Johnson, Ali's inspiration, was an unsung hero

The iconic boxer knew he wasn't only the greatest but also the most popular on earth.

Chennai: Nothing is more certain in this world than death. But there are deaths and deaths. No death has been mourned more in recent times than Muhammad Ali’s. The iconic boxer knew he wasn’t only the greatest but also the most popular on earth.

But even Ali wouldn’t have envisaged the extent of his popularity. The recurring theme in the deluge of tributes that overwhelmed the cyberspace, TV screens and newsprints was the impact he had outside the ring.

Ali was fortunate that the world celebrated his stellar achievements as much as it mourned his demise. Not every American hero in sports was as lucky. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a larger-than-life figure like Ali, was hounded by racists in the US until his death. When he died in a car accident on June 10 in 1946 at the age of 68, few shed a tear for the man whose pioneering feat paved the way for the ascent of Joe Louis and Ali to the summit of boxing.

Johnson possibly faced more hurdles than any other champion in USA’s history because at the peak of his powers in the first two decades of the 20th century, lynching was an ever-present threat for blacks who dared to be themselves. Although the Texan brooked no resistance inside the ring, his long-held dream of clinching the world heavyweight crown was nowhere near fruition because white champions refused to fight black challengers those days. From 1882 to 1908 no black boxer was allowed to challenge for the heavyweight crown. John L. Sullivan, the first heavyweight great in modern boxing, said: “I will never fight a Negro; I never have and never will.”

Racism had been so entrenched in American society then that Johnson had to travel to Australia to face the reigning world champion, Tommy Burns, in 1908. And, the result only confirmed the white world’s worst fears as Johnson pummelled Burns into submission in 14 rounds. The beating the African-American dished out to his hapless white opponent was so savage that the police had to intervene to end the bout. Johnson possessed great skills inside the ring. He was technically sound and had a sledgehammer punch. However, white pundits disparaged his style all along.

Johnson’s fists weren’t the only nuisance for white supremacists. In talking, too, he never pulled his punches. Fiercely independent, Johnson wanted to live on his own terms. No wonder he was an inspiration to Ali. What roiled racists most was Johnson’s propensity to flaunt his white girlfriends. All his three wives were white. He cavorted with white women in chauffeur-driven cars. At the entrance of a nightclub he owned at Harlem, Johnson displayed a huge photo of his lip-lock with a white woman. The tag of a heavyweight champion had a certain allure then and the son of former slaves was also charismatic. The irony was even the black community didn’t like Johnson’s braggadocio.

After the humiliating loss of Burns, America started a hunt for a “great white hope” to teach the “arrogant” Johnson a lesson. As there was no worthy candidate among active boxers to challenge Johnson, former champion James Jeffries was forced to come out of retirement to “restore white pride.” Jeffries proclaimed: “I’m going to fight this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

The skin colour of the contestants dominated the build-up to the Jeffries-Johnson championship bout on July 4, 1910, at Reno, Nevada. The symbolism of staging the fight on the US’ Independence Day wasn’t lost on anyone. Jeffries’ one-point agenda was to prove that “a white man was better than a Negro.”

In his corner were former champions Sullivan and Jim Corbett, who racially abused Johnson throughout the bout. Johnson’s reply in the ring was devastating as he punished his over-aged, under-prepared opponent without mercy. Jeffries threw in the towel in the 15th round. Johnson’s victory was followed by race riots across the country causing the death of around 20 blacks.

According to noted boxing writer Budd Schulberg, “the fight between the white champion and the black champion in 1910 was less a boxing match than a primitive tableau in bitter race relations.”

Even the heavyweight title failed to earn Johnson respect and respite, leave alone love. In 1913, an all-white jury convicted the champion of transporting a woman illegally from one state to another and handed him a one-year prison sentence. Johnson jumped bail to leave the US clandestinely for Canada.

He lived in exile in Europe, South America and Mexico for the next seven years. Johnson, who lost his title to Jess Willard in 1915 after a knock-out in the 26th round in Cuba, surrendered to the US authorities in 1920 to serve out his sentence. The fearless boxer died in a car accident in 1946. During Johnson’s funeral, a reporter asked his second wife why she loved him. “I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared,” she replied.

A campaign led by Republican senator John McCain to get Johnson a presidential pardon is yet to achieve its goal. The travesty of justice is a blot on America. At a time Ali is remembered all over the world with fondness, the US should undo the damage white supremacists had inflicted on his inspiration, Jack Johnson.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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