You’ve seen the old films of his fights, or, if you haven’t, you can find scads of them on YouTube or other online video platforms. The muscular, black southerner, the undisputed heavyweight champion, who spoke out so eloquently and openly against racial discrimination in the United States, was an in-your-face athlete became known world-wide as someone who combined politics and race relations with popular sport.
The Champ was somewhat of an enigma. To be involved in such a serious sport, he joked in and out of the ring. He taunted his opponents as well as out-classed them in fights. He would smile as he pummeled the poor saps who faced him, pummeled them into submission. Throughout almost 100 fights he took part in during his career, the Champ angered those white segregationists/racists every time he defeated another white fighter. The fact that he smiled when he won his fights rubbed salt into the wounds of the racists. They felt that if this black man could beat white fighters, then perhaps their ideas of white racial superiority were wrong.
His record included over 1/3 of his fights ending with him knocking out the opponent. He held the heavyweight crown across seven years–an almost unheard of time length in the sport. This dominance as well as his outspokenness and his in-your-face attitude combined with the winning personality he exhibited made him, as one historian has said, almost criminally black in the eyes of racist whites.
And it didn’t endear him to many Americans that he was so outspoken against the prosecution of what he saw as an unjust war overseas. The way the Champ saw it, he had nothing worth fighting about with those the US government–a government that denied him civil rights by the way–called the enemies of freedom. So, he sat the war out. That made people question his patriotism.
Yet, to many young black people, the Champ gave voice to their frustrations with the American system and, at the same time, voiced their pride in the accomplishments of African-Americans during last century.
In fact such was his influence that, in later years, one of his greatest fans, Muhammad Ali, called Jack Johnson, who was champ from 1908-1915, one of his life’s major inspirations.