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Jack Johnson: The Galveston Giant

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson was the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion in 1908.
John Arthur “Jack” Johnson was born on March 31, 1878. Called the “Galveston Giant” because of his size, Johnson’s boxing career was during the height of the Jim Crow era. Jim Crow was a time period in U.S. history when racial segregation in public establishments was permissible by law. Johnson rose to prominence during a time where racial hatred and violence towards African-Americans was common. His mere presence in the ring was seen as a threat to the dominance of the white establishment.

• Jack Johnson won Heavyweight title in 1908.
• Jack Johnson was feared and resented by the public.
• Jack Johnson inspired the term “Great White Hope.”

Standing at 184.2 meters tall, Johnson had a boxing record of 73 wins, 13 losses and 10 draws. During that time, he amassed a small fortune. His smug demeanor in the ring combined with his flamboyant lifestyle out of the ring made Johnson the target of much resentment by the public. It was Johnson who inspired and catapulted the concept of a “great white hope” to the world of sport by those who so badly wanted to witness Johnson’s defeat. Were it possible many mobile sports betting enthusiasts would be rich beyond belief because all the odds favored Johnson’s opponents.

The birth of a boxer

Returning to Galveston a much bigger and different person, he was able to quickly realize his boxing talent. After a fight with a tougher and older guy over a game of craps, Johnson decided to enter competitive boxing. His first match was in the summer league, but was quickly broken up because prize fighting was illegal at the time according to US gambling laws. The first was relocated and Johnson won the price of $1.50. This small amount gave Johnson a large amount of confidence.

In his first professional bout in 1989, he knocked out guy in a fight that was called the “Texas State Middleweight Title.” Although Johnson lost his second fight by technical knockout or TKO, he was able to win in a rematch two years later. Another prizefight in Texas, led to Johnson and Joe Choynski’s arrest. With bail being set at $5,000, the only way the sheriff released them was for them to fight in the jail cell which grew large crowds. After 23 days, the two men could afford the bail. Johnson credits much of his success to Choynski’s instruction while in jail.

Jack Johnson

The unorthodox fighting style of Johnson made him difficult to face in the ring. Johnson built his own fighting style where he would hit first, yet defensively. After he tired out his opponents, Johnson became more aggressive and would punish them for several rounds before knocking them out. Sometimes Johnson would hold up his opponents to keep them upright. This antagonized many people and Johnson was quickly criticized by the press as being a coward.

The Heavyweight Championship of the World

Johnson won his first title in 1903 earning him the title of World Colored Heavyweight Champion. The World Heavyweight Championship title eluded Johnson for years. With his reputation already established as a seasoned contender, the current World Heavyweight Champion Jim Jeffries refused to fight him. Well known in U.S. gambling news, the world heavyweight title was reserved for only white people. Johnson finally gained the world heavyweight title in 1908 after spending two years chasing reigning world champion Tommy Burns until he fought him.

It took a guaranteed payday of $30,000 by promoters for Burns to accept the fight. After Johnson’s triumph, he became the most fear African-American in the country out of worry that others would see Johnson’s victory as evidence of racial equality and demand civil rights. Jim Jeffries eventually came out of retirement to face Johnson. With an amount of $120,000 ($3 million by today’s standards), Jeffries took 15 rounds of punishment including the first 2 knockdowns of his career.

Johnson’s victory over Jeffries caused race riots all over the United States that evening. A film of the bout was shown in public audiences and received more attention than any film at the time leading up to “Birth of a Nation.” Johnson’s flashy lifestyle was challenged the social and economic status quo. His three marriages to white women infuriated much of the public. He was even rumored to have been denied passage on the famed Titanic.

Johnson finally lost the heavyweight title in 1915 to Jess Willard, a Kansas cowboy, after a knockout in the 26th round. Some argued Johnson took a dive for a lighter sentence in his Mann Act case. In 1912, Johnson was arrested by police while driving with his girlfriend Lucille Cameron. The Mann Act is to prevent the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. Cameron was thought to be a prostitute and Johnson was black so it equaled an immoral act. After years on the run, Johnson finally surrendered to Federal agents and was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary.

After prison, Johnson tried to comeback into boxing but without much success. His last fight was in 1945 in an exhibition out for U.S. War Bonds. A year later Johnson died in a car accident while speeding from a restaurant who refused to serve him because he was black. Johnson was inducted into the boxing hall of fame in 1955.

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