Modern boxing is as old as America. They grew up together, and like America herself, boxing is as majestic as it is brutal. It’s as beautiful as it is primal. From the bloody and outlawed “exhibitions” in New Orleans to the “bare-knuckle” brawls in the shantytowns out West, boxing came of age with America. It has been called the “Sweet Science” and “the Manly Art of Self Defense,” but ultimately “boxing is a sport of confrontation and combat, a weaponless war,” pitting two warriors against each other to do battle in the squared circle.
We can trace the history of America’s poor and disenfranchised through the arc of boxing’s past. Prizefighting is a prism through which we can view the history and struggles of America’s most disenfranchised. Its heroes of legend often exemplify the social problems of the day. In many ways, the fight game serves as a means of “socioeconomic” advancement. Author and boxing historian Jeffrey T. Sammons states in Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society: “The succession [of great fighters] had gone from Irish to Jewish… to Italians, to [B]lacks, and to Latin[o]s, a pattern that reflected the socioeconomic ladder. As each group moved up, it pulled its youth out of prizefighting and pushed them into more promising… pursuits.”
Two fighters in particular epitomize the struggle of their people: the brash Irishman John L. Sullivan, and “The Black Menace” Jack Johnson.
Boxing has its origins in Ancient Greece, and was part of the Olympic Games in around 688 BC. Homer makes reference to boxing in the “Iliad.” Boxing historian Michael Katz recalls the sports primitive origins:
Much like the first American settlers, prizefighting made its way to the New World from England. And like the pilgrims, boxing’s early days were often brutish and violent. Sammons states: “Like so many American cultural, social, political, and intellectual institutions, boxing originated in England. In the late 1700s, when the sport existed only in its crudest form, prizefighting in Britain assumed an air of sophistication and acceptability.
The early Puritans and Republicans often associated game playing with the oppressive monarchies of Europe, but as American opponents of leisure lost ground, the sport quickly began to grow. In the 1820’s and 1830’s boxing, often called pugilism, became a popular sport amongst the American “immigrants who were unaccustomed to restrictions upon amusements and games.”
As the sport grew in popularity amongst the immigrants, so too did the myth of the individual. For better or for worse, the United States is a nation weaned on the myth of the individual. This is the American Dream, that fundamental creed that we can all “pull our selves up by the bootstraps” and become wildly rich, outrageously successful, and madly fulfilled. For nearly two hundred years the “Heavyweight Champion” was the crown jewel of the sporting world, and the physical embodiment of the American Dream. He was the toughest, “baddest man” on the planet, and commanded the world’s respect.
Sammons states: “[T]he physical man still stands for the potential of the individual and the survival of the fittest. He is the embodiment of the American Dream, in which the lowliest of individuals rise to the top by their own initiative and perseverance. The elusiveness of that dream is immaterial; the meaning of the dream is in its acceptance, not its fulfillment.” During the 1880’s, no one embodied the physical man, or the American Dream, more than boxing’s first great heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan.
John L. Sullivan and the Plight of the Irish
Sullivan, also known as “The Boston Strongboy,” was the last of the “bare knuckle” champions. The son of poor Irish immigrants, he was a brash and hard-nosed man who toured the “vaudeville circuit offering fifty dollars to anyone who could last four rounds with him in the ring.” Sullivan famously challenged his audiences by claiming, “I can lick any sonofabitch in the house.”
“The Boston Strongboy” became one of America’s first sports legends when he snubbed millionaire Richard Kyle Fox, owner and proprietor of the National Police Gazette and the National Enquierer. Legend has it that one fateful evening in the spring of 1881 while at Harry Hill’s Dace Hall and Boxing Emporium on New York’s East Side, Fox was so impressed by one of Sullivan’s boxing matches, that the newspaper tycoon “invited him to his table for a business talk, which Sullivan impolitely declined, gaining Fox’s hatred.”
