The Fight That Made Havana Famous

Jack Johnson dominated foes in the ring, stirred up trouble outside it and brought the world to Cuba
| By F. Daniel Somrack | From Welcome to Cuba, May/June 2015
The Fight That Made Havana Famous

One hundred years ago, the baddest man on the planet was Jack Johnson. And for a fleeting moment in April of 1915, he would make Havana, Cuba, the center of the sports world.

Not only was Johnson the reigning world heavyweight-boxing champion, but as the first African-American to hold that title he was also a perceived threat to much of white America. Such was the enmity for this man that when it was announced he would defend his crown against Jess Willard, the last of the "Great White Hopes" on the island nation 90 miles south of Key West, the boxing world came to him. Just as Muhammad Ali brought global attention to Kinshasa, Zaire (the Rumble in the Jungle), and Manila, Philippines (the Thrilla in Manila) Jack Johnson drew legions of fight fans, sportswriters and celebrities to an unlikely venue with his own irresistible personal drama and brash charisma.

Johnson had been living on the lam in Paris, a fugitive from U.S. justice. Convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, he had jumped bail and fled to Paris via Montreal in June, where he depleted his fortune on wine, women and a luxurious lifestyle. Desperate for cash, he accepted an offer from promoter Jack Curly for $30,000 to fight another "White Hope." If Curly could guarantee the money and arrange the contest close enough to the U.S. to attract ticket buyers, they had a deal. Mexico was an option, but Johnson feared kidnapping by Texas Rangers. Havana was settled on.

Johnson arrived in Havana in December 1914 with his beautiful caucasian wife, Lucille Cameron, at the height of the Jim Crow era. Defiant of racial stereotyping, Johnson said, "I have the right to choose who my mate should be." As Muhammad Ali said, "Back...when you got lynched for looking at a white woman, he married a white woman."

The champion fell in love with Cuba. A South American tour had exposed him to Spanish culture, as well as his lifelong passion for cigars. Driving through the city in a sports car, wearing goggles and auto duster, he preferred an easily manageable corona size stogie. In the cafés, he enjoyed a figurado.

Johnson strolled the Prado, hand-in-hand with the stylish Lucille, every bit the "Gibson girl," one of the emancipated women of the Edwardian age. Complementing her dapper husband, she dressed in the latest fashions, brilliantly colored silk dresses over tight corsets, her hair worn high in a pompadour.

Jack traveled the world with as many as 14 trunks of tailored clothes. His Havana attire was an ensemble of beige or bleached white three-piece suits, cotton shirts with winged collars, silk neckties and a Stetson or white panama hat. Strolling in two-toned spats or patent-leather oxfords, swinging his black walking stick with its silver head, waving at fans, Johnson had come a long way.

Born John "Jack" Arthur Johnson in Galveston, Texas, March 31, 1878, he was the child of emancipated slaves. He left school after five years to work as a laborer. Nicknamed the "Galveston Giant," he started boxing at 13 and recorded his first professional fight in 1897. He won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship February 5, 1903.

After defeating all comers, Johnson was the next logical opponent for the heavyweight title and issued a public challenge to world champion James J. Jeffries. Like John L. Sullivan before him, Jeffries refused to defend against black opponents. When champion Jeffries retired in 1904, Marvin Hart, then Tommy Burns succeeded him. Burns "drew the color line" as well, but Jack would not be denied. He taunted Burns in the press until finally the flamboyant Australian promoter, Hugh "Huge Deal" Macintosh offered Burns a stunning $30,000 to clash with him.

Johnson's date with destiny came on December 26, 1908 outside Sydney, Australia. At six-foot-two, Johnson was five inches taller than Burns, and 24 pounds heavier. Overwhelmed and outclassed by the stronger, faster Johnson, Burns was knocked down in the first two rounds but survived until the police intervened in the 14th round to save his life. Celebrity writer Jack London, reporting from ringside for The New York Herald, issued this racist decree: "But one thing now remains," wrote London. "Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you," he implored. "The white race must be rescued."

