By David Martinez / Boxing Historian
Let me bring you a feature story that you will probably not read anywhere regarding, all together, the five best black heavyweights at the turn of the 20th century.
I got the idea when I overheard some mutual friends talking about the best black baseball players that never got the chance to play in the major leagues, and had to settle playing against each other in the old negro league.
I have rated many boxers in many categories throughout my 50 years of boxing … on this website alone you will find that I have rated the best heavyweights, the best lightweights, the best Mexicans fighters, and now I will personally rate the best black heavyweights in a time period that but only one of them, Jack Johnson, had the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship.
But before Johnson came into the scene, I must acknowledge Peter Jackson. He was a true pioneer in the brass knuckle days, and the first black heavyweight that set the stage for the top recognition of the black boxers, and that was before the turn of the 20th century.
Racial prejudice was the only thing that kept Jackson from his chance to win the heavyweight championship. In a ten year span, 1882-1892, in which Jackson was in his prime, the heavyweight champion was John L. Sullivan, who stated that he would never fight a negro for his crown.
Just before Sullivan lost his coveted belt, in 1892, to James J Corbett, a year prior to that fight in 1891 Jackson fought Corbett to a grueling 61 round draw, in a bout that lasted over four hours. Jackson would never fight Corbett once he held the title, and lost to another future heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries seven years later after the Corbett fight, in a fight that virtually ended his career.
Jackson “aka” The Black Prince was considered by many boxing experts (even to this to this day) at the peak of his career as one of the most complete heavyweights ever.
#1 Jack Johnson
After the turn of the 20th century, I rate Jack Johnson the best at that time, and in his prime he was truly the top heavyweight. Johnson was a master defensive boxer, and well ahead of his time among any of the great boxers, black or white in his era. He won the heavyweight championship when he was 32 years old, Ali was 22, and Joe Louis was 23. He was the central figure in the most dramatic fight in heavyweight boxing history; his July 4, 1910, bout with Jim Jeffries caused more national repercussions than any thing ever seen in the sport. Johnson fought the best of his time, and lost the championship to Jess Willard on a “controversial” knockout. The late Nat Fleischer, Ring Magazine founder, said Johnson was simply the best heavyweight champion ever. That is also my opinion.
#2) Harry Wills
Possibly the greatest heavyweight that never won the title. He was ranked many times as a top contender for Johnson’s belt, but they never fought. He also was ranked the number one contender, when Jack Dempsey was champion, but they never fought.
Wills, was forced to fight continuously against many of the best black fighters in his era such as Sam Langford, Sam McVey, and Joe Jeannette, but in a career that spanned six heavyweight champions, not once did he get a title shot.
Wills was known as The Black Panther, and was a big six-foot, three inches, and 220 pounds. Although many of his early bouts were unrecorded, I found his ring record to be 65 wins, 8 losses, 2 draws, 47 knockouts, with 25 no-decisions, 3 no-contests. His best punch was a right cross that was so powerful, that in his 47 wins by KO, those lasted an average of only three rounds.
Had he been given the opportunity to fight for the title, I truly believe he would have changed the history of boxing and would have been the second black heavyweight champion.
#3) Sam Langford
Recognized by the late Nat Fleischer, Ring magazine founder, the seventh best heavyweight of all time, and in a current issue of Ring Magazine rated him number two on their all time list of best punchers.
Langford was known as the Boston Tar Baby, and he was not a big heavyweight in statue, only five foot, seven inches, 185 pounds. His career spanned a quarter of a century, 1902 to 1926, with 164 wins, 38 losses, 37 draws, 117 knockouts, with 48 no-decisions, 3 no-contests.
Langford, was truly considered by many boxing historians, including myself, as good as any heavyweight during the first 15 years of the 20th century.
#4) Joe Jeanette
Actually a look-a-like in styles to Sam Langford, was not big by heavyweight standards, at five foot ten inches, 190 pounds. His ring record was most impressive: 79 wins, nine losses, 6 draws, 66 knockouts, with 62 no-decisions, 1 no-contest.
He is best known for his quote to Jack Johnson, in which he repeatedly said “that Jack forgot about his old (black) friends after he became champion and drew the color line against his own people.”
Jeanette had fought Johnson seven times prior to Johnson winning the title, and held his own with one win, one loss, one draw, and four no-decisions. He also fought Langford 15 times, and holds a 15 round decision over future light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier.
His most memorable fight was in 1909 against Sam McVey, in which he over came 27 knockdowns to win by knockout in 50 rounds, a fight that lasted three-and-a-half hours, and was recorded as the longest fight of the 20th century.
#5) Sam McVey
Some refer him to McVea. He was actually a Mike Tyson look-a-like in many ways. He was compact, had a powerful physique, with tremendous punching power, as he stood 5 foot ten inches, and at a solid 215 pounds. His ring record was 65 wins, 15 losses, 11 draws, 47 knockouts, with 1 no-decision, 4 no-contests.
At one point in his career, from 1906 to 1912, in 43 bouts fought he had a stretch of 38 victories, 2 losses, and 3 draws, with an incredible 32 knockouts – with the two lone losses only to Joe Jeanette.
He fought Jack Johnson three times early in his career, with less than ten fights under his belt and before he was even 20 years old and lost all three times, Johnson was 26 years old and had over forty fights under his belt. The two would never fight again after Johnson won the world heavyweight championship in 1908.
Although boxing historians will agree that his 50 round bout with Jeanette in 1909 was a classic, and is was, McVey’s best winning performance was on June 29, 1915 against Sam Langford. He won a 12 round decision in which McVey had Langford on the verge of a knockout in the 8th round, in a thrilling fight from start to finish.
In closing, from Peter Jackson to the five I have mentioned above, ironically each one of these men at one time in their famed careers held what was called during their era – the “World Colored Heavyweight Championship.”