Jack Johnson, an African American man born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, began a professional boxing career in 1897. At the turn of the 19th century, boxing was new on the commercialized sports scene and racial discrimination permeated the sport in both spectatorship and competition. Black boxers were often barred from competing in championship title matches. After much success, Johnson wanted to arrange a fight with reigning heavyweight champion James Jeffries, a white boxer. Jeffries, who refused to fight black boxers, turned Johnson down and retired undefeated in 1905.
Canadian boxer Tommy Burns replaced Jeffries as the heavyweight champion and, after being taunted by Johnson numerous times in previous fights, agreed to face him in an interracial match. On December 26, 1908, at 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds, Johnson defeated Burns convincingly in a 14-round match that had to be stopped by police. Officials deemed Johnson the winner by technical knockout, making him the first black heavyweight champion in boxing history.
Prompted by white supporters outraged by a black world champion, Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson for the heavyweight title. The undefeated Jeffries was nicknamed the “Great White Hope,” and racial tension was high leading up to the fight. Finally, on July 4, 1910, the anticipated showdown occurred in Reno, Nevada, in front of 20,000 spectators. Johnson retained the heavyweight title and shocked the nation when Jeffries, who had been knocked down twice, threw in the towel in the 15th round to avoid a knockout loss.