Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali

“Success is determined by how you handle setbacks.’’ All successful people have experienced setbacks due to characteristics they portray if they have control over them or not. There is not one person to this date who is majorly successful who has not faced setbacks due to conditions such as race or gender. Over time you have heard stories upon stories about “underdogs” rising to the occasion and coming out victorious, here is another one.

African Americans were looked to as objects, not the human beings they were. Rich, white men ran the world, including the black race. The white race has a whole has put African Americans through unbearable conditions dating as far back as 1849, even though racial discrimination is still present in the present world, it does not compare to how it was a 170 years ago. For instance, segregation was present in schools, in stores, on buses and any other place where white people felt more superior than the black race. In schools, blacks and white were not able to drink out of the same water fountain, on the bus the black race had to sit on the back of the bus so the white people could sit in the front of the bus. The setback of being black did not stop some but instead fueled their ambition to accomplish things, somethings a white man never thought a black man could do. Two prime examples of using setbacks in life to become successful are the world famous athletes Jack Johnson and Muhammed Ali.

A legend, a man who through all limitations and complications would rise to the top, John Arthur Johnson, also known as Jack Johnson. On March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas, ex-slaves, Tina (Tiny) Johnson and Henry Johnson welcomed their third child, they would go on to have six more kids after Jack, resulting in a total of nine kids. From a young age Johnson had a fire within himself, “he possessed an air of confidence and drive to exceed beyond the hardscrabble life his parents had known.” (Biography.com website, 2014,5) Jack Johnson was genuinely a hardworking and determined man, he wanted better from himself than what his parents had to experience. With his parents being ex-slaves he had to drop out of school at a young age so he could go to work and support the family of eleven. With not being able to continue his education, most of Johnson’s childhood was spent working on boats and sculleries in his hometown, Galveston. A young man, with little education, was now on his own, just at the young age of 16 years old. 1894, Johnson traveling alone to New York, then Boston, to then ultimately returning back to his hometown in Texas. (Biography.com website, 2014,5)

As if being on your own at only 16 years old in a time where being black was frowned upon was not enough, Johnson would also experience his first fight. The fight was worth an insufficient amount, exactly $1.50. A young man on his own would do anything to survive, his first fight was against a fellow longshoreman. Johnson had jumped at the opportunity and had come out victorious. No one expected anything from the tiny controversy from the two men, everyone looked to the situation as just an opportunity to make some quick cash. Little did everyone knows Jack Johnson to grow to be a legend, not only within the black community but all around the world for centuries to come. Soon after Johnson would go on to win $25 for sticking out 4 rounds with a professional boxer, Bob Thompson. Johnson had started boxing professionally in 1897 when it was relatively newer.

Standing at an intimidating 6’2’’, Johnson was now known as the Galveston Giant was more than determined. He had made a name for himself within the black boxing circuit but he wanted more, he had his eyes on the prize. The prize being the world heavyweight title which was currently held by a white boxer, Jim F. Jeffries. In the early 1900s, the current world heavyweight title holder rejected to fight Johnson. Jefferies was not alone, it was more than common for white boxers not to spar with black boxers. Johnson was a force to be recognized with, his talents and self-glorification, he could not be ignored. Just a few years later, the moment Johnson had been waiting for had finally arrived on December 26, 1908. He got his chance for the title he had been dreaming about. Johnson would take on the outstanding title holder, Tommy Burns right outside of Sydney, Australia. Burns had recently taken the title from Jim Jefferies within the previous years. Burns, being white did not want to fight Johnson who was black, he only went through with the fight because he was guaranteed him a whopping $30,000. After 14 rounds boxing it out within the ring, the police had to step in and end the brawl. (Biography.com website, 2014,3)

History was made. December 26, 1908, John Jackson had reached his overall goal. Johnson becomes the world’s first black heavyweight champion by knocking out Burns. His win over Tommy Burns was not just a win for himself but a win for the African American community. Johnson did something everyone thought was “impossible”, he had beat a white man at his own game, it may have been the first time but it definitely would not be the last. Johnson would be a role model to not only people around him but even to people still today. At the age of 50, Johnson had hung up his boxing gloves, at the end of his professional career his record included 73 wins, with 40 of them being wins by knockouts, 13 losses, 10 draws and 5 no contests.

