On December 26, 1908, American boxer Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, after defeating defending champion Tommy Burns in a title fight in Sydney, Australia. Black fighters were typically denied the chance to win the heavyweight title, a de facto line of segregation that was known as “the color line.” So when Burns accepted Johnson’s challenge and lost, the film of the fight proved controversial.
The white boxing world set out to find a white heavyweight to beat Johnson and take back the title. That white fighter ended up being James Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who had retired undefeated.
The fight between Johnson and Jeffries, hyped as the “Battle of the Century,” took place in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, in front of 20,000 mostly white spectators and nine motion picture cameras. Throughout the nation, many thousands more listened to live telegram bulletins of each round. Johnson beat Jeffries easily, and, as a result, racist mob violence broke out across the country; Black Americans celebrating Johnson’s win were attacked, and some were killed.
The film of the fight became notorious worldwide and was the most talked-about motion picture of its time. Johnson lost the heavyweight title in 1915 after successfully defending it eight times and remained an inspiration for many fighters to come.