Django Unchained / Russian Underground prison mafia battle royale shit, and the two guys eventually became friends, with the aging Choynski offering tons of valuable fighting advice to his up-and-coming friend like some weird mix between HBO's Oz and David Carradine in Kung Fu.
Jack Johnson used his skills to rise through the ranks, and in 1903 he beat some guy up to become the Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World. But this wasn't enough – he wanted to be the best of the best, universally-recognized across all ethnicities as the hardest pipe-hittin' motherfucker on earth.
The guy who held the belt at this time was Jim Jeffries, a 19-0 fighter who had never been knocked down in a match and who was famous for breaking the ribs of three different fighters while defending his title. Jeffries, not exactly excited about being punched in the face by Jack Johnson, said he refused to fight a black man for the title. Jack Johnson responded by challenging Jeffries' younger brother (also a boxer) to a match – he beat little bro unconscious while Jim sat ringside, then pointed and demanded a fight. Then he went off, fought two white former heavyweight champions, and thrashed them both. Jeffries, seeing no other recourse, vacated his title to some Canadian guy and retired from boxing.
To complete the Clubber Lang Mister T shit he had going on, Jack Johnson then challenged Jeffries' successor, Tommy Burns, by taking out newspaper ads calling him a pussy and then traveling to Burns's fights so he could personally challenge him from the ringside. Burns eventually agreed to face Johnson in front of 20,000 people in Melbourne, Australia, though this wasn't out of range and was mostly just because the awesomely-named fight promoted Hugh "Huge Deal" McIntosh offered him $30,000 to do it.
Jack Johnson beat Burns so badly that the cops stopped the fight in the 14th round because the boxing match was walking a fine line between "professional sporting event" and "involuntary manslaughter".
By becoming the World Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson immediately sent the American media into a frothing-at-the-mouth widespread panic frenzy that makes all that Tim Tebow ESPN fellatio look like a fluff piece about a dog show in the Bumfuck County Post. Apocalyptic doomsayers cried and wailed and tore their clothes, begging for a "Great White Hope" to descend from Heaven on a golden chariot and decapitate Jack Johnson in the boxing ring by flicking his head off his neck like it was a paper football. Southern ministers were calling for him to be lynched. Local cops were barring him from towns. Every time he was pictured in the newspaper walking to the opera with a hot white chick on his arm a thousand Jim Crow motherfuckers' eyes exploded out of their heads like over-squeezed jalapeño poppers. It was all plagues of frogs and locusts, etc. stuff, but, at the end of the day, what it all added up to was that the new Champ was getting more press coverage than contemporary black leaders W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington combined into a Voltron with LeBron James and RGIII.
On July 4th, 1910, their prayers were answered. The Mighty Jim Jeffries, undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World, the Great White Hope, came out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson and reclaim his title. The two faced off in Reno, in front of a rabid crowd of 22,000 people, most of them whites cheering for Jeffries.
Here's a video of the fight.
I love that Jack is smiling here.
Jack Johnson not only gave Jeffries the first knockdown of his career – he dismantled him, beat his ass, and won the fight in Round 15 when Jeffries' corner threw in the towel. "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best," Jeffries said after the fight. "I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years." He earned over $100,000 for the win, which a fuckton of money in 1910.
For the next six years the Champ took on all comers. One time he won a fight despite having a broken arm and only punching with his left. Another time the World Middleweight Champion tried to make the jump to Heavyweight and lost five teeth to Johnson for his troubles. A national celebrity and an utterly divisive character, his picture was on everything from snake-oil medicine boxes to newspapers across the country, as "Black Jack Johnson" rolled through Harlem and New York City attending operas and hitting up jazz clubs. He loved opera, read a lot of books on Napoleon, married four different white women, and owned a badass nightclub where movie stars like Judy Garland watched music legends like Louie Armstrong shred jazz music.
He also drove one of these things, which might as well have been a turbocharged V12 Lamborghini Aventador in 1910:
Things got weird in 1912, when the future commissioner of Major League Baseball convicted Jack Johnson of transporting his girlfriend and future wife across state lines for "immoral purposes", a charge that is so obviously total bullshit that John McCain and Mike Tyson have formed a weird alliance to try and get a presumably-irrelevant presidential pardon for the long-dead boxer. Bullshit aside, Johnson was sentenced to the maximum sentence – one year in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, the same place where guys like Whitey Bulger and Bugs Moran did their time.
Johnson, in another balls-out display of his awesomeness, fled the country and spent 7 years fighting for money in Paris, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and Mexico City.
He was still the reigning World Heavyweight Champion while a fugitive from justice.
Johnson lost a step later in life, and while fighting in Havana in 1915 the 37 year-old fighter was knocked out by a guy named Jess Willard after going 26 rounds in 108-degree heat with 100 percent humidity. Another black man wouldn't get a shot at the title for over a decade, and wouldn't hold the title until fellow badass Joe Louis did it 22 years later. His title reign over, Johnson went back home, served his time, boxed in the Leavenworth Fucking Penitentiary Prison Boxing Club face-punching inmates at 38 goddamned years of age, and apparently invented some kind of wrench that he got a patent for once he was out.
The Galveston Giant would continue fighting in his spare time, getting banned from boxing in Kansas for illegally fighting and still fighting exhibition bouts at the age of 67. He died June 10, 1946 when the 68-year-old fighter wrapped his hot rod around a tree doing over a hundred miles an hour. His final official boxing record was 79-8 with 46 KOs, with most of the losses coming after he was 40 years old, but the actual number of knockouts and wins is probably much higher because the first rule of fight club is that you don't talk about fight club. He inspired future boxers from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali, had songs written about him by everyone from Miles Davis to Mos Def, and is now remembered as one of the greatest boxers ever.