With every elapsing year since his death in 1946, Jack Johnson’s name became further entrenched in boxing archives. After all, Johnson fought a century ago and his noteworthy accomplishment as the sport’s first African-American heavyweight champion was overshadowed by his dominant personality during a strict segregated period.
But for close to 15 years, Johnson’s history surfaced periodically thanks to a legion of supporters, intent on overturning his conviction of violating a draconian law in early 20th century U.S. justice linked to the fighter. Consequently, Johnson was not completely an afterthought as a move to clear his name intensified.
Last Thursday, Johnson made headlines again. In a White House ceremony, President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned Johnson, absolving him of breaking a law related to interracial marriage.
Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, reigning heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder and actor Sylvester Stallone flanked Trump as he signed the pardon.
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“I believe Jack Johnson is a worthy person to receive a full pardon and in this case a posthumous pardon,” Trump said. “I am taking this righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history and to honor a legendary boxing champion and legendary athlete.”
Johnson lived in an era when even his status as heavyweight champion was not acceptable in a segregated society. Moreover, Johnson flaunted his talents, dated interracially and eventually married white women.
“What Trump did was way overdue,” said Miami boxing historian and author Enrique Encinosa, who chronicled Johnson’s title-losing fight against Jess Willard in Havana 103 years ago in his book ‘Hard Leather: A History of Cuban Boxing.’ “As arrogant and problematic as Johnson was, the law was created to target him.”
Although Johnson only made seven title defenses, his six-year run as champion is sixth-longest among heavyweights. After his conviction in 1913, Johnson fought overseas the next 13 years.
Johnson returned to the U.S. and served a 10-month prison sentence. He continued fighting until 1931, retiring with a record of 56-11-8, with 35 knockouts.
“It’s a very subjective thing but he ranks up there with the heavyweight greats,” Encinosa said. “At the peak of his career, nobody could beat him.
“In the context of his time, Johnson was considered a rebel. What he was accused of and sent to prison for is something two consenting adults do in contemporary times.”
AROUND THE RING
Rematches of close first bouts rarely extend past a year but Abner Mares doesn’t mind that his second fight against Leo Santa Cruz will occur nearly three years later.
Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs) will seek to avenge majority decision loss to Santa Cruz in August 2015 when they fight for Santa Cruz’s World Boxing Association featherweight title June 9 at the Staples Center in LosAngeles.
“I trained well for the first fight but I got tired toward the end of the fight,” Mares said. “I got desperate and frustrated at times and it took a toll on my body. Now we’re here and I’m happy to have my chance at redemption.”
An important reason why Mares, 32, believes he will win the rematch is the trainer who has guided him in his past two fights. Robert Garcia took over Mares’ corner following the Santa Cruz fight and has guided him to victories over Jesus Cuellar and Andres Gutierrez.
“I’m confident because I have such an experienced trainer in my corner,” Mares said. “I’m just trying to be the student to his master teachings and absorb everything he tells me. I’m always asking him to push me and tell me when he needs more of me.”