A new weight class
By far the most important boxing event of the new century’s first decade was the rise of the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, known as “the Galveston Giant.” By force of his personality and the racism of the time, he indirectly set an example for another heavyweight champion just as controversial sixty years later. That boxer was Muhammed Ali.
It was the turn of a new century. President Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House a pushing his progressive Square Deal. In football, the first Rose Bowl was played and in baseball, the first World Series took place between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903. That same year, the Wright Brothers flyer, took off from Kitty Hawk and a new era was begun.
James J Jeffries ruled the heavyweights until he retired undefeated in 1904. Marvin Hart, a largely forgotten boxer of the era then claimed the crown with a win over Jack Root. He then lost the title to Tommy Burns, the shortest (5’7”) heavyweight champion in history. Burns was a very good fighter, but is primarily remembered today as the man who lost the title to Jack Johnson in Sydney, Australia on December 6, 1908.
Since Johnson was an African American and the first man of his race to hold the heavyweight crown, an ugly era of racism followed. White men asked “how could a negro be the World Heavyweight Champion? Jack Johnson could and did, beating several “white hopes” including Jim Jeffries before finally losing to Jess Willard in 1915.
In 1903 a new weight division, the light heavyweights was formed because of the weight discrepancy between the unlimited heavyweight class (Jim Jeffries regularly came in at over 220 pounds) and the middleweight division with a weight limit at the time of 165 pounds. Notable light heavyweights of the era were Bob Fitzimmons, Jack Root, George Gardner and Philadelphia Jack O’Brian. Two great middleweights, star-crossed Stanley Ketchel and Billy Papke dominated the decade.
Joe Walcott, known as the “Barbados Demon” an Afro-Caribbean was the dominant welterweight of the decade when people of African descent began to gain prominence in the world of pugilism. Other outstanding African Americans were Joe Gans, Sam Langford and Jack Johnson.
More excerpts from this book coming soon! Stay tuned.