The search was on for "The Great White Hope." It took the unprecedented sum of $101,000 and a piece of the film rights to lure Jeffries off his California farm. The two met in "The Fight of the Century" in a specially built stadium in the pioneer town of Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1908.

In scorching, 110-degree heat, 16,528 fans jammed the arena to watch the 35-year-old ex-champion suffer the first defeat of his career. Even while trained down to a fit 227-pounds from 300, Jeffries lacked the speed to catch the champion with any of his bone-crushing punches. Johnson, with one of the best uppercuts in the game, was able to land at will. By round 15, Johnson moved in for the kill. He staggered Jeffries with an uppercut, and a flurry of left hooks put Jeffries down for the first time in his career.

The ex-champ rose, but was knocked through the ropes and then decked again. His corner threw in the towel. Jeffries later conceded to a reporter, "I couldn't have beat Johnson at my best."

Johnson returned to Chicago with $120,000 (a fortune at the time). He opened a black-and-tan saloon and wine bar called Café de Champion. He was seen there nightly with different women, smoking cigars and sipping Champagne. But the champion's personal life started to unravel.

In September, his first wife, Etta Duryea, commited suicide. Then an affair with a singer brought a $25,000 alienation-of-affection suit from her husband. Next the city closed the Café de Champion, declaring Johnson an "undesirable person and of bad character." In October 1912, Johnson was arrested under the Mann Act for transporting a 19-year prostitute, Lucille Cameron, across state lines for sex. When Cameron married Jack to avoid testifying, it touched off a wave of racial hatred and bigotry.

Within weeks, he was indicated for the same offense. Belle Schreiber, who had traveled with Johnson several years earlier, cooperated with prosecutors. In May 1913, it took an all-white Chicago jury less than two hours to find Johnson guilty on all counts, even while the violation had happened before the Mann Act was instituted. He was given the maximum sentence of a year in federal prison. While on appeal, he fled and spent the next seven years bouncing around Europe and elsewhere.

When Jack Curly met Johnson, the champ was in need of the big payday and only a legitimate challenger could guarantee. They found him in Jess Willard. Born in Pottawatomie County, Kansas, he worked as a horse wrangler before his boxing career. Called the "Pottawatomie Giant," Jess stood six-feet-six, weighed 250-pounds and had an 84-inch reach. His contract was $5,000 and a third of the motion-picture rights but, as Curly pointed out, his earning potential was unlimited should he win the fight, scheduled for 45 rounds.

When the fight neared, Chicago Tribune called Havana the "Mecca" of the sporting world. "Celebrities of the ring, racetrack and every branch of the sporting world [are] here." Despite gale conditions intrepid fight fans continued to sail down from Key West. American papers dished up gossip to an eager public: The champ's apartment had breezes, beautiful furnishings and a good view; the challenger stayed in a suite of rooms in Havana's best hotel; Johnson announced he had bet $10,000 on himself, while Cuba's president denied making a wager. Only two days before the fight, Johnson held an exhibition bout. The next day he would throw out the first ball at an exhibition baseball game, take in a bull-tossing demonstration and dine on three chickens at lunch, amid rumors that his weight was ballooning. Through it all, "wine flowed like water and prices soared skyward." One correspondent gushed that Cuba was "fight mad."

The venue was the recently opened Oriental Park Racetrack, six miles from the city in Mariano. The park was a horse-racing facility that Meyer Lansky would later control. At 12-noon, the president, General Mario García Menocal, arrived and was given 14-karat-gold tickets. Seated near his shaded box was the governor of Havana, Pedro Bustillo, who had declared the day of the fight an officially recognized holiday.

By the time the 37-year-old champion entered the stadium, it was 103 degrees. He was greeted with thunderous applause from the crowd as he navigated a sea of bobbing white hats to the prize ring built directly on the track. He was wearing a heavy, embroidered robe over beltless, blue trunks.

When Willard came into view, 32,000 spectators rose to their feet and waved small white flags to show their racial support. The Kansas cowboy was wearing a heavy red sweater and black sombrero over dark blue trunks with an American flag belt. The announcer introduced the fighters with a bullhorn, and then they were weighed in the ring. Willard was a lean 238 and Johnson, a paunchy—for his height—225.

