Whenever someone talks about sports for Black History Month, there’s a nearly guaranteed reference to the black athlete who broke the ‘color barrier.” But there is a sport that’s always been able to thrive through the ignorance of society and include people of all backgrounds. Besides the nature of the sport (bashing your opponents’ brains and intestines in), boxing has always been a platform for the black man to escape his burdens and magnify his struggles. From Jack Johnson to Larry Holmes, boxing has the habit of reflecting the general attitudes and concerns of its generation.
The buildup and reactions to bouts that involved black boxers can repaint the socio-historical context of the fight. This couldn’t be any truer than in the ‘Fight of the Century” between Johnson and James Jefferies. Johnson was the first great black heavyweight champion in the world, but he had to box white America before others recognized him as the true champion. White Americans called for the ‘the Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson and reclaim the throne to the ‘superior race.” Jefferies, who retired as champion, was talked into returning after Johnson had a string of victories over white fighters. Jefferies vowed to return and prove that ‘the Negro” was inferior.
The ‘Fight of the Century” was fought in Reno, Nev. in front of 22,000 fans, a band playing ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me” and thousands of white Americans chanting, ‘Kill the Nigger.” In a long-fought 15 rounds, Johnson dropped Jefferies twice. The victory caused such uproar that riots and attempted lynchings broke out across the country.
Another black champion Joe ‘Brown Bomber” Louis faced a different kind of obstacle. He had to fight for a nation that hated his people.
In 1936, Louis fought against Germany’s Max Schmeling, and Jesse Owens silenced Adolf Hitler’s myth about the Aryan race. Hitler still continued to rave that the myth lived on after the lightly regarded Schmeling knocked out the undefeated and hard-hitting Louis in the 15th round.
In 1938, a monumental test of the Aryan race and its supposed superiority was scheduled at Yankee Stadium. Members of the Nazi Party made statements that the revenue Schmeling generated from his win would go to building German tanks. Prior to the fight, President Franklin Roosevelt told Louis that America needed men like him to beat the Germans. Louis then said, ‘We will win, because we’re on God’s side.”
Yankee Stadium was packed with 70,043 fans who anticipated a cataclysmic battle. But the battle turned into a one-sided match between a bear and a walking punching bag.
Louis used his iconic status and famous quote to recruit black men into the Army. He was also instrumental in helping Jackie Robinson and black soldiers move up in rank.
Louis and Johnson are American icons who left their footprints in American history books. Although boxing has lost its weight in society, it will always be seen as a sport where the black man lays out his burdens and silences societal critics. Today, Bernard Hopkins, Chad Dawson, Paul Williams and Shane Mosley carry the traditions.
Nathaniel is a member of the class of 2011.