Autographed postcard of boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. The back of the card reads, “Given to Verna Deckard in 1931.”
Sammy Sanders trained with Jack Johnson in 1944. (Photo by Jason Lewis)
Former Johnson trainee remembers him as a trailblazer
Sammy Sanders might be the last living person to be trained by legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and he does not want people to forget that Johnson was a trailblazer who opened the door for many blacks to enter into boxing.
Sanders, 83, trained under Johnson in the summer of 1944, and even lived with the champ during this time in Chicago. Johnson had a profound effect on Sanders, and he does not want anybody to forget the champ’s legacy.
“Johnson fought in the first integrated match ever, and he was the first black heavyweight champion,” Sanders said. “Not too many people know about that.”
Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier in 1947 by becoming the first black baseball player in the modern era when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson is a trailblazer and a very important figure in the integration of sports, but at times it is forgotten that Johnson did that in boxing over 40 years earlier.
“Before Johnson they wouldn’t even let black people in the same arena, let alone the same ring,” Sanders said.
During Johnson’s era boxing was one of the most popular sports, along with baseball and horse racing. A black man reigning as champion gave pride to black people across the nation, and enraged white America.
Sanders has fond memories of Johnson and remembers the champ in ways that most people do not.
“He only had a 4th grade education, but if you heard him talk, you’d think he talked like a college professor,” Sanders said.
Sanders also remembers Johnson being very flamboyant and outgoing, driving around in his Lincoln Continental.
Johnson’s boxing style was patient and defensive in the early rounds, and over the course of the fight he became more aggressive. Often he punished his opponents rather than knock them out. He would easily avoid his opponents punches and he would strike with swift counters.
By 1902 Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. He won his first title in 1903 when he won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship, but he was unable to become the world heavyweight champion because James J. Jeffries, the white champion, refused to fight him.
At that time period black and white boxers fought in competitions, but never for the world heavyweight championship. That was only for white fighters.
Johnson did not get his chance at the world heavy weight title until 1908, when he defeated Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia.
White America was so enraged that a black man held the title that there was a call for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson.
In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion Jeffries came out of retirement because he felt obligated to the public to reclaim the title for the white race.
Jeffries was quoted as saying “I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”
The fight took place on July 4 in front of 20,000 people in Reno, Nevada, and was billed as “The Fight of the Century.”
In the 15th round Jeffries had been knocked down twice, the first knockdowns of his career. His corner men stopped the fight before Johnson could knock him out.
Johnson’s victory caused race riots all over the country.
Johnson became a legend, and Sanders does not want people to forget about him.
To help keep Johnson’s memory alive, Sanders will hold an annual boxing exhibition, the first one being on September 25th at Zoe Christian Fellowship on West Adams Blvd.
The exhibition will feature young boxers from the Los Angeles area, where Sanders has lived since 1951.
“As long as I live I’m going to do something to honor him for the rest of my life because he paved the way for a lot of black people,” Sanders said.