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1908 Seventy-five Years Ago

July 2024
1min read

In Sydney, Australia, on December 26, Jack Johnson defeated the Canadian Tommy Burns for the heavyweight championship of the world before twenty-five thousand spectators. Burns had long avoided the fight, claiming as he did so that Johnson was “yellow” and had no chance. The thirty thousand dollars paid to Burns was the biggest purse in boxing history to that date; Johnson got five thousand dollars.

Johnson trained in Australia and puzzled sports fans by his methods. He did a great deal of road work and bag punching but little actual boxing. He also, to the wonder of all, outraced a kangaroo, caught and subdued a greased razorback pig, and ran a jack-rabbit, considered the last word in animal speed, to death. (The kangaroo had also died of exhaustion.) In spite of these triumphs over the animal kingdom, Burns was the favorite of the bettors.

It was no contest. Johnson reported that Burns’s blows “had no strength and I do not recall that they as much as stung me. … I hit him at will.” Each man taunted the other verbally while it lasted: Johnson’s “You ain’t showed me nothing yet, ” after a flurry by Burns, has come down through the years. The police stopped it in the fourteenth round.

Jack London was there, reporting for the New York Herald , and unleashed a torrent of purple prose. “The fight!—There was no fight! No Armenian massacre could compare to the hopeless slaughter … a pygmy and a colossus … a playful Ethiopian at loggerheads with a small white man … a funeral with Burns for the late deceased, Johnson for the undertaker …”

London concluded with a plea that Jim Jeffries “must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you.” The search for the Great White Hope was on.

Burns blew his thirty grand at the racetrack within a week. After some undistinguished fights, he found God, became a preacher, and described himself as a “paratrooper of the Lord.”

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