He talked more trash than Mohammed Ali and created more shock than Mike Tyson, he beat and emasculated white champions at a time when just looking at a white man could get him killed and lynchings were commonplace. Jack Johnson lived the most cinematic life of any sports figure and someone needs to mine that material and make a movie about his life.
Jack Johnson was born into poverty in 1878 and dropped out of school by age 6, not long after he ran away from home and drifted his way into the gym of some boxing enthusiasts. Jack being a burly 6'0 caught the attention of some local trainers and by the age of 19 he was starting a career in boxing. After some early success against lesser opponents he finally faced someone respectable; Joe Choynski. Choynski was a well known and experienced fighter who used the green Johnson's lack of technical skill against him; knocking him out in the 3rd round. Right after the fight both men were arrested, prize fighting was illegal in that state at the time and the two spend nearly a month in jail. During that month Choynski decided to teach Johnson how to fight, impressing upon him the importance of strategy and timing.
Back then boxing was kind of goofy, it wasn't scientific and no one had learned how to fly around the ring using quickness and precision to land blows. It was still very much a plodding, slow grind with few rules that resembled a tough man contest more than a bracketed, organized sport. The champ was free to take on all comers and fight whoever he wanted, which usually meant whoever could raise enough cash. The champion at that time was an tough, rock chewing white superman named Jim Jeffries.
Jeffries was undefeated and wanted to stay that way, as Johnson's talent grew along with his win record he started to demand a fight with Jeffries but the thinking at the time was that no black man should ever receive a shot at the title; Jeffries towed that line firmly. Despite Johnson's impressive wins over championship caliber white opponents, he would never get his shot at Jeffries who went on to retire undefeated. Several champions later; Johnson kept whooping ass until he racked up such an impressive body count that he became impossible to ignore. He taunted and berated every white champion that dodged him and won so convincingly that white America wanted to see him get beat up by the champ Tommy Burns just to shut him up.
In 1908 Johnson finally got a shot against Burns for the title, it was the first time a black man had ever competed for the heavyweight championship. It was the biggest fight the world had ever seen and all odds were on the much smaller Burns to knock out Johnson and prove white superiority. Which was ridiculous given how much bigger and more powerful Johnson was.
The footage of the fight is striking, it's back from a time where video footage of anything at all is rare and the spectacle of the dark giant bearing down on this small white figure is memorable. What's even more striking is Johnson's behavior during the fight.
He ties up and taunts the smaller Burns constatly, peppering him with shot after shot but keeping him conscious so that he can inflict more humiliation. He pointed to parts of his body that he dared Burns to try and hit, he held Burns close while he talked trash to the all white crowd and even gave the champ a demoralizing pat on the had after rounds. It was a bold, BOLD act in an environment where most of the audience literally wanted to kill him. What's worse is that he would go on to knock out Burns several times during the bout but catch him before he fell, hold him up and put him back on his feet just to prolong the fight. Jack Johnson was an asshole. In the 14th round Jack mercifully decided to end it and put Burns on his back though you'll never see that part. The only cameras recording the fight were ordered to stop by the police, they wanted to spare the white public the sight of a black man knocking out their white champion. The footage cuts just as the white champion begins his nosedive. Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion of all time and did nothing to endear himself to white America when he boasted after the bout that he's "forgotten more about boxing than (Burns) ever knew".
After the fight race riots broke out, whites were pissed and black people were thrilled and emboldened. The result was a string of violence. It's my belief that Johnson himself was never killed because they needed to beat him, killing him would have turned him into a symbol and essentially retired him as an undefeated black champion. For racist whites to regain their feeling of pugilistic superiority they needed to beat him in the ring, they needed him to live long enough to fall in battle.
This is where the term "The Great White Hope" comes into popular use, every white contender was seen that way. He was a torchbearer for his race and Johnson was the spoiler again and again and again. If anyone blatantly disrespected his opponents today the way Johnson would back then he would be banned from the sport. He smiled through 90% of his bouts and really didn't make much effort to put his man down until the later rounds, by then they'd have suffered through 15 rounds of insults.
May I refer you to one Stanly Ketchel who wore cowboy boots during his fight and actually landed the first solid shot that Jack Johnson felt in a decade. The shot rattled Jack and he fell to the ground...for about 4 seconds. Then he decided to stop screwing around with Ketchel and finished him off in about a second after he got back to his feet. I mean A second. People, watch the video. He literally pops right back up, and knocks Stanley out before the white crowd even realizes they need to stop celebrating. Stanley stays down for a good long time too.
So, Johnson ruled the world for a while and white America was desperate to find a challenger to beat him. At the insistence of many; Jim Jeffries was convinced to come out of retirement, remember he never lost the belt so many still considered him the true champ. To his credit the retired, fat farmer respectably lost 100 lbs to get ready for this super-fight. A SUPER-fight it was too, it drew enormous interest worldwide. For Johnson this was a chance to finally shut up that noisey contingent of people who denounced his claim to the championship. As far as boxing fans were concerned while Johnson might have the belt, the title of heavyweight champion was still Jeffries. This was a BIG fight. Seriously, people; watch this video because this was a humongous moment in the history of sports and civil rights.
The fight itself carries on like all the other Johnson fights, he breaks his opponent as a man, shatters his will and destroys his body.
Johnson eventually would fall, at the age of 37 and after 20 rounds (19 of which he won) in an outdoor arena in heat up to 110 degrees to someone a decade younger than him. He was hailed as the Great White Hero, Johnson for what it's worth went down but was never knocked out. He was just too spent, it was too hot and he decided to just stay on the mat for the count. He finally gave the people what they wanted. That's not the end of his life story either, he ended up being a fugitive and marrying a white woman who would go on to kill herself. But this is where my movie ends, Johnson standing triumphant, having just beaten everyone.