Fox was furious and vowed to break Sullivan as well as control the crown. He did neither; Sullivan beat all comers, including a few Fox hopefuls.” Sullivan became an international celebrity and American icon “who had risen through the ranks without looking down on others. Sullivan did more than build a personal following, however; he helped elevate the sport of boxing. The prize ring now spanned the gulf between lower and upper classes.”
Sullivan became a symbol of hope and pride for recent Irish immigrants living in a new, hostile land. Nearly two million Irish immigrants arrived in America between 1820 and 1860. Most arrived as indentured servants and were considered little more than slaves in the new country. Of those two million immigrants, roughly 75 percent arrived during the “The Potato Famine” of 1845-1852. The Irish fled from poverty, disease, and English oppression. “The Potato Famine” had claimed the lives of almost a million Irishmen.
Author Jim Kinsella states:
America became their dream. Early immigrant letters described it as a land of abundance and urged others to follow them through the ‘Golden Door.’ These letters were read at social events encouraging the young to join them in this wonderful new country. They left in droves on ships that were so crowded, with conditions so terrible, that they were referred to as ‘Coffin Ships.’ (par. 1)
The Irish arrived in America destitute and often unwanted. An old saying summed up the disillusionment felt by American immigrants in the Nineteenth Century: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.”
Our immigrant ancestors were not wanted in America. Ads for employment were often followed by “no Irish need apply.” They were forced to live in cellars and shanties… with [no] plumbing and [no] running water. These living conditions bred sickness and early death. It was estimated that 80 percent of all infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City died… The Chicago Post wrote, “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses… scratch a convict or a pauper and the chances are that [we] tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.
But the Irish arrived in America during a time of need. Kinsella continues:
The country was growing and it needed men to do the heavy work of building bridges, canals, and railroads. It was hard, dangerous work. A common expression heard among the railroad workers claimed “an Irishman was buried under every tie.
John L. Sullivan was the pride of the Irish during his legendary championship reign between 1882-1892).
Historian Benjamin Rader wrote:
The athletes as public heroes served as a compensatory cultural function. They assisted the public in compensating for the passion of the traditional dream of success… and feelings of individual powerlessness. As the society became more complicated and systematized and as success had to be won increasingly in bureaucracies, the need for heroes who leaped to fame and fortune outside the rules of the system seemed to grow.
During his decade long reign as champion; no one captured the public attention more than “The Boston Strongboy.” He destroyed Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City, Mississippi for the “Heavyweight Championship of America” in an illegal “boxing exhibition” on February 7, 1882. The championship belt was named the “the $10,000 Belt” and was “something fit for a king.” Sammons states: “It had a base of flat gold fifty inches long, and twelve inches wide, with a center panel consisting of Sullivan’s name spelled out in diamonds; eight other frames eagles and Irish harps; an additional 397 diamonds studded the symbolic ornament.”
After receiving the “$10,000 Belt,” Sullivan pried out the diamonds and sold it for $175. He later went on to defeat his arch nemesis Jake Kilrain in the seventy-fifth round, marking the final “bare-knuckle” championship bout in boxing history. Sullivan reigned supreme until his knockout loss to a younger, faster, more skilled fighter named “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in the twenty-first round on September 7, 1892 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Jack Johnson and Black Oppression
Boxing historian Bert Sugar once said: “Boxing is a strange, strange sport. Bottom line, it’s legalized assault, but it has given people throughout history a chance to better themselves. [I]t has always been a sport of the dispossessed and of the lowest rung on any ladder.” Except for the Native Americans, no group in American history has been as “dispossessed” as African Americans. They were stolen from their homes in Africa, and transported under deplorable conditions to suffer a life of slavery in America. “From the 16th to 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas. Of these an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. [According to] the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million.”.
From the first moment they set foot on American soil, life was brutal for blacks in the New World. Although the black slaves gained freedom after President Abraham Lincoln issued the “Emancipation Proclamation” on January 1, 1863, it would be roughly one hundred years before blacks achieved full equality in America. The twenty years between 1880 and 1900 were exceptionally hard ones for blacks in America. Congress passed a series of anti-civil rights acts, culminating in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 guaranteeing second-class citizenship for blacks, and marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era in America.
