While Jack Johnson is probably the most famous black fighter of the early twentieth century, the white hegemony in boxing started to flake at the edges almost 10 years before his debut. While the colour bar and segregationist statutes in America stopped many black boxers from contesting title fights against white competitors, the last decade of the nineteenth century nonetheless saw a man named George Dixon become the first black world boxing champion in any weight class. Originating from Halifax, Nova Scotia, he was also the first ever Canadian-born boxing champion, knocking out British fighter Nunc Wallace in London – hence bypassing American segregation laws – to become the undisputed bantamweight champion of the world in the summer of 1890. Despite standing at just over 5"3, he was a formidable puncher and canny strategist who would go on to become featherweight champion a year later, and so make a little-discussed slice of boxing history. Owing partly to his slim build and small stature, he was nicknamed 'Little Chocolate'.
Of course, Dixon's height was not the only reason for his nickname. He could just as easily have been nicknamed 'Babyface' for his boyish features, but in the end the deciding factor was the colour of his skin. Racial epithets were enormously popular in the early days of organised boxing, and ethnicity was often used to sell fights at a time when racism in the USA and colonial Europe was prevalent in the form of pseudoscience, philosophy and government policy. This was never more obvious than it was for Jack Johnson, whose stellar career was defined by the American press, promoters and the boxing fraternity as being a case of black against white.
As one of the biggest-punching heavyweights of all time – and one of the cleverest and most innovative boxers of his era, to boot – Johnson should have been celebrated for his athleticism, power and masterful counter-punch boxing. Instead, he was relentlessly marketed as a representative of black America, and increasingly so in the run up to his fight with British former world champion Bob Fitzsimmons. Having knocked Fitzsimmons out in two rounds in July 1907, Johnson finally got his crack at a world title when he fought Canadian Tommy Burns in Australia. Johnson had fruitlessly pursued the undefeated champ James J. Jeffries prior to that, but his white rival had refused to fight him. After two years of following Tommy Burns and cajoling him doggedly, Johnson and his representatives persuaded the Ontario native to fight him in Sydney, when a brutal 14-round bout resulted in his becoming the first black heavyweight champ on earth.
This ignited a bonfire of racial tensions back home in the USA, where segregation and de jure racism in the Southern states in particular – not to mention the tensions of the North-South divide and the economic and social legacies of slavery – made Johnson's world-beating status a suppurating sore point for a significant number of white Americans. While Johnson was generally known as 'The Galveston Giant' owing to his roots in Galveston, Texas, he now came to be addressed in the press with a variety of racial epithets which were unsavoury even by the standards of the day. His white opponents were given an epithet of their own, with the term 'The Great White Hope' coming into popular usage to denote the next challenger to Johnson's world title. He famously went on to defeat James J. Jeffries in 'The Fight of the Century' after his unbeaten nemesis came out of retirement, with widespread race riots erupting in the aftermath along with celebrations among black communities who saw his victory as a symbolic win for them.
The truth is that, in a purely cynical sense and regardless of the carnage in the aftermath, the pitting of Johnson against the idea of 'The Great White Hope' was one of the most effective marketing strategies in the history of mankind. The racial epithets used on both sides helped to generate humongous interest in Johnson's fights, with his career becoming more a feverish social phenomenon than a series of boxing matches. While there were many who sincerely bought into the concept of 'The Great White Hope' at the time, the promoters who organised Johnson's bouts must have realised that – as well as being racist – it was an enormously lucrative notion. Whether the man himself ever saw his fights as symbolic of emancipation and greater equality is a topic of fierce debate, with some accusing him of forsaking his community and helping to maintain boxing's colour bar in spite of his own battle with discrimination.
There were certainly many black boxers who Johnson refused to allow a title shot, among them Sam Langford, a Canadian-born fighter who had relocated to Massachusetts. Langford had one of the most overtly racist nicknames of the era, with venues billing him as 'The Boston Tar Baby'. With contemporaries like Klondike and Harry Wills known by names such as 'The Black Hercules' and 'The Black Panther' respectively, racial naming customs were the unfortunate norm among black boxers in America, both professional and amateur. Allusions to Classical mythology and the animal kingdom were most likely attempts by promoters to play up to stereotypes about black fighters, and to present them as somehow foreign and exotic. Meanwhile, nicknames like Langford's seem intended both to belittle and sensationalise the fighter, using race in a tawdry effort to exploit the prejudices of the crowd.
