Podcast: The "Galveston Giant," a Revolutionary Boxer Who Changed History

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The Galveston Giant: Jack Johnson was a revolutionary boxer whose legacy and influence still reverberates in the World of sports today. Born to formerly enslaved parents in Galveston in 1878, Johnson rose to fame as the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. Throughout his career, he faced racism and discrimination inside and outside the ring, but his determination and skill made him one of the most successful boxers in history. During his boxing career, he has been quoted to be the most famous and most notorious African-American on Earth. Despite the odds stacked against him, Johnson persevered and became an international boxing sensation.

Johnson stated about his upbringing in Galveston, “As I grew up, the white boys were my friends and my pals. I ate with them, played with them, and slept at their homes. Their mothers gave me cookies, and I ate at their tables. No one ever taught me that white men were superior to me.”

Johnson first started boxing as an amateur, participating in fights for money on the docks of Galveston, where he quickly gained a reputation for being an unstoppable fighter. After moving around the country for work, he eventually returned to Galveston, where he took a job as a janitor at a gym owned by German-born heavyweight fighter Herman Bernau.

He saved up to purchase boxing gloves and sparred whenever he could, knowing he would be a professional fighter. Johnson made his professional boxing debut in Galveston in 1898.

Prizefighting was illegal in Texas, and after a boxing match in 1901 against Joe Choynski, both Johnson and Choynski were arrested after Johnson was knocked out by the experienced Heavyweight in the third round of their fight in Galveston. Neither fighter could afford the $5,000 bail, so to be released each night, they agreed to spar in the jail cell for an audience. After 23 days, their bail was reduced, and they were released without being indicted. Johnson credited Choynski for teaching him the skills needed to be successful in boxing.

By 1903, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against White and Black contenders. Johnson’s rise to fame began with a 20-round match against Denver Ed Martin for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. He won the title, and his reputation as a showman and trash-talking his opponents began to grow. Johnson wanted to become the Heavyweight champion of the World.

Johnson set his sights on World Heavy Weight Champion Tommy Burns. Johnson followed Burns around the World, buying a ringside seat, and yelled insults and taunting remarks to Burns during his fights, slowly but surely coaxing Burns to agree to fight him. Tommy Burns agreed to a bout with Jack Johnson in December 1908 in Sydney, Australia, becoming the first fighter to hold a heavyweight championship bout with an African American. Despite receiving $30,000 for the fight, Burns was defeated in the 14th round as he could not land a punch or continue. Johnson was paid $5,000 for the fight.

Johnson’s 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries, dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” propelled him to national and international fame. He won the fight and silenced the critics who had belittled his previous victory over heavyweight Canadian Boxer Tommy Burns.

Though Johnson enjoyed success in the ring, his personal life was mired in controversy. He was known for his relationships with white women. He was arrested and convicted in 1913 for violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison but skipped bail and left the country. He returned to the U.S. in 1920 and served his sentence. Johnson continued boxing through the 1940s and was killed in a car accident in 1946 at the age of 68.

In 2018, President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned Johnson from his 1913 conviction.

Johnson’s influence on other boxers and athletes cannot be overstated. Muhammad Ali cited Johnson as a significant influence on his own career and activism. Johnson’s legacy of fighting in and out of the ring continues to inspire and influence boxers and athletes today.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."