White people were now angered. Angered that a black man now was the world heavyweight titleholder. Johnson was a prime figure of hate, from how he carried himself and how accomplished he was “He whored and partied, seduced white women, drove fancy cars with reckless abandon, ran nightclubs, spoke a mangled version of French and mixed with gangsters, poets and princes. There was not a public figure of age who could compare with Johnson for audacity and style or white baiting blackness.” (theguardian.com, 2010,2) He portrayed himself with a plentiful amount of self-confidence, he was good and he knew he was good.

White people were more than bothered that a black man had held the world title, they did not know what to do with themselves. White commentators began calling for someone to challenge him and snatch the title from him. The white community urged Jefferies to come out of retirement. A screenwriter once wrote, “a guy who basically lived his life with a metaphorical middle finger raised in the air.” (washingtonpost.com,2016,2) He feared no man, but man feared him. In a time period where racial discrimination was at its peak, he being black was known for having relations with young white females, which would later cause him problems. In 1910, Jefferies had finally agreed to fight, he had announced that he would be coming out of retirement at the age of 37. Johnson once stated “ it was my own honor, and in a degree the honor of my own race.” well talking about the fight between him and Jefferies. ( theguardian.com,2010,3) After 15 rounds, Jefferies had given up, he had come to the realization that it was impossible for him beat Johnson, he was too good well Jefferies was too old. A black man was still the world heavyweight champion. White people became more angered. “Far from settling the question of inequality in sports, the result set off riots around the county that left dozens of people dead- most of them black.” (washingtonpost.com,2016,3)

1910, the same year the Mann Act was passed. The Mann Act made it a crime to transport women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purposes.” (washingtonpost.com,2016,3) Not long after the act was passed the Department of Justice had put Johnson under investigation for possible violation.

Johnson was a rich and successful man which made him a chick magnet, in his life he had 3 different spouses all being white. Etta Terry Duryea, his first wife who he married in 1911. Their relationship was destructive which lead to her committing suicide just one year later. Three short months later after her death, he had married his second wife, Lucille Cameron. Cameron’s mother was racist and were against the fact that her daughter had married a black man. She then told the authorities that Johnson had kidnapped her daughter. That situation leads to Johnson being arrested and a Mann Act case being built. Cameron refused to cooperate with the case against her husband. They wanted this man to be guilty and would do anything in their power to make it happen. They had dug up an old relationship with a young woman known as Belle Schreiber, she had agreed to testify against him. It took less than two hours for an all-white jury to convent him of the Mann Act in 1913. (washingtonpost.com,2010,3) Johnson had skipped bail and fled the country traveling around Europe and South America. The whole time Johnson had held onto his world title.

A day the white community has been waiting for. Johnson had encountered the Jess Willard 6 foot, 6 ¼ inches, 230 pounds in Havana, Cuba in 1915. He had two factors working against him, he was aging but he also had not had practiced but they did not stop Johnson from holding on to his world title for 26 rounds. In the 26 round Willard had given Johnson a knockout punch, at that point, Johnson was no longer champion. According to the Washington Post, some say it was intentional so the Justice Department would drop its case against him. They did not drop the case.After being on the run for seven years Johnson had finally turned himself in at the Mexican border, he had severed his year-long sentence. Johnson came out a new man, he did not live the same life he did as a champion. His interaction with the public was limited to small fights and a campaign to promote war bonds during World War II. (washingtonpost.com,2016,3) These cases cost him his second marriage, they divorced due to his philandering. Just a year later the boxer had married Irene Pineau, they would remain together till he had died in 1946. (biography.com,2014,5)

