Fight of the Century

by Josh Costello, Literary Manager & Artistic Associate

Boxer Jack JohnsonIn 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Jim Crow laws segregating black and white Americans were constitutional. In a speech on the Senate floor on March 23, 1900, Ben Tillman of South Carolina declared, "We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him." Well over 3,000 African-Americans were victims of lynchings between 1880 and 1951. In the midst of all this, in 1908, African-American boxer Jack Johnson, a child of former slaves, defeated a white man to become the first black Heavyweight Champion.

At the end of the 19th century, boxing was entering a new and more legitimate era with the advent of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules (which mandated gloves and time limits). Johnson began his boxing career participating in a "battle royal," in which blindfolded black men fought until the last man standing won a prize consisting of coins thrown by the white spectators. By the time he became Heavyweight Champion, Johnson had captured the attention of the American public with his outsize personality as well as his boxing prowess. Known for verbally taunting his opponents in the ring, Johnson was famous for being a big talker outside the ring as well. He flaunted expectations of both the African-American and European-American communities by dating white women. Johnson is often referred to as one of the first celebrity athletes of the modern era.

After Johnson became the Heavyweight Champion in 1908, white boxing fans sought desperately for a white boxer to defeat him--this became known as the "great white hope." Jim Jeffries, a white boxer, had been Heavyweight Champion from 1899 to 1905, retiring without having been defeated in the ring. He was persuaded to return to boxing with the express purpose of defeating Johnson in what became the most highly anticipated sporting event of its time. Jeffries and Johnson fought in Reno on the fourth of July, 1910. "If the black man wins," declared the New York Times, "thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours." Johnson did indeed win, and whites erupted in race riots in cities across the country. At least 20 people were killed, and hundreds injured.

In The Royale, playwright Marco Ramirez explores the themes of Jack Johnson's story through the fictional Jay Jackson--and through a remarkable theatricality that brings the rhythm and intensity of a boxing match to life without actually staging a fight. "I was really sensitive knowing how important this story was in African-American history," Ramirez told the Miami Herald. "One of the things I wanted to make sure of--and this may sound wonky--was not so much getting the story of his life right but getting the adversity he faced right. Making sure the struggles and the threats he faced were right, that was important to me."