The late, great comedian Bill Hicks once quipped that the first Gulf War was not actually a “war.” Instead it was little more than a military exercise for the U.S. with the outcome never in doubt. Jack London made a similar statement about the fight for the world’s heavyweight crown that took place on December 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia, in which, for the first time in history, a Black man had the chance to become heavyweight champion of the world. That day Jack Johnson systematically dismantled Canadian Tommy Burns, forcing London — a pro-Burns observer — into admitting that ‘fight’ was a misnomer for the event; ‘slaughter’ was the more fitting description.
While many of us complain about the sorry level of organization existing in professional boxing today, things were even worse in the early 20th century. At the time, pugilism was outright illegal in many countries, including the United States. Also, corruption — prominently manifesting itself through fixed matches — was rampant. And while boxing fans of yore didn’t have to put up with four or more title belts in each weight class, they did have to put up with the injustice of blatant racial discrimination.
Jack Johnson had to contend with these difficulties, as well as 44 in-ring opponents, before he was finally granted a chance to prove himself against the best. Up until then, he fought often, he fought everywhere, and he fought everyone. Everyone, that is, except the highly regarded champion James Jeffries, who would rather retire undefeated than risk his title against a Black fighter.
Outside the ring, Johnson was eager to demonstrate to the Jim Crowe-era society of the time that no one could tell him what to do or how to live. He dressed in the finest clothes, bought the fastest cars, socialized with anyone and anywhere he wanted to, and even enjoyed the affections of white women, an offense for which Black men were lynched. A self-educated man and an avid reader, his intelligence was a huge asset in the ring. When he fought, Johnson used body movement to dodge punches and terrific hand speed to counter. He worked shrewdly and efficiently and made it all look extremely easy, to the point that during fights he could hold multiple conversations with ringside spectators while he toyed with his opponent.
And so Johnson, undeterred in his quest to become the first Black heavyweight champion, kept fighting. Against Black fighters he allowed himself to relax, turning the fights into exhibitions, sometimes carrying his opponents. Against white fighters, he vented his frustration, humiliating and battering them, relying on his skill, natural strength and excellent punching power to knock them out.
While Jeffries had been unwilling to give a Black man an opportunity for the title at any price, Canadian Tommy Burns — who eventually appropriated the title Jeffries vacated — pegged the fee at an outlandish $30,000 dollars (around a million in today’s dollars), more than double what any prizefighter had ever earned. In response, Johnson pursued Burns around the globe, baiting and heckling him at every turn in an attempt to pressure the reigning champion into giving him a shot.
In Australia Johnson attracted much attention for his open taunting of the champion during Burns’ defenses against a pair of Australian contenders and the commotion inspired eccentric show-business entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh to make good on Burns’ financial demands. The champion happily pocketed the huge sum and ignored the outcry from those who insisted he was betraying the white race and tarnishing the world title. Seemingly confident of his superiority over Johnson, Burns declared: “I will beat Johnson, or my name isn’t Tommy Burns.” Whether he was being ironic at the time will never be known, but “Tommy Burns” had in fact been born “Noah Brusso.”
When the two battlers entered the ring, the physical superiority of Johnson was immediately apparent. Having trained rigorously at Rushcutters Bay, the challenger was in splendid condition. He outweighed Burns by twenty-four pounds and stood more than half a foot taller. And as Bill Hicks would have noted, what followed wasn’t actually a “fight” at all.
In the opening round Burns was floored. Soon he was reduced to hurling racial insults, verbal jabs being the only ones he could land. “The Galveston Giant” kept his cool and proceeded to methodically punish the champion with body punches and hard uppercuts. Johnson took his time, relishing the moment, the opportunity which had been for so long denied him. He even carried the Canadian on his arms when it seemed the champion’s legs were about to give way, giving him just enough time to recover so he could continue pounding him with both fists. After fourteen of the most one-sided rounds ever seen in a world title match, the police intervened to finally end the massacre.
History had been made; a Black man was the world’s heavyweight champion. And Jack London, immediately acknowledging the “slaughter,” in the same breath called out to the retired and contented James J. Jeffries, declaring that now was the time for him to “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you!” That historic clash, held some eighteen months later, Bill Hicks would also have refused to term a “fight”; Johnson dominated Jeffries with ease and stopped him in round fifteen. – Rafael Garcia