The day was July 4, 1910. Two years earlier, Johnson had made history by becoming the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Unsatisfied with a black man holding that title, Johnson’s critics convinced Jeffries, the previously undefeated champ, to challenge Johnson in a bout that took place in Reno in front of some 20,000 spectators. The occasion was dubbed “The Fight of the Century” in an atmosphere fraught with racial tension.
When Jeffries failed to reclaim the title, falling to Johnson in the 15th round, race riots erupted.
Johnson’s story doesn’t stop after his victory. By many accounts, the boxer marched to the beat of his own drummer, perhaps even literally as he had his own jazz band, owned a Chicago nightclub and was an actor, according to an ESPN profile. The network further reported that Johnson “walked his pet leopard while sipping champagne, flaunted gold teeth that went with his gold-handled walking stick and boasted of his conquest of whites — both in and out of the ring.”
It was the “out of the ring” conquering that led to trouble, Wayne Rozen, author of a book on the fight called “America on the Ropes,” told the Associated Press. Johnson married three times — all three times to white women — though he didn’t have any children.
“He just had the audacity to be with white women and they knocked him out on that,” Rozen said. “They couldn’t stand that the most important title in sports was held by a black man. The book was thrown at him for a very minor offense and it changed his life forever.”
Johnson was convicted on charges that he transported a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. He left the U.S. in 1913, but returned in 1920 to serve a year and a day in prison. He had lost his title during a fight in Cuba in1915 and did not regain it. He died in 1946 at the age of 68.
On July 4 weekend, Johnson’s supporters and his family will remember his legacy in Reno. They will also revisit the fight for a posthumous presidential pardon for Johnson. A pardon resolution was passed by Congress last year.
“It’s time that the wrong that was committed against my uncle be righted,” said Linda Haywood, Johnson’s great-great niece. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns joined the Johnson family last year at a press conference along with two other interested supporters.
The AP reported:
“U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sponsored the pardon resolution along with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said he welcomed renewed support for the cause in Reno.
He told The Associated Press that he is still hopeful that Obama will sign the pardon.
‘I know the president, once he looks carefully at this issue, would want to correct a grave injustice done,’” McCain said.