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Jack Johnson..."Bad Nigger" 

by Tracy Callis

Jack Johnson was the first black Heavyweight Champion and, as such, was the hero of his race. His ability in the ring is unquestioned, possibly unequalled. He could do it all, do it well, and do it with ease.

His personal conduct outside the ring (and many times within it) is a different matter. Modesty and humility were no part of this man. He was extremely arrogant and fun-loving and lived life at a reckless, carefree, helter-skelter, “get out of my way”, breakneck speed and manner. His behavior has been described as a public scandal and an irritant to white America. As a result, he was easily the most hated champion.

The effort to dethrone him brought about the search for the “Great White Hope” during his 1908-1915 reign and produced an array of talent that has rarely been matched in any other period. But, even they could not touch Johnson in his prime.

Johnson began a fight extremely cautious, quiet, and on the defensive (unless forced otherwise). As he slowly and surely turned the tide of battle his way, he became more aggressive and destructive in his style of fighting and abusive with his tongue. He preferred to “punish” his man rather than knock him out.

Jack gave the impression of holding back during a fight, never going all out, and never pushing to the limit. “Dumb” Dan Morgan said, “I had the feeling he could demolish an opponent any time he chose.”

Yes, he could get rough if he wanted. He cracked “Fireman” Jim Flynn’s jaw, broke Stanley Ketchel’s teeth off at the gum, and flattened Bob Fitzsimmons and left him glassy eyed and mumbling to himself. He “beat up” Sam Langford, breaking his nose in the process, and left an old Jim Jeffries in a battered heap.

He knocked Marvin Hart out of the ring, and knocked Tommy Burns down twice in the first two rounds, broke his nose, and then taunted him for the next twelve rounds before he got bored and finished him off.

Jack Dempsey described him as a combination of Jim Corbett and Joe Louis. Others say he was as vicious as Dempsey but faster; smarter and more powerful than Louis (see McCallum 1975 p 17).  

Durant and Bettmann (1952 p 123) stated, “There was no denying Johnson’s ability. He was a superb boxer with a punishing blow in either hand and was amazingly fast for a big man.”

Fleischer and Andre (1975 pp 85 86) described him as cautious, tantalizing and having great ring science. A fighter with the perfect stance, he was a master of feinting a punch and carried punishing power in his stiff jabs.

Cooper (1978 p 9) wrote, “Many a time, Johnson could have knocked the guy out. But, if his opponent was white he’d have to suffer.” He added (1978 p 17) “his main object in life was to put the white man in his place.” This writer believes that Johnson could have scored knockouts 75 percent of the time had he not chosen to carry or punish his man.

Lardner (1972 p 172) called him the grinning Negro whose delight was in whipping Caucasian fighters with taunts pouring from his mouth and described Johnson (1972 p 170), “He fought in a stand-up style, careful never to be caught off-balance … developed an effective snakelike left … and he fashioned the greatest right uppercut in prizefight history.”

Keith (1969 p 134) asserted that Johnson rarely shot lead punches but fought mostly with counter-blows. However, Odd (1974 p 22) said, “Jack’s skill at leading, picking his punches and whipping in precision blows was unequalled, so too was his uncanny ability to deflect punches aimed at him.”

He went on to say that Johnson could make a foe miss by a fraction of an inch by side-stepping or drawing his head back and called Johnson’s left jab straight and true, his right cross sheer artistry, and his uppercuts devastating.

Gutteridge (1975 p 94) stated, “Johnson was a master of defense. While his style gave the impression that he was toying with an opponent, he had an explosive leopard-like reflex which was often overwhelming.”

Houston (1975 p 20) wrote, “He was a master defensive boxer who tricked opponents into making errors. Johnson fought with his hands held low, but had such fast reflexes he could pick off a rival’s punches in mid-air.”  

He commented that Johnson’s cautious style made him unexciting to watch as he often grabbed his opponent and tied up his arms. Nevertheless, Jack was nearly unbeatable because it was so difficult to hit him cleanly. Because of his tormenting style, opponents lunged recklessly to hit him while he placed his counter blows.

Durant (1976 p 58) wrote, “… he was a genius in the ring. He was a flawless boxer with an almost perfect defense, and he could hit hard with either hand. A superb counter puncher, he was never off balance, always in a position to hit, and he was a master of the art of feinting. Many competent ring critics believe that he was the greatest fighter who ever lived.”

Carpenter (1975 p 45) said Johnson was the Muhammad Ali of his time and described him as having a super-ego with the boxing wizardry to back it up.

Bromberg (1958 p 32) reported, “In overall ring assay, some have called him the finest of the heavyweight champions. He had grace, know-how, and hitting power.”  

McCallum (1974 pp 65 73) described Johnson as having a bullet head, wide face, gold-toothed grin, with a magnificent physique and the arms and torso of a gorilla. His strength is considered to be similar to that of James J. Jeffries. McCallum also wrote (1975 p 17) that catfooted Johnson came about as close to being an unbeatable fighter as ever lived.

Durant (1976 p 58) quoted Nat Fleischer as saying, “In all-around ability he was tops. After years devoted to the study of heavyweight fighters, I have no hesitation in naming Jack Johnson as the greatest of them all. He possessed every asset” (also see Fleischer 1949 p 153).

Nat Fleischer ranked Johnson as the #1 All-Time Heavyweight. Charley Rose ranked Jack as the #2 All-Time Heavyweight. The Ring (1999, p 129) ranked him as the #9 All-Time Heavyweight and  The Ring (2000, p 128) ranked him as the #5 All-Time greatest fighter of the twentieth century (among all weight classes). In the opinion of this writer, Johnson was the #2 Heavyweight of all time.


Bromberg, L. 1958. World’s Champs. Retail Distributors, Inc.

Carpenter, H. 1975. Boxing : A Pictorial History. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Cooper, H. 1978. The Great Heavyweights. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books, Inc.

Durant, J. 1976. The Heavyweight Champions. New York: Hastings House Publishers.

Durant, J. and Bettmann, O. 1952. Pictorial History of American Sports. Cranbury, NJ: A.S. Barnes and Company.

Fleischer, N. 1949. The Heavyweight Championship. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Fleischer, N. and Andre, S. 1975. A Pictorial History of Boxing. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books.

Gilmore, A. T. 1975. Bad Nigger! The National Impact of Jack Johnson. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press Corp.

Gutteridge, R. 1975. Boxing : The Great Ones. London: Pelham Books Ltd.

Houston, G. 1975. SuperFists. New York: Bounty Books.

Keith, H. 1969. Sports and Games. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company

Lardner, R. 1972. The Legendary Champions. New York: American Heritage Press

McCallum, J. 1974. The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company.

McCallum, J. 1975. The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company.

Odd, G. 1974. Boxing : The Great Champions. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

The Ring. 1999. The 1999 Boxing Almanac and Book of Facts. Fort Washington, Pa: London Publishing Co.

The Ring. 2000. “The 20 Greatest Fighters of the 20th Century by William Detloff” contained in The 2000 Boxing Almanac and Book of Facts. Fort Washington, Pa: London Publishing Co.

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