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History was to be made on this momentous day in 1908. For the first time ever in boxing history a black man was to fight for the World Heavyweight Championship. Sure black men were allowed to fight for lesser weight titles but not the biggest prize in sports.
Jack Johnson was born in 1878 in Galveston Texas. As a child he had various jobs such as a potato peeler and sponge fisherman and he had been fighting since the age of 12 years. He hitchhiked through the USA in search of a living.
Gradually Johnson made progress through the ranks. He had to be content at the time with fighting the other black boxers of his day. Fighters such as Sam McVey, Joe Jeanette and Sam Langford.
When James J Jeffries give up the title in 1905 Marvin Hart and Jack Root were nominated to fight for the vacant title by Jeffries himself. The fight was stopped in the 12th in favour of Hart. This give way to a man called Noah Brusso alias Tommy Burns and in February 1906 he beat Hart over 20 rounds in LA to capture the title. Burns then proceeded to take on all comers and travelled round the world to do it. However there was one man he wouldn’t face and that was Jack Johnson.
Johnson proceeded to follow Burns all over the world purchasing a ringside ticket to each of Tommys defences. Whilst there he would taunt the champion. When seeing both men in action someone commented that Johnson was Burns master. Johnson was ecstatic over the public pressure and Burns visibly shaken.
The National Sporting Club in London were keen to match Johnson and Burns and offered a purse of £2,500 with the winner taking £2,000. Johnson was happy with that but Burns wanted £6,000 win lose or draw. If the National Sporting Club were not prepared to meet Burns terms Hugh McIntosh of Sydney certainly was.
For weeks the arguments raged back and forth but eventually Burns agreed to fight Johnson for the title..Johnson wanted and got Hugh McIntosh to referee the fight commenting that it was the only white man he trusted. Burns was guaranteed £7,500 which was the greatest sum ever offered to a fighter at that time. The fight was made for December 26th 1908.
20,000 people packed Rushcutters Bay on that Boxing Day in 1908. Jack Johnson was first in the ring and received a good reception. He had a 5 and a half inch height advantage over the Canadian champion. Johnsons intention was to dictate the fight from the start. When the fighters broke from a clinch in Round 1 Johnson smashed a tremendous right swing towards Burns unprotected jaw and Burns went down for a count of 8. Johnson proceeded to taunt Burns. “Poor old Tahmmy” he would say as Burns lunged willdy at him.
This became the pattern of the fight as Johnson was continually taunt the champion. He would flash his gold toothed grin to the crowd as he beat Burns to a pulp. He would invite Tommy to hit him and would actually allow him to land a couple of blows. In fact a sports writer covering the fight commented that not one second of one round could legitimately be scored for Burns.
The bell sounded to start the fourteenth round and Johnson was intent of ending it. He eventually opened up and proceeded to smash Burns with every shot in the book. Uppercuts and hooks rained in on the defenceless champion and even the most bloodthirsty members of the crowd were calling for the fights end. It came as no surprise when the police saw fit to stop the fight. Jack Johnson was awarded the title on the spot.
Burns was effectively finished at that point. Yes he would fight again but never got the chance to become champion again. Johnson however would reign for a further 6 and a half years.
By Lee Bellfield
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