LAS VEGAS (KSNV MyNews3.com) -- There is an effort to secure a posthumous pardon for boxer Jack Johnson, a larger-than-life character in the boxing arena and society.
The pinnacle of Johnson's career took place in Reno, and all of America was watching.
Las Vegas Assemblyman Harvey Munford is cosponsoring a resolution, which he says recognizes Johnson's importance to Nevada.
“In terms of you want to say boxing, he put Nevada on the map,” Munford said.
Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame President Rich Marotta says the notoriety of this fight came from an obvious, ugly fact.
“In my own mind, I believe that the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight was probably the biggest fight and maybe the biggest sports event in the history of the 20th century in terms of the sociological impact of it,” Marotta said.
“Jack Johnson was simply hated by so much of white America. They were living in a very racist time, a racially charged time. And he was, of course, the first, I think, big black hero that was a hero to the people, the black people of the United States in terms of sports and becoming an icon at the time.”
Since the beginning of professional boxing, the heavyweight champion had always been white. After beltholder Jim Jeffries retired in 1905, Johnson took the title from Tommy Burns in Austrailia.
But Johnson wasn't just the champ. He was also reviled for dating -- and eventually marrying -- across racial lines.
“In those days, (interracial dating) almost -- even to look at one -- was almost a mark of death,” Munford said.
Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement. When a fight was announced, Las Vegas tried to provide a location, but it was a rather forlorn hope, according to College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green.
“I don't see Las Vegas being able to host a fight like the Johnson Jefferies fight in 1910,” Green said. “The population's about a thousand. Reno's population is about 17,000. There are three significant hotels here that we know of. Where are you going to put 20,000 people if they come to town to see this? It's hard to imagine.”
However, Las Vegas would follow the fight from afar with a wire feed.
“That's an early form of pay-per-view, close-circuit TV,” Marotta said. “In that case, close-circuit telegraph.”
You just had to know where to go.
“In 1910 in Las Vegas, if you were over on the bad side, you went over to Block Sixteen, First Street between Stewart and Ogden, where there were already brothels operating in addition to the bars,” Green said.
When it was over, the Las Vegas Age described the drubbing in unabashedly racist language. Johnson won easily.
“Most of the betting was on Jeffries,” Marotta said. “But once they actually got it on in the ring, it was no contest. From rounds 1 to 15 to when he finally knocked him out or when they basically stopped the fight, there was no contest.”
“But they had to find some way to undermine him, and make him look unfit and unsuitable to hold that crown,” Munford said.
The federal government convicted Johnson of violating the Mann Act, which made it a crime to transport someone across state lines for purposes of prostitution.
“And that was not the truth,” Munford said. “Because the lady herself testified in the courts, that she was, you know, they were ... had a close romantic relationship. And then later they were married.”
Munford says it's important that the Silver State weighs in on a presidential pardon.
“It would show Nevada believes in justice. Nevada believes that this man was treated unfairly,” he said.
Johnson died in a car accident in 1946.
A U.S. Senate resolution to pardon Johnson passed unanimously exactly one month ago. The Nevada State Legislature is expected to send the White House a recommendation soon.
The same pardon request has already been declined by President George W. Bush, and again by President Obama in his first term. It now sits on the president's desk again, with no hard date for decision.