A successful man as an individual and as one for the black community. Even when the odds were against him, the odds being white people, he always pushed to the top and come out successful. A night the white community had been waiting for on June 10, 1946, in Raleigh, North Caroline Johnson had died in an automobile accident. John Johnson will influence many young Africans Americans, that you can do anything you set your heart too. In 68 years of living he had accomplished many great things, the first African American world heavyweight champion then he also got inducted into the Boxing hall of fame in 1954. Johnson was a highly honored and successful boxer who deserved the his name to be cleared from false association of the Mann Act in 1910. Finally after years of fighting his name could be free, the people had finally got Johnson a Presidential Pardon for his violation of the Mann act in 1910. Unlike other presidents, Donald Trump did not overlook the situation but instead grant it for closure, in May 2018 Trump granted John a posthumous pardon. (biography.com, 2014,6) Johnson was a stepping stone for African Americans, he was breaking the mold. He would be the man African American athletes would look up to for multiple reasons. John Johnson had left a legacy that does not get the appreciation it deserves.

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” once said by Muhammad Ali when asked to describe his technique within the ring. Known as one of the most tremendous athletes of the 20th century but also was a philanthropist and social activist. (biography.com,2014,1) Muhammad Ali was originally born as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942 in Louisville,Kentucky. Grew up in the American South in the time of segregated public facilities living with both his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., his mother, Odessa Grady Clay and his one brother. His father supported the family but painting billboards and signs well his mother worked as a household domestic. (britannica.com,1)

At the young age of 12, Ali had discovered his passion, boxing, by fate. His bike had been stolen, Ali immediately went to police officer, Joe Martin. Ali had told Martin that he wanted to beat up the thief for stealing his bike. Martin said this, “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people.” Fate did it again, Martin was not only an police officer but he also trained young boxers at a local gym. Ali took the opportunity that was right in front of his face, in the next few years he worked with Martin to learn how to spar and then soon went onto boxing. A winner, Ali was announced the winner of his first amateur fight 1954 by a split decision. (biography.com,2014,4) Ali would then become unstoppable. Just two short years later he went on to win the Golden Gloves Tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class. Then in 1959, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions and then the AmateurAtkettice Unions national title for the light heavyweight class.

Muhammad Ali , a forced to be reckoned with, in 1960 had won a spot on the United States Olympic boxing team which then would allow him to travel to Rome, Italy. In Italy, Ali would go on to be successful and defeat Zbigniew Pietrzykowski from Poland to win the light heavyweight Olympic Gold medal. Standing at an astonishing 6’3’’, Ali was known for his fancy footwork and having lightning speed.(biography.com,2014,4)

Ali was a fighter, both figurative and literally but with that he was a lover. It is said to be that he was “more highly regarded for his charm and personality than for his ring skills” (britannica.com,1) He was very involved within the public by reading childlike poetry and spouting self-descriptive phrases.He was also a man of religion, he had converted to Sunni Islam at the fall of the nations leader, Elijah Muhammad.(washingtonpost.com,2017,1) Ali would go on to have 4 different spouses and a total of 9 children, which included 2 he took care of outside of the marriage. In 1964 he married Sonji Roi but just a short year later they would divorce because Roi refused to adopt the NAtion of Islam dress and customs. Then in 1967 he would go on to marry 17 year old Belinda Boyd, they would have 4 children together;3 girls and 1 boy. The fall of their relationship came when he travel openly with Veronica Porsche, who then would become his third wife in 1977. Porsche and Ali would go on to have 2 girls, they divorced in 1986. His final wife,Yolanda (Lonnie) in 1986, they would remain together until his death. They would have just one son together. (biography.com,2014,2/3)