Although there were many great black fighters during this twenty-year period, blacks were barred from fighting for the heavyweight championship. Sammons writes: “By the 1880’s the heavyweight boxing championship symbolized… America’s rise to world power… the holder of the title stood as a shining example of American strength and racial superiority.”
But the retirement of the “granite jawed” and undefeated heavyweight champion James Jeffries in 1905 left a whole in the division. After a slew of uninspiring champions came and went boxing fans began to lose interest. By 1907 the time was ripe for the first black heavyweight contender. The sportswriters of the day believed a black fighter would bring public interest back into boxing, while also proving “white physical and intellectual superiority.”
In 1908 a legend was born, and his name was Jack Johnson.
Jack Johnson, later known as “The Black Menace,” was an unknown fighter from Galveston, Texas. He would become one of the greatest and most courageous athletes in the history of American sports. He was a huge man with a flashy smile and incredible speed. In and out of the ring, Johnson was larger than life. Although he left school in the fifth grade, Johnson was a smart and worldly man. He played the bow fiddle, loved opera and literature, idolized Napoleon Bonaparte, and even invented and patented a tool used to fix automobiles. He also loved fast cars, fancy suits, and white women. Worse yet, white women loved him back. When one reporter witnessed a successive parade of women leaving Johnson’s hotel room, he asked the champ for the secret to his “staying power.” Johnson replied, “Eat jellied eels, and think distant thoughts.”
Actor James Earl Jones, who played the legendary Jack Johnson in the film Great White Hope states: “He lived life by his own rules with his balls, his head, and his heart.”
The sportswriters of the time believed the “destruction of the insolent, defiant Johnson, a usurper of white privilege, [to be] a morality event of good versus evil, [which] would serve as a lesson akin to a public lynching for blacks who did not know their place in American society.”
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Jack Johnson pummeled the white heavyweight champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, to gain the crown. After the fight, “The Black Menace” became an instant hero for blacks suffering under the legacy of three hundred years of slavery, and the yoke of racist Jim Crow policies. Headlines from the Richmond Planet read: “No event in 40 years has given more satisfaction to the colored people of this country than has the single victory of Jack Johnson.” After winning the title, Jack Johnson would lead the boxing world, and white supremacists alike, on a seven-year chase to unseat the newly crowned champ and return the belt to its “rightful ethnic group.” Thus began the era of the “Great White Hope.”
The era of the “Great White Hope” was as comical as it was tragic. Promoters scoured the country searching for white contenders over 170 pounds. One sportswriter recalled: “In the heat of the search, well muscled white boys more then six foot, two inches tall were not safe out of their mothers’ sigh.”
Johnson, also known as “The Galveston Giant,” fought and destroyed the next five opponents including middleweight champion Stanely Ketchel. The fight with Ketchel was especially memorable. Before the “exhibition,” the two fighters, who were old friends, had agreed to take it easy with each other, and they did until the twelfth round when Ketchel saw an opening and floored Johnson with a right cross to the head. After rising to his feet, Johnson was so enraged that he knocked Ketchel out cold with one crushing uppercut to the jaw. The punch was so devastating that Ketchel’s front teeth were impaled in Johnson’s boxing glove. Fight replay shows “The Black Menace” plucking the great middleweight champion’s teeth from his glove after the fight.
White America became enraged following the humiliating defeats of the “Great White Hopes.” Jack Johnson’s success threatened the entire foundation of American society. Worse yet, there was another black heavyweight on the rise, Joe Jeanette. Never before had white privilege and superiorly been so successfully and violently challenged. Sammons writes: “Almost as alarming to whites was the success of another great black heavyweight boxer, Joe Jeannette. Together Johnson and Jeanette seemed to spell doom for white superiority… “
The calls for the return of retired heavyweight champion and boxing legend James Jeffries became deafening. Following the Ketchel defeat, author Jack London wrote: “A golden smile tells the story and the golden smile is Johnson’s, but one thing remains, Jeffries must return from the alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.”