The opening bell sounded at 1 o'clock, and the early rounds favored Johnson, whose superior speed, punching power and fluid movement made Willard look awkward and clumsy. When Willard punched, Johnson would parry it, tie him up and render him ineffective.

In the seventh, Johnson made a futile attempt to end the contest early. He charged Willard with a flurry of blinding lefts and rights that sent Willard back-pedaling and flailing his arms like a man trying to ward off a swarm of bees. Though staggered momentarily, at the end of the round, Willard returned to his corner unhurt.

By the 15th round, the pace had slowed and the momentum of the fight had shifted. Johnson's age and lack of conditioning were beginning to show as Willard subtly picked up the pace. Now the aggressor, Big Jess began to stalk Johnson, trying to open his defense with feints and jabs. At the end of the round he landed a power punch that made Johnson's golden smile disappear.

At the end of the 22nd, Johnson gestured to Jack Curly to escort his wife from the stadium. He sat wearily in his corner, expressionless, staring across the ring at the better man, continuing to wilt in the scorching heat. By the end of the 25th round, the outcome was inevitable.

The bell rang for the 26th, and Johnson had to be called out of his corner by referee Welsh. The champion lumbered to the center of the ring and made a last ditch effort to strike a telling blow by reaching through Willard's octopus arms, landing a left-right combination to Willard's face with no effect.

Next the fighters squared up in the center of the ring, their left feet planted in front them when suddenly Willard stabbed a left jab to Johnson's face and followed with a devastating right to Johnson's stomach. The champion grimaced and fell forward into a clinch. They wrestled around until Welsh broke them apart.

Willard cautiously plodded forward, saw an opening and fired a feint at Johnson's stomach. He then delivered a lightning quick straight right that landed on the point of Johnson's chin, and the champ went down. He slumped to the canvas, rolled over on his back and was counted out.

Johnson lied motionless with his right arm shading his eyes from the scorching sun. He made no attempt to rise as Willard's hand was raised in victory. Pandemonium broke out in the stadium as straw hats were flung high into the air against the deafening roar of the crowd. The "White Hope" era was over.

After the fight Johnson accepted defeat by stating, "I've been beaten fairly by youth and condition." But later he would publish a sworn statement in Ring Magazine claiming he "threw" the fight for $50,000 from Jack Curly and a pass to return to the United States. "Shading my eyes from the sun was proof of the fix," said Johnson.

Why would anyone wait 26 rounds in the blazing heat to take a dive? Johnson claimed Curly agreed to deliver the payoff to his wife at ringside. Johnson specified $500 bills so the package would be small and quickly counted. When the package finally arrived in the 25th round, "Lucille gave me the signal," said Johnson. "I replied that everything was O.K. and she departed. In the 26th, I let the fight end as it did."

"Nobody ever took Johnson's charges of fakery seriously," said Curly. Willard stated simply, "If Johnson threw it, I just wish he threw it sooner. It was hotter than hell down there."

After Havana, Willard did a run on Broadway for $5,000 per week, but made his fortune on a cowboy tour with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In 1919 he starred in a feature film. He also lost his title that year to Jack Dempsey, who destroyed him in three rounds.

Johnson and Lucille left Cuba at the end of April for Spain, where Johnson continued his boxing career. He opened an advertising agency, acted in films, tried his hand at bullfighting and even worked as a spy for the Americans. In 1919, he drifted to Mexico, opened a café and petitioned for his return to the United States. He finally surrendered to federal authorities in July 1920 and he served 10 months of his one-year sentence. Lucille divorced him in 1924. Johnson made a comeback of sorts after prison against second-rate fighters and had his last bout at 51-years-old.

On June 10, 1946, on his way to the Joe Louis-Billy Conn rematch in New York, Johnson was refused service at a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. He sped away in his new Lincoln Zephyr, lost control, and hit a utility pole and was killed. He was 68-years-old.

The bout left its mark on Cuba where boxing became national pastime. The island crowned its first world champion in 1931 when Kid Chocolate (Eligio Sardiñas) took the junior lightweight title.

F. Daniel Somrack, a film producer, also wrote Boxing in San Francisco.

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