Many formidable boxers have entered the ring, but few carried as much power and stature in and out of competition as Jack Johnson (1878–1946). The Galveston, Texas, native became the first Black heavyweight champion in the sport, which earned him respect and infamy in equal measure: At the time, it was uncommon for Black athletes to challenge for championships held by white boxers. But Johnson’s skill and demand for equality was too much for the sport—and the country—to ignore. For more on Johnson, including his run-in with Oscar Wilde’s nephew, keep reading.
March 31, 1878, Galveston, Texas
June 10, 1946, Franklinton, North Carolina
1. Jack Johnson was paid just $1.50 for his first bout.
Johnson was born in Galveston on March 31, 1878, to Henry and Tina Johnson, who were formerly enslaved. He spent his teenage years working on boats while indulging in his passion for boxing. While still a dock worker, he fought a longshoreman named John Lee, winning the bout and a $1.50 purse. But the was sport illegal in Texas, so Johnson had to seek opportunities elsewhere. In Springfield, Illinois, he participated in “battle royal” bouts in which Black athletes were blindfolded and swung wildly in the ring. One of five men, Johnson won the contest and a prize purse: another $1.50. (Quarters were tossed into the ring.)
Professional bouts followed, including an eventual shot against heavyweight champion Tommy Burns. Burns resisted the idea of fighting a Black contender until promoters upped Burns’s purse to $30,000. Johnson defeated him in 14 rounds in Australia in 1908. Two years later, he defeated James F. Jeffries and won $117,000, a far cry from the quarters of his first match.
2. Johnson’s victory over James F. Jeffries led to riots.
The Jeffries bout, held July 4 in Reno, Nevada, was thought to be among the biggest sporting events in North America to that point: the unbeaten Jeffries was perceived by some as “the great white hope” who could topple Johnson. Instead, Johnson clubbed Jeffries until the fight was stopped by Jeffries’s manager in the 15th round. Full of bravado prior to the fight, Jeffries was contrite afterward. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” he said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1000 years.”
It should have been a triumphant moment for Johnson. Instead, defeating Jeffries was a catalyst for simmering racial tensions in the country to come to a boil. After the bout, riots broke out in several cities, including 11 in New York City alone. According to David Pilgrim, curator of The Jim Crow Museum, 19 people were killed in the violence. Nervous over the conflict, several states banned screenings of film of the fight—one of the first to be captured by motion picture cameras. Even former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke out in support of banning the footage and boxing altogether. (The sporty Roosevelt had been blinded in his left eye following a friendly sparring contest in 1908.)
3. Johnson opened a nightclub.
In 1912, Johnson opened Café de Champion, a Chicago nightclub that drew attention for its interracial clientele. Johnson’s then-wife, Etta Terry Duryea, ran the restaurant side of the operation; Johnson himself was more interested in the entertainment. Whether the club had any long-term viability will never be known: Etta died by suicide shortly after it opened; the club was accused of breaking a citywide closure ordinance of 1 a.m.; and Johnson was soon to find himself in criminal trouble.
4. He was forced to flee the United States to avoid prison.
In 1912, Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lanes “for immoral purpose” and was intended to curb prostitution. (In fact, Johnson was simply traveling with his future wife, Lucille Cameron, whom he had met while running Café de Champion.) While Cameron's mother asserted her daughter had been “kidnapped,” Lucille was uncooperative with authorities. Anxious to railroad Johnson due to his race, lawmen found a sex worker named Belle Schreiber who asserted Johnson drove her from Pittsburgh to Chicago for lurid purposes.
In 1913, an all-white jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to prison. Rather than be incarcerated, Johnson fled the United States by pretending to be part of an all-Black baseball team and spent seven years in Canada and Europe, fighting all the while. In 1915, he lost his heavyweight championship to Jess Willard and was knocked out in the 26th round of a scheduled 45-rounder in Havana. Johnson eventually returned to the U.S. in 1920 to serve just under a year. In 2018, President Donald Trump pardoned Johnson for the crime.
5. Johnson once fought Oscar Wilde’s nephew.
In 1916, Johnson agreed to face Arthur Cravan, a bombastic poet who also happened to be the nephew of poet and artist Oscar Wilde. Both men were fighting primarily for money: Johnson because his opportunities were scant and Cravan because he wanted to flee conscription in the British army. While Cravan was not an experienced pugilist, both men understood the bout to be an exhibition so it could be filmed and monetized rather than a bloody battle. Cravan was said to be visibly trembling regardless; Johnson toyed with the outmatched fighter for six rounds before flattening him.
6. Johnson once challenged someone to a car race.
Apparently not content to test himself in boxing, car enthusiast Johnson challenged driver Barney Oldfield to a race in 1910. Born in 1878, the same year as Johnson, Oldfield was a celebrity in the nascent automotive world, nabbing speed records and winning races. He got himself into trouble in competing against Johnson: While he won, it was considered an unsanctioned “spectacle race,” with racing authorities frowning on Oldfield competing against a Black driver. Oldfield was suspended from the American Automobile Association (AAA) as a result.
7. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s last name came from Jack Johnson.
Wrestler and actor Dwayne Johnson is the son of Rocky Johnson, who was born Wayde Douglas Bowles. The wrestling name of Rocky Johnson, Wayde said, came from boxers he admired: Rocky Marciano and Jack Johnson.
8. Johnson didn’t leave the ring until the age of 67.
In 1945, Johnson stepped into the ring for two exhibition bouts against opponents Joe Jeannette and John Ballcort. The bouts were intended to promote the sale of United States war bonds. At 67, they made Johnson one of the oldest boxers to ever demonstrate skills for a paying crowd. The following year, Johnson died in a car accident in Franklinton, North Carolina. Because the funeral home in the city refused service to non-whites, Johnson’s body was transported to Raleigh. He was laid to rest in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.