Jefferies agreed to fight Johnson, saying: “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race… I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”
The match between Johnson and Jeffries was billed as the “Battle of the Century.” Jeffries was an undefeated legend. All of the white man’s hopes rested on the broad shoulders of James Jeffries. He was mean as a grizzly, had a chin made of steel, and hit like a truck. He stood six foot, two inches tall and was a ripped 225 pounds. In his prime, Jeffries could sprint 100 yards in just over ten seconds, and could high jump over six feet.
Although he had been retired for the previous three years, Jeffries trained for the Johnson fight as if his life was on the line. He lost an astounding 100 pounds and came into the fight determined to smash Jack Johnson and restore the status quo in America.
The fight produced a level of public hysteria never before seen in America. For white Americans, Jeffries would reaffirm African inferiority “and the white desire to exterminate these barbarians.” For blacks, Johnson was fighting against a legacy of racism and persecution. Reverend Reverdy Ransom wrote: “[W]hat Jack Johnson seeks to do to Jefferies in the roped arena will be more the ambition of Negroes in every domain of human endeavor.”
Reno was abuzz leading up to the fight. A town of 15,000 residents was bursting with boxing fans. People slept in their cars or on park benches. The bars and jails were full. “One restaurant with a capacity of 30 persons served thirty six hundred suppers.” Jack London wrote: “Reno, Nevada. July 1, 1910. I am glad I am here. No man who loves the fighting game, has the price, and is within striking distance of Reno should miss this fight. There has never been anything like it in the history of the ring.”
The two fighters finally met on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, in front of 20,000 riotous fans. Jack Johnson battered the larger man. He was younger, faster, and more skilled than the 34-year-old Jeffries. He beat him to the punch, and tied him in the clench when the two fighters engaged. By the fourth round it was obvious Johnson was the better man.
“The Galveston Giant” walloped the former champ. He beat and battered him. He danced and smiled and joked with the crowd, before unleashing a crushing combination to the body, and a ripping right hand to the head of the challenger. Johnson toyed with Jeffries the way a tiger would toy with an old tomcat before finally pouncing in for the kill in the fifteenth round. The impacts of Johnson’s crushing blows were felt across the country. There were race riots in every major city across America. Historian Randy Roberts said: “[N]ever before had a single event caused such widespread rioting. Not until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., would another event elicit a similar reaction.”
Black America had found a hero in Jack Johnson. For the first time in American history, they could stand up tall and be proud of their heritage and their people. Not only did Jack Johnson defeat James Jeffries that fateful night, but he also knocked out 300 years of racism, humiliation, and oppression. The film of Johnson’s victory over Jeffries was banned by congress in America. Johnson was later arrested in 1912 and spent a year in prison for “transporting [white] women across state lines for immoral purposes.”
He was again arrested on similar charges in 1913. He later skipped bail and fled to France with his wife Lucille, where he spent seven years in exile. In one of the most controversial fights of all time, Johnson lost the championship in Havana, Cuba in 1915, to an uninspiring cowboy named Jess Willard. To this day, legions of boxing experts, including “The Galveston Giant” himself, contend the fight was a “fix,” arguing that Johnson threw the fight in exchange for leniency on his impending court cases in the United States.
Nobody, but Jack Johnson will ever know for sure if he threw the fight. What we do know is that over the next twenty-two years, black fighters were systematically denied a chance at the heavyweight championship by a conspiracy between government and boxing officials. The “black out” would last until 1937, when the legendary African American fighter, Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis defeated James “Cinderella Man” Braddock for the heavyweight title.
And so begins the era of Joe Louis, and the beginning of the longest and most storied championship reign in boxing history.
 Joe Louis held the heavyweight championship for a record 12 straight years from 1935 to 1949. During his championship reign, Joe Louis successfully defended his title 26 times, setting the all-time record. In 2005, “The Brown Bomber” was “ranked the #1 heavyweight fighter of all-time by the International Boxing Research Organization, and was ranked #1 on The Ring’s list of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All Time.”