In an era where black people couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as white Americans, Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1908. Johnson won the title a full six years after Joe Gans became the first black World Boxing Champion in the lightweight class. Though it took years for Johnson to get to that point as many white fighters refused to face black fighters for larger titles like world champion.
Jack Johnson’s title fight versus James J. Jeffries on July 4, 1910 was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” The lopsided victory by Johnson was the catalyst for race riots across the United States. Many whites felt their dreams of a “great white hope” to defeat Johnson were dashed. Blacks on the other hand were extraordinarily jubilant, and saw the victory as a point of racial advancement.
Johnson refused to live his life according to convention. He married three times, all white women which was a point of contention amongst whites and blacks. He was a bombastic personality who flaunted his wealth and taunted people both inside and outside the ring. He was ostracized and forced to live outside the United States for periods of time because of prison sentences for his dealings with white women.
Jack Johnson foreshadowed Muhammad Ali, and is often considered one of the greatest boxers of all-time.