John Arthur Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), nicknamed the “Galveston Giant“, was an American boxer who, at the height of the Jim Crow era, became the first black world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). His 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries was dubbed the “fight of the century“. Johnson defeated Jeffries, who was white, triggering dozens of race riots across the U.S. According to filmmaker Ken Burns, “for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious black boxer on Earth. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential boxers in history. Transcending boxing, he became part of the culture and history of racism in the United States.
In 1912, Johnson opened a successful and luxurious “black and tan” (desegregated) restaurant and nightclub, which in part was run by his wife, a white woman. Major newspapers of the time soon claimed that Johnson was attacked by the government only after he became famous as a black man married to a white woman, and was linked to other white women. Johnson was arrested on charges of violating the Mann Act forbidding one to transport a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes”, a racially motivated charge that embroiled him in controversy for his relationships, including marriages.
Sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson fled the country and fought boxing matches abroad for seven years until 1920, when he served his sentence at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Jack Johnson continued taking paying fights for many years, and operated several other businesses, including lucrative endorsement deals.
Jack Johnson made his debut as a professional boxer on November 1, 1898, in Galveston, when he knocked out Charley Brooks in the second round of a 15-round bout, billed for “The Texas State Middleweight Title”. In his third pro fight on May 8, 1899, he faced “Klondike” (John W. Haynes, or Haines), an African American heavyweight known as “The Black Hercules“, in Chicago.
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