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The Day in Sports | Countdown to 2000 / A day-by-day
recap of some of the most important sports moments
of the 20th Century: APRIL 5, 1915

After Loss to Cowboy, a Roundup for Johnson

April 05, 1999|EARL GUSTKEY

In a boxing ring built on a Cuban race track near Havana, a 6-foot-6 Kansas Cowboy named Jess Willard knocked out America's first world-famous black athlete, Jack Johnson, to win the world heavyweight championship.

The fight had to be held in Cuba because Johnson was a champion on the lam. He'd been sentenced to prison in 1913 on trumped-up charges that he'd violated the Mann Act--transporting a female across a state line for immoral purposes--but had fled to Europe.

Since July 4, 1910, when Johnson had easily beaten the highly popular (and white) ex-champion, Jim Jeffries, promoters scoured the country, looking for something they called "The Great White Hope."

They picked Willard, who didn't have much of a record, 6-4. But Johnson was now 37, overweight, and promoter Jack Curley felt he could be overpowered by the hulking Willard, 34.

Johnson was eager for the match. He was broke, the $110,500 he'd earned for beating Jeffries long gone.

But it couldn't be in the United States. Johnson was a wanted man. Juarez, Mexico, was the first site picked. . . . until Mexican rebel Pancho Villa demanded a cut of the action.

And so it went to Cuba, where thousands of Americans arrived on steamers from New Orleans and Key West. Ticket prices were $3 to $25.

Johnson weighed in at 225, 13 more than when he beat Jeffries. Willard was 238.

The temperature that day was 103 degrees, and in the 26th round, Willard lunged at Johnson and caught him with a right to the jaw, sending him to the floor. He rolled over on his back, and was counted out.

Many--including Johnson--later claimed he took a dive, and there remains the telling photo of Johnson shielding his eyes from the sun with his forearm.

He threw it, he claimed, as part of a deal made with the federal government, which, supposedly, would drop charges against him. Later, he always claimed, he was double-crossed.

Johnson, in 1920, surrendered to the Feds at Tijuana and served his year's sentence at Leavenworth. Willard, after the fight, quickly became the richest athlete in American history, earning about $650,000 in 1917 in vaudeville appearances.

Johnson died in 1946, Willard in 1968.

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