Johnson was born the third son of nine, and the first son, of Henry and Tina Johnson, two former slaves who worked blue collar jobs as a janitor and a dishwasher in 1878. Growing up in the tough neighborhood of Galveston Texas, Johnson seemed to have a sense of ambition, that he was destined for better things than the world of roustabout and the ordinary black labourer. It was in the tough world of manual black labour that Johnson, being a big man for the times, at 6 feet 200 pounds, learned to fight.
From the time that Sullivan held the title until Jim Jeffries, who was champion from 1899-1905, no white heavyweight champion would even consider fighting a black man. Sometimes, when they fought whites, it was expected that the blacks would lose or else the fight would be declared “no decision” in other words, a draw.
After Jeffries retired, a set of elimination matches were held. Eventually, out of the confusion, Tommy Burns, a tough fiery tempered man emerged as the new champion.
Burns tried to avoid fighting Johnson, who pushed the issue. In the end, Johnson followed Burns to Australia on his tour, and Burns decided to give him a shot at the title amid criticism by former champions for deciding to do so. They fought on December 26th 1908-Boxing day-in Sydney Australia. Johnson easily won the match in 14 rounds and became the first black heavyweight champion.
It was almost immediate that the cry went up from the whites for a “great white hope” who could wrest the title away from Johnson.
Having served time before in prison, Johnson epitomized what white America hated. What most bothered whites about Johnson was that he openly had affairs with white women-and even married one at a time when miscegenation of this sort was not only illegal but was dangerous. Johnson did not seem to care what whites thought of him, and this bothered most whites a great deal. He was not humble or diffident with whites. He also didn’t care what blacks thought of him as some were critical of his sex life.
As the quest to find the great white hope became an obsession among a then boxing crazed America, they rallied anyone they could find to fight him but one by one, they all easily fell to the great Johnson. Jeffries ended up being coaxed out of retirement to fight Johnson, some arguing that since Jeffries never lost his title in the ring, he was, in essence, the real champion. That fight took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910.
It was the most talked about, most publicized sporting event in American history. It was seen by nearly the whole country as a symbolic race war. It was also the richest sporting event in American history; the two fighters split together unevenly 60% a sum of $101,000, a staggering prize for the time. Johnson once again won easily. Jeffries could not overcome a five year layoff. Moreover, he probably lacked the skills, as he himself admitted after the fight, to have ever beaten Johnson.
Since Johnson could not be beaten in the ring, the battle moved to defeating Johnson in the area he was most vulnerable-his sex life. The bureau of investigation, now FBI started tapping his phones and investigating him, eventually pinning him on a prostitution charge. Johnson fled to Europe to avoid prosecution. It would be 22 years before another black man became heavyweight champion.