According to Gilbert Odd in his book Boxing – The Great Champions, in order to fully appreciate the true position of Jack Johnson (1878- 1946) among the great heavyweight champions, it is necessary to understand the difficulties encountered by black boxers in his days.
In America particularly, they were regarded as inferior both mentally and physically to white fighters, who could ‘draw the colour line’ if they wished to avoid meeting a dangerous black man.
Coloured boxers were forced to meet one another over and over again, and if they wanted to earn money with their fists, were thrown into a ring, a dozen at a time, and left to eliminate themselves to the amusement of the white spectators.
These multiple bouts were known as ‘battle royals’.
John Arthur Johnson, born in Galveston, Texas, began his career in this way but his all–round cleverness allowed him to emerge as the winner so frequently that before long he was able to forge a reputation for himself as a formidable ring contestant.
It took him 10 years, however, to reach the status of leading challenger for the heavyweight title and another full year before Tommy Burs could be coaxed into the same ring.
Johnson, who liked to style himself as “Little Arthur,’ chased Burns all over America, then to England and finally caught up with him in Sydney, Australia, where in a specially constructed ring at Rushcutters’ Bay, he hammered the champion to defeat in 14 rounds.
From that moment, he became the most hated man in his own country and there was a world-wide search for a “white hope” to beat him.
So desperate were the whites that they even brought out Stanley Ketchel, the hard-punching middleweight champion, to bring Johnson down and the spectators went mad with delight when the well-named “Michigan Assassin” caught the coloured champion with a roundhouse right to the chin that knocked him off his feet.
Their joy was short–lived, however, because the coloured boxer caught him with a beautifully timed right upper cut to the chin that spilt a number of his teeth and spread him on the canvas for the full count.
Two memorable fights Johnson had, involved Jim Jefferies, a retired former champion who was recalled from retirement as the “Great White Hope” who could beat Johnson.
Johnson exhibited his greatness by beating Jefferies senseless at Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910.
The result caused deadly race riots. Then there was one with Jess Willard who knocked out Johnson in the 26th round on May 5, 1918 in Havana, Cuba.
It is not clear to date why Johnson refused to continue with the fight which he had controlled for most of the rounds and still had the strength.