SFCentric History: The First Black Heavyweight Champ Trained in SF
San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a new column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco.
Muhammed Ali. Joe Louis. Larry Holmes. Mike Tyson. George Foreman. These incredible fighters are household names and legends in the boxing world. But do you now who the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world was? The man Ali called the greatest? His name was John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, and he trained, fought, and won right here in San Francisco.
Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, but a job as a carriage painter with boxing fan Walter Lewis taught him how to fight and set him on the road to greatness. He was already a professional boxer in 1901, when fellow boxer Joe Choynski, a San Francisco native known as “The California Terror,” traveled to Galveston to take on the confident fighter. Choynski knocked out “The Galveston Giant” in the fight, but wasn’t able to celebrate his win. As both mixed-race fights and prizefighting were illegal in those days, Choynski and Johnson were promptly arrested and jailed for almost a month. During that time, the two became friends, and Choynski taught Johnson all he knew about the art of boxing.
When Jack Johnson would fight in the Bay Area, he would train at the Seal Rock House at Ocean Beach. According to the book The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914, the locale “abutted rolling hills ideal for long-distance running,” and was accessible by streetcar, “which helped draw larger crowds to the open workouts that served as teasers for whetting interest in the [boxing] event.” His training program, detailed in the book Hometown San Francisco, was on “a circuit that went south on Ocean Beach, east on Sloat Boulevard, north on Nineteenth Avenue and then back to the beach through Golden Gate Park.”
The San Francisco Call would cover his career, but it was a mix of compliments and blatant racism. Jack Johnson believed in his talent, however, and didn’t care what anyone–black or white–thought about him. He fired his white managers when he wanted to, raced his car through Golden Gate Park in his free time, didn’t act humble around white people, dated and married white women, and was determined to be able to fight for the heavyweight title (white heavyweight champions would never fight against black boxers in this weight class at this time). He was already the World Colored Heavyweight champ, a title he won in 1903, but he wanted the ultimate title. In 1908, Jack Johnson shocked the world when he became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, defeating (a white) Tommy Burns in Australia.
Photo: San Francisco Call/California Digital Newspaper Collection
Photo: Vice Fightland
“For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth,” Ken Burns said in his documentary on the champion. Jack Johnson remained the champ for 2,151 days. His professional record was:
73 Wins (40 knockouts, 30 decisions, and 3 disqualifications), 13 Losses (7 knockouts, 5 decisions, and 1 disqualification), 10 Draws, and 5 No Contests
Here are all the professional fights Jack Johnson had in the Bay Area:
- vs Hank Griffin on December 27, 1901 in Oakland. Draw.
- vs Joe Kennedy in Oakland on March 7, 1902. Won by knockout.
- vs George Gardinier in San Francisco on October 31, 1902. Won by decision.
- vs Sandy Ferguson in Colma on December 11, 1903. Won by decision.
- vs Sam McVey in San Francisco on April 22, 1904. Won by knockout.
- vs Marvin Hart in San Francisco on March 28, 1905. Loss by decision.
- vs Jim Flynn in San Francisco on November 6, 1907. Won by knockout.
- vs Al Kaufman in San Francisco on September 9, 1909. Won by decision.
- vs Stanley Ketchel in Colma on October 16, 1909. Won by knockout.