Boxing: Johnson: A Killer in the Ring. & a Lady Killer out of It

Article excerpt

Byline: Barry McGuigan

MUHAMMAD ALI, the 20th Century's greatest athlete and probably the best heavyweight in boxing history, turned 63 last Monday.

On the same night the first part of a documentary entitled Unforgivable Blackness was screened in America. You can bet your bottom dollar Ali was watching.

The documentary was about the life and times of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, and the first to challenge racist attitudes in apartheid America in the early part of the last century.

Johnson's struggle for dignity and respect in and out of the ring at a time when racism in the United States was a feature of the country's political and social structure was often misunderstood, but important for the development of black boxers later on.

It is said that Ali was a student of Johnson's counter-punching style. At 6ft 2in and 200lb, Johnson was as blessed as Ali with fine physical attributes. And in the ring he used them brilliantly, combining speed, power and a clinical defence to dominate the heavyweight scene for six years as champion.

But it was outside the ring where Johnson really carried the fight to the establishment, refusing to surrender to the mores of the day, which had African-Americans cast very much as second-class citizens.

Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. His father, Henry, was a former slave and dirt poor. Boxing was an obvious way out for a big lad with little formal education.

Johnson started out in the local 'battles royal', taking on other young blacks for the pleasure of white spectators who would throw money in the ring. He turned pro at 19 and finally left Galveston, where professional boxing was still illegal, after being arrested and jailed in 1900.

Johnson migrated north to Boston and later Chicago where his reputation began to grow. By the time he moved to California in 1903 he was widely regarded as the best heavyweight in America.

Years of campaigning to challenge for the heavyweight title finally bore fruit in 1908 when Tommy Burns agreed to fight him for the colossal sum of $30,000 in Australia. …