By Allan Fox: Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was officially pardoned on Thursday afternoon by President Donald Trump for his 1913 conviction for violating the Mann Act. Sylvester Stallone, the actor famous for his ‘Rocky’ movies, is said to have contacted Trump to urge him to pardon the late Johnson.
In the past, attempts to pardon Johnson had become bogged down in congress. There was a chance for U.S President Barack Obama to pardon Johnson, but he failed to. It’s surprising that it took 105 years for Johnson to be finally pardoned.
“I am taking this very righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history and to honor a truly legendary boxing champion,” Trump said today after signing the pardon of Johnson. “It’s my honor to do it. It’s about time.”
WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, former champion Lennox Lewis and actor Sylvester Stallone were all present at the time of Trump’s signing of the pardon of the late Johnson.
Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury for violating the Man Act in June 2013. Johnson was given a one-year prison sentence. Johnson chose to leave the U.S on June 25, departing to Canada before moving to France. Johnson defended his World title twice while in France, fighting Jim Johnson to a 10 round draw in December 2013 and then beating Frank Moran by a 20 round decision on June 27, 1914.
Johnson held the World heavyweight title from 1908 to 1915. Johnson lost the title to the 6’6” Jess Willard by a 26th round knockout on April 5, 1915 in Havana, Cuba. It’s believed by some boxing fans that Johnson intentionally threw the fight, as he had dominated Willard for most of the fight. What made some fans feel that Johnson had thrown the fight was how he shielded his eyes from the sun after being knocked down with a right hand from Willard. Johnson’s legs were bent after being knocked on the canvas. Moments later, Johnson’s legs went limp but he still covered his eyes from the sun. It looked to some that Johnson faked the knockout. We’ll never know for certain whether Johnson threw the fight or if he was legitimately knocked out. What we can say is Johnson did not look good condition for the fight. The size difference between the two heavyweights was substantial. Johnson looked like a small, out of shape cruiserweight fighting a large heavyweight. It’s possible that Willard’s size and youth advantage was too much for an out of shape, inactive Johnson. In the early rounds of the fight, Johnson wasn’t trying to tee off on Willard the way that Jack Dempsey did four years later on July 4, 1919. In contrast to how Johnson looked, the 24-year-old Dempsey was in excellent condition. Dempsey wasn’t living abroad like Johnson, and he was all the time. For example, Dempsey fought 21 times in 1918, the year before facing Willard in 1919. Johnson fought only two times in 1914, and he wasn’t the trim in shape fighter that had beaten James J. Jeffries in 1910. It’s not that Johnson got older. He clearly wasn’t training hard enough after he left the U.S to go abroad to escape being sent to prison.
After being out of the U.S for seven years, Johnson returned to the U.S in 1920, and he was sent to Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas. Johnson was in prison for 10 months until July 9, 1921.
Johnson became famous for being the first black heavyweight champion after beating Tommy Burns by a 14 round decision to win the World heavyweight title in December 2008. Two years later, Johnson stopped former world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries in the 15th round in the ‘Fight of the Century’ on July 4, 2010. Jeffries had come out of retirement after being out of boxing for six years. Jefferies had ballooned to over 300 pounds in retirement, and he had to work hard to get back down to his old fighting weight of 225lbs, which he did, but he was no match for the younger, quicker and more athletic Johnson. It was a mismatch that took place in front of a large group of 20,000 fans in Reno, Nevada. Johnson received a payday of $65,000 for the Jeffries fight. That was good money back then. This is the fight that Johnson is perhaps most remembered for, as received a huge amount of attention at the time.
Johnson was killed in an automobile accident on June 10, 1946, near Franklinton, North Carolina. Johnson was 68 at the time of his death.
With Johnson being convicted of the Mann Act during the height of his career, we’ll never know how good he would have been. Having to leave the U.S to escape punishment, Johnson’s life was turned upside down in his best years. It’s quite possible Johnson would have been still in his prime when Jack Dempsey emerged in 1919. That would have been an exciting fight to see those two go at it. Dempsey vs. Jack Johnson would have been an incredible fight.
While incarcerated in Leavenworth, Johnson fought four times, beating Jack Townsend, Joe Boykin, Farmer Lodge and Jack Thompson. After being released from prison, Johnson resumed his career in 1923 in beating Farmer Lodge by a 4th round knockout in Havana, Cuba. Johnson never competed for a world title again. By 1926, Johnson, then 48, was a mere shadow of his former glory. He suffered six consecutive defeats from 1926 to 1931. Johnson fought for the final time in an exhibition match against John Ballcort on November 27, 1945. He was 67-years-old. A year later, Johnson was killed in an automobile accident on June 10, 1946.