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Did you know New Mexico once hosted a heavyweight championship fight? It was in Las Vegas, N.M. The colorful fight fell off my radar screen during our state’s centennial last year. But then-heavyweight champ Jack Johnson still is in the news so let’s talk about him now.
The fight was on July 4, 1912, just short of six months after New Mexico finally became a state on January 6. It was difficult for Johnson to find a fighting venue because he was the first black heavyweight champion. Most states wouldn’t allow an interracial fight. Most of his fights were held in Mexico, some in Canada and Europe and one in Australia.
The fight was known for being stopped in the ninth round by the local sheriff because Johnson’s opponent, fireman Jim Flynn, was fighting extremely dirty and the referee couldn’t handle the situation.
Johnson made it even tougher on himself because of his preference for white women. He had three wives, all white and many white girlfriends. His detractors constantly looked for a Great White Hope to take the championship away from Johnson.
They had no luck. Johnson was large, muscular, with very long arms and he was smart. After many years of trying, they found Jess Willard, who beat Johnson in the 25th round. Yes, they had very long fights in those days. I’ve heard of as many as 45 rounds. Many families named their new sons after Willard.
Johnson’s fondness for white women finally got him in big trouble. Not long after his Las Vegas fight, he was arrested for taking a girlfriend, whom he later married, across state lines. He was prosecuted under the Mann Act, which was designed to prevent prostitution. Under a very broad interpretation of the act, Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison.
It was that sentencing that has had lawmakers trying to get Johnson a presidential pardon. Four years ago, shortly after President Barack Obama took office, Sen. John McCain led a successful effort to get Congress to pass a resolution asking Obama to grant Johnson a presidential pardon. So far Obama has done nothing.
So now, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson has started an online petition to send to President Obama. Sen. McCain and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are assisting with an effort to recruit celebrities to sign the petition and make public statements in support of a pardon for Johnson.
Jack Johnson didn’t waste his time in prison. He fought some exhibition bouts and invented a gadget that he got patented. Still holding the championship, Johnson continued to fight after leaving prison. In fact, he fought for 48 years.
His first fight was in 1897 and his last was an exhibition at age 68. He fought three rounds each against two well-known heavyweights at a benefit to sell war bonds.
Johnson continued fighting in order to support an expensive lifestyle. He loved to lavish his riches on his women. He also loved fancy, fast cars. Once he was stopped for speeding and fined $50, a very stiff fine for the time. The policeman said he didn’t have the money to make change. Johnson said he would be coming back along the route later in the day at the same speed.
Johnson once challenged Barney Oldfield, the first Indianapolis champion, to a race. Oldfield beat him badly, dashing any hopes Johnson might have had about starting a racing career.
Jack Johnson only fought a black man once. It wasn’t much of a fight. He said he preferred beating white guys and he didn’t want to be known as just the black champion. Besides, he said, gate receipts were much better when he fought against whites.
Johnson was not the perfect gentleman, but he feared nothing in the Jim Crow era. He was unjustly sentenced and he paved the way for other black boxers.