The day Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion
Johnson toyed with Tommy Burns before police stopped the fight in the 14th round
Jack Johnson could not have been less fazed by Tommy Burns. After years of Johnson buying ringside seats to taunt and humiliate the world heavyweight champion, here he was in rounds two through four with his back to Burns, talking to members of the crowd.
At one point, Johnson invited Burns, who had defended his title against 12 men leading up to this bout, to hit as hard as he possibly could. Johnson opened his arms as if to hug the man, who stood 7 inches shorter and 24 pounds lighter, and allowed him to hit him. Johnson barely flinched, and his point to Burns and the crowd was made loud and clear: He didn’t fear Burns, and this fight was going to end once he finally decided to actually fight.
On Dec. 26, 1908, at Rushcutters Bay just outside of Sydney, Australia, the boxing world welcomed its new heavyweight champion as the American beat the brakes off his Canadian counterpart to become the first African-American world heavyweight titleholder.
Police jumped into the ring in the 14th round to save Burns from further embarrassment and prevent the mostly white crowd of 50,000 from turning into a full riot.
“The fight? There was no fight,” Jack London wrote for the New York Herald. “No Armenian massacre could compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place today. The fight, if fight it could be called, was like that between a pygmy and a colossus.
“But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you! The White Man must be rescued.”
Burns held off fighting the Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World in the hopes of obtaining a sizable purse for the contest. And he got just that when promoter Hugh “Huge Deal” Macintosh approached him with a guaranteed $30,000 to defend his title against Johnson.
But from the opening bell, it became apparent that Burns was not going to win this fight. It really became a matter of how much he could minimize the scale of the loss. Johnson had so little respect for his opponent, he elongated his suffering.
When news hit of not only Burns’ loss but also the manner in which he was defeated, race riots erupted across the United States, along with lynchings.
Pleas similar to London’s call for former world champion Jeffries to come back for one last fight and return the title to a white man grew louder.
Jeffries, who had retired with an unbeaten record three years earlier, had said repeatedly that he would never fight Johnson. He reiterated this a month after Burns lost.
“Tommy Burns has his price — $30,000,” Jeffries said in a column criticizing Burns in the Scone Advocate. “Burns has sold his pride, the pride of the Caucasian race. … The Canadian never will be forgiven by the public for allowing the title of the best physical man in the world to be wrested from his keeping by a member of the African race.
“I refused time and again to meet Johnson while I was holding the title, even though I knew I could beat him. I would never allow a Negro a chance to fight for the world’s championship, and I advise all other champions to follow the same course. … All night long I was besieged with telegrams asking me to re-enter the ring. I answer them now as I have answered them hundreds of times: ‘I have fought my last fight.’ ”
A year and a half later, Jeffries attempted to “save the sport from Johnson” and found out over 15 rounds that he was not about that action. Johnson had his way with Jeffries until the challenger’s side threw in the towel in the 15th round on July 4, 1910.