JOHNSON, JACK Ranked by many (including Nat Fleischer of Ring Magazine) as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, Jack Johnson (1878-1948) was the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1908 to 1915. Although Johnson was not the "first" black boxing champion (George Dixon held the world featherweight title from 1892 to 1900), he indeed was the first African American to win boxing's most prestigious crown. Born in Galveston, Texas, Johnson never completed elementary school. Drifting from job to job during his youth, he fought semiprofessionally until 1897, when he turned professional.
Between 1897 and 1908, Johnson's boxing career blossomed until he was recognized as a leading contender for the heavyweight crown, an honor he won on December 26, 1908 by knocking out the reigning champ, Tommy Burns, in fourteen rounds. The fact that a black now held boxing's highest honor infuriated a vast segment of white American society which immediately began searching for a "Great White Hope" to restore the crown to the "superior" race. As it happened, ex-champion Jim Jeffries (1899-1905) was pressured into coming out of retirement to fight Johnson. The "Great White Hope," however, was soundly defeated by Johnson during a heavily promoted and publicized match held in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910. [This match and Johnson's life in general formed the basis of a motion picture starring James Earl Jones. The motion picture, filmed in the early 1970's, was appropriately titled "The Great White Hope."] Successfully defending his title four more times between 1910 and 1915, Johnson finally was defeated by Jess Willard in a twenty-six round fight on April 5, 1915.