While ethnicity would never again be used with quite the same explosive effect as it was with Johnson, racial epithets would continue to be used to characterise American fighters. The next black heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis, was most commonly known as the 'Brown Bomber', though the American press went to town with the racist nicknames and also labelled him 'The Mahogany Mauler', 'The Chocolate Chopper' and 'The Safari Sandman', among other things. While some would argue this was a paternalistic form of racism not out of keeping with the norms and mores of the thirties, there were clearly still many promoters and journalists who felt that the best way to sell Louis' fights would be to obsessively emphasise his colour. His fights also came to the looming backdrop of World War II, with his 1935 defeat of Italian champion Primo Carnera – built up by the media to be an emblem of Benito Mussolini's fascism – seen as a symbolic victory for Africa after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia that year.
Joe Louis was born in Alabama, and was meant to have had white and Cherokee antecedents as well as African-American heritage. What he made of being presented as a champion of Africa, only he could say. A similar dynamic to the Carnera bout emerged in his two fights with German heavyweight Max Schmeling, who despite his own passive resistance to the Nazi Party was used for the purposes of nationalist propaganda. When Schmeling beat Louis in their first bout in 1936, the Nazis used the victory as evidence for the success of their Aryan doctrine, and organised parades and rallies in Schmeling's honour. When Louis beat him in a rematch two years later, it was seen as a blow to their supremacist agenda, and so one might argue that being defined by race allowed Louis to do some incidental good.
While there may have been a tinge of irony to segregated America claiming the high ground on matters of racial supremacy, the success of 'The Brown Bomber' was seen as a huge embarrassment in Nazi Germany. With many white and black Americans now cheering for a black fighter in unison, Louis' symbolic triumphs over the Axis may have done some incremental social good in the USA as well. Certainly come the rise of Muhammad Ali and the Civil Rights movement, racial epithets in boxing became considerably less popular. Ali was simply 'The Greatest', and after his seminal career the relationship between boxing and race would never be the same again.
Ali was not above employing racial epithets to belittle his black competitors, with his use of the term 'Uncle Tom' to describe Joe Frazier controversial to this day. Nonetheless, overt racism from promoters and the press in America seemed to slip out of the mainstream, at least when it came to the fight game. While Ken Norton, the man who was originally meant to play Apollo Creed in the Rocky films, was occasionally called 'The Black Hercules', this was something of a throwback at a time when nicknames were generally becoming more race neutral. While American boxer Roger Mayweather was called 'Black Mamba' during his eighties and nineties heyday, that was a nickname he came up with himself while watching a nature programme.
Some racially loaded monikers have endured for Hispanic fighters in America, with Argentine welterweight Marcos Maidana – who retired in 2014 after losing twice to Floyd Mayweather – known as 'El Chino' ('The Chinaman'). He was reported to have inherited it from his older brother, with 'El Chino' a fairly common street nickname in parts of South America. Curiously, while racial epithets were going out of fashion for black fighters in America, there were few qualms in Britain about calling Nigel Benn 'The Dark Destroyer' in the nineties. The golden age of British boxing often used racial narratives to sell fights, with Chris Eubank, Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno regularly assessed by their relative 'Britishness'. The 1993 heavyweight bout between Lewis and Bruno was dubbed 'The Battle of Britain', and Lewis' Canadian upbringing was used to present him as a foreign fighter of sorts. Bruno, who by that time had started doing panto and television work, was also called an 'Uncle Tom' by his opponent, with the racial tensions of the fight bleeding through as a predominantly white commentariat egged the fighters on.
Now, in Britain as well as America, the racial epithet has mercifully become almost entirely defunct in professional boxing. While ethnicity and nationality are sometimes still used to sell fights – accusations of racism can be brushed off where there is money to be made – overt stereotyping seem to have been monopolised in the modern age by professional wrestling. The days of Jack Johnson and his place at the centre of a crude battle of the races are long gone, and promoters are ever having to find new ways to whip up fight hysteria and resultant revenues. Then again, with a euphemised form of white nationalism seemingly undergoing something of a renaissance in America, it's not impossible to imagine a set of circumstances in which racial epithets become an emotive weapon once more.