Boxing day belting: The fight that stirred the racial convictions of the nation

A heavyweight title fight in Sydney 110 years ago between African American Jack Johnson and Canadian Tommy Burns captured the racism of the time

Late in 1908, the day after Christmas, the African American boxer Jack Johnson finally got his opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title of the world. Until then, this title had been an exclusively white affair. The fight would take place in Sydney, Australia, home to the White Australia policy since 1901.

The world champion was the Canadian fighter Tommy Burns. He had evaded Johnson at every turn, choosing to fight one white contender three times rather than face the formidable black man, repeatedly telling the press, “all coons are yellow”. But Johnson refused to be ignored. He followed Burns all over the world – from San Francisco to New York, from Paris to London and finally to Sydney. The press called him a “buck nigger” and chided him for “gross and overbearing insolence”. But Johnson would not be denied, or cowed. As film-maker Ken Burns put it, in his documentary Unforgivable Blackness (2004), “when whites ran everything, Jack Johnson took orders from no one”.

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