After winning Gold at the 1960 Olympics, Ali just three years later then took out the British heavyweight champion, Henry Cooper. The next year 1964, he knocked out Sonny LIston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali was unstoppable, until 1971. After 31 professional wins, he had taken his first lost. In the 15th round Joe Frazier dropped Ali with a vicious left hook. Just three years later, after Frazier had lost to Ken Norton, Ali had come back to beat Frazier in a rematch. The rivalry continued, in 1975 they had met up again, this time Ali came out on top when Frazier’s trainer threw in the towel during the 14th round. . (biography.com, 2014,3)

For once in his life Ali was seen as the underdog to George Foreman who was both younger and massive. In 1974 Ali found himself in the ring against the undefeated heavyweight champion, George Foreman. He had silenced the critics with his performance in the ring, in the 8th round Ali had hit Foreman with a knockout punch to reclaim the heavyweight title. Ali had held onto the title for another 4 years but then lost it to Leon Spinks in February of that year but in that same year in September Ali had defeated him. That match was one of the most important matches for Muhammad Ali, that match made him the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship 3 times. After making history Ali took a little retirement, he came out of retirement to face Larry Holmes in 1980. He was to old, the younger Holmes had come out on top. After one final loss in 1981 to Trevor Berbick, Ali had officially retired at the age of 39. (biography.com, 2014,4)

Ali was more than successful in boxing but it had not always been easy for him. In 1967 Ali had refused induction into the U.S. Army at the peak of the Vietnam. He refused induction due to religious reasons, exemptions from military servies were available but not for Muhammad Ali because he had acknowledged that he would be willing to participate in an Islamic holy war. Ali’s title was stripped from him and he was not aloud to fight in the United States for three and a half years. He was also sentenced to five years of prison, he had completed four years then his convention was unanimously overturned by the U.S. SUpreme Court. It was not until 1970 Ali was allowed to go back to fighting. (britannica.com,3)

Not only was Ali an amazing boxer but his impact on American society was always growing. He had a sense of black pride and black resistance to white domination. Black activist Julian Bond later observed, “When a figure as herico and beloved as Muhammad Ali stood up and said ‘No, I won’t go’,it reerberayed through the whole society.” (britannica.com,3) At the end of his carrer Ali had 56 wins, 5 losses with 37 knockouts. That record has been matches but his skill and courage had put him on a plateau with boxing fighters. After retiring Ali’s heath had went downhill. He had damage to his brain caused by fighting which resulted in slurred speech, slowed movement and many other symptoms of Parkinson syndrome, but his was different in the fact that he did not suffer from injury-induced intellectual deficits. (britannica.com,3)

Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali had left a major impact not only on the sport of boxing but on people all around the world for ages to come. They both are prime examples of hard work pays off. With all the struggles of racial discrimination they did not let that stop them from being something amazing. If it was not for people such as Johnson and Ali, where would we be today?

Works Cited

  1. “Before Ali, There Was Jack Johnson’s Unforgivable Blackness.” Fightland, VICE, fightland.vice.com/blog/before-ali-there-was-jack-johnsons-unforgivable-blackness.
  2. Editors, History.com. “Muhammad Ali.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 16 Dec. 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/muhammad-ali.
  3. Hauser, Thomas. “Muhammad Ali.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Muhammad-Ali-boxer.
  4. “Jack Johnson.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 29 Jan. 2019, www.biography.com/people/jack-johnson-9355980.
  5. Kaplan, Sarah. “Jack Johnson, World’s First Black Boxing Champion, Was Jailed under Jim Crow. Will He Get a Posthumous Pardon?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Feb. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/05/jack-johnson-worlds-first-black-boxing-champion-was-jailed-under-jim-crow-will-he-get-a-posthumous-pardon/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cf5e3144f7e5.
  6. Mitchell, Kevin. “Jack Johnson Was a Pioneer Who Gave Hope to Black Boxers Everywhere | Kevin Mitchell.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 July 2010, www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2010/jul/04/jack-johnson-pioneer-black-boxer.