John Arthur Johnson, (born March 31, 1878, Galveston, Texas, U.S.—died June 10, 1946, Raleigh, N.C.), was an American boxer who was the first African American to become heavyweight champion. He is considered by many boxing observers to be one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Johnson fought professionally from 1897 to 1928 and engaged in exhibition matches as late as 1945. He won the title by knocking out champion Tommy Burns in Sydney on December 26, 1908, and lost it on a knockout by Jess Willard in 26 rounds in Havana on April 5, 1915. Until his fight with Burns, racial discrimination had limited Johnson’s opportunities and purses. When he became champion, a hue and cry for a “Great White Hope” produced numerous opponents.
At the height of his career, the outspoken Johnson was excoriated by the press for his flashy lifestyle and for having twice married white women. He further offended white supremacists in 1910 by knocking out former champion James J. Jeffries, who had been induced to come out of retirement as a “Great White Hope.” The Johnson-Jeffries bout, which was billed as the “Fight of the Century,” led to nationwide celebrations by African Americans that were occasionally met by violence from whites, resulting in more than 20 deaths across the country.
In 1913 Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act by transporting a white woman—Lucille Cameron, his wife-to-be—across state lines for “immoral purposes.” He was sentenced to a year in prison and was released on bond, pending appeal. Disguised as a member of a black baseball team, he fled to Canada; he then made his way to Europe and was a fugitive for seven years.
He defended the championship three times in Paris before agreeing to fight Willard in Cuba. Some observers thought that Johnson, mistakenly believing that the charge against him would be dropped if he yielded the championship to a white man, deliberately lost to Willard. From 1897 to 1928 Johnson had 114 bouts, winning 80, and 45 by knockouts.
In 1920 Johnson surrendered to U.S. marshals; he then served his sentence, fighting in several bouts within the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. After his release he fought occasionally and performed in vaudeville and carnival acts, appearing finally with a trained flea act. He wrote two books of memoirs, Mes Combats (in French, 1914) and Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out (1927; reprinted 1975). He died in an automobile accident.
In the years after Johnson’s death, his reputation was gradually rehabilitated. His criminal record came to be regarded as more a product of racially motivated acts than a reflection of actual wrongdoing, and members of the U.S. Congress—as well as others, notably actor Sylvester Stallone—attempted to secure for Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon, which is exceedingly rare. After hearing about Johnson from Stallone, Pres. Donald Trump officially pardoned the boxer in 2018.
Johnson’s life story was lightly fictionalized in the hit play The Great White Hope (1967; filmed 1970), and he was the subject of Ken Burns’s documentary film Unforgivable Blackness (2004). Johnson was a member of the inaugural class of inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.