THIS is the latest in an occasional series about the heavyweight champions of the world and their visits to Britain. In previous articles I have written about Primo Carnera and Sam Langford, and this week I will be looking at Jack Johnson and his 1908 British tour. JackJohnson arrived