He was the best fighter in the world and he knew it better than anyone.
Never backing down from backing up his braggadocio, he cut down all comers on his way to securing the heavyweight championship of the world. His fights became major events and one of his bouts was even billed as the “Fight of the Century.” Cocksure and controversial, he was an African American who loved to soak up the spotlight and though he had his share of fans, his irreverent behavior angered more than a few people in a racially volatile time. At one point his own country tried to put him in jail.
All that can be said about the great Muhammad Ali, true, but it also encapsulates the career and life of another champion who had just as big an impact on the nation. Before there was Ali, the “Louisville Lip,” there was Jack Johnson, “Galveston Giant.”
One of the country’s very first celebrity athletes, the Texan Johnson transcended the sport of boxing in the early 1900s on his way to becoming a larger-than-life figure. And though Ali had his own inimitable personality, in his way he would become a reincarnation of Johnson’s rebellious and iconoclastic spirit.
As Cassius Clay in 1960, Ali scored his first major accomplishment at the Olympics in Rome, where he jabbed and punched his way to the top of the podium in impressive fashion as he notched the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. Everyone knows the story of how upon his return to the States he was denied service at a downtown lunch counter in his native Louisville, Ky., Olympic champion or not. The way segregated America saw it, the color of his medal wasn’t enough to compensate for the color of his skin. Yet the increasing refusal by African Americans to continue to tolerate such bigotry and prejudice led directly to their organization and mobilization, ultimately resulting in the Civil Rights Act.
But when Johnson was in his prime, Jim Crow was king and his rule was oppressive as there was no hope for marches, rallies or speeches to squelch the racism that pervaded the country. In 1903, the powerful Johnson won the “Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World” but no white champion would give him a shot at the proper world heavyweight championship, considered to be the more prestigious title. It wasn’t until 1908 that Canadian Tommy Burns, the reigning champ who had beaten American Marvin Hart in 1906, finally agreed to square off against Johnson near Sydney, Australia.
In front of over 20,000 fans, the bigger, taller Johnson fought off a scrappy Burns until the 14th round, when Johnson moved in and let fly with all of his arsenal—stinging lefts, vicious rights and iron-hammer uppercuts—prompting officials to stop the fight. The beating was so one-sided that the film of the bout was purposely cut off in the middle of the barrage. Upon Johnson’s return to his own country, instead of being regaled as a hero for bringing the heavyweight championship back to the States, he was openly scorned by many as being the “nigger” who had bettered a white man.
For white America, though, it wasn’t the mere fact that a black man now held the heavyweight crown, but the ostentatious way in which he wore it on his head. With his flashy cars and flashier clothes, gold teeth and gold-knobbed walking stick, Johnson’s flamboyance was simply too much for many of his countrymen to swallow. And if this weren’t enough, he was openly bold, brash and politically outspoken. In short, he refused to be anyone but himself.
Ali might have drawn inspiration from Johnson during his own rise to the top, as he was famously one of the most opinionated champions of all time. Not only was Ali not shy about loading up his words like bullets then spewing them out in rapid-fire fashion, but seemed to feed off the feelings of intense passion (or hatred) he stirred within anyone and everyone listening. In the process, he antagonized himself to many who preferred a reserved and quiet black champ like Sonny Liston, from whom Ali had wrested the title in 1964.
His blunt outspokenness continued even in 1967 while he was the champ, when he was called up before the draft board in Houston. As a member of the Nation of Islam, he adamantly refused induction into the Army, citing religious reasons. Furthermore, he rejected any hints of a compromise to enlist or any proposed military service arrangement that might be preferential to him and firmly stood his ground, even though he faced prison time. In the end, when he was stripped of his title and was suspended from boxing, some people thought the cocky young boxer—who had defiantly discarded what he considered his “slave name” of Clay—got exactly what he had coming to him.
For Johnson, his own cockiness made him a marked man, and every challenger he knocked to the deck was another blow at the notion of white supremacy. The cry for a “Great White Hope” rose up in some hateful throats as the call went out for a Caucasian boxer to give the brazen, arrogant Johnson the licking he sorely deserved. Since Johnson had dispatched all previous comers, the formidable Jeffries—a big man like Johnson—was lured out of a six-year retirement from the sport to face Johnson in what became much more than a mere boxing match. In the months leading up to this July 4, 1910 bout billed as the “Fight of the Century,” the consensus of white America was that Johnson needed to be put in his place and Jeffries, a fighter who had never lost a bout, was just the man to do it.
From the opening bell a grinning Johnson kept tying up his opponent and firing off counter punches that found their mark. Though the 35-year-old Jeffries held his own through six rounds, Johnson landed a powerful right hand in the seventh that stunned the former champ. In the ensuing rounds the Galveston Giant opened up and landed well-placed and effective blows, which began to wear out the tiring Jeffries. Though he could weather an enormous amount of punishment, even the brawny Jeffries couldn’t hold on forever and in the 15th round Johnson, smelling blood, pounced viciously on Jeffries to knock him down three different times. Jeffries had never been knocked down before, and before the round ended his corner threw in the towel. Johnson was victorious once again as he had given Jeffries a broken nose and white supremacists a black eye. Even though openly celebrating meant taking their lives in their hands for some, African Americans all over the country still proudly and raucously rejoiced.
Since it became apparent Johnson couldn’t be defeated in the ring, those determined to see his undoing resorted to more underhanded measures. It was well known that Johnson had a penchant for keeping company with women of ill repute and even prostitutes, but this wasn’t what got segregated America’s dander up. It was the fact that these women were white—an unpardonable sin. The Mann Act, put into effect in 1910, made it a felony to transport a woman across state lines for purposes of “prostitution or debauchery.” Ostensibly instituted for moral reform, it earned the nickname of “White-Slave Traffic Act” as it was also used to prosecute unlawful inter-racial relationships.
For two years, the U.S. Dept. of Justice investigated Johnson in hopes of prosecuting him for violation of this Act, but couldn’t build a legitimate case against him—but not for lack of trying. Though he had married Lucille Cameron, a white woman, by the end of 1912, Johnson was charged that year with transporting his former companion Belle Schreiber, another white woman, from Pittsburgh to Chicago for immoral purposes back in 1910. The case was tried in 1913 and it took the all-white jury less than two hours to find Johnson guilty on all counts, even though the case against him was suspect. A few weeks after his sentencing to one year and one day in federal prison, Johnson fled to Canada where he met up with Lucille, and they set sail for France. Rather than ever being hailed as a national hero and an embraced as an unsinkable icon, rather than being triumphantly hoisted on the shoulders of a grateful nation and heralded as a rugged champion who personified the indefatigable spirit of America, Johnson was driven out of his own country.
He got fights abroad wherever he could and in 1915 he ultimately lost his title to white boxer Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. Johnson tried to return to his home country the day after the fight but was denied. Finally in 1920, he agreed to surrender to the U.S. government and stepped across the border from Mexico into U.S. custody. He served his sentence at Leavenworth, Ks. and was released in July, 1921, eleven years after he turned the nation on its ear with his landmark victory over Jeffries.
Concerning Ali’s clash with the law, a sports reporter asked Ali—who was training in Toronto for a fight in 1966 at the time—if he was thinking of taking refuge from the draft by staying in Canada. Ali’s explosive response came quickly and with full force: “America is my birthplace, and nobody is going to chase me out of my birthplace! I’ll go to jail. I’ll go back.”
Though ultimately he would elude prison when his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, Ali—like Johnson—was willing to do his time simply because he was determined to live and die in his own country, by his own choice.
Ali is remembered as a fighter in every sense, a man who put his head down, his hands up and persevered—whether his opponent was Smokin’ Joe Frazier in the 1971 version of the “Fight of the Century,” the U.S. draft board or even segregated America as a whole. He not only elevated his sport but did much to raise the consciousness of the African American psyche in this country, becoming an icon in the process.
Ahead of his time, Jack Johnson should also be remembered as a true American icon for the resistance he went up against, the tribulations he endured, the triumphs he accomplished and his very refusal to live his life on any terms but his own—over 50 years before Ali.
To reach Frank Drouzas, email firstname.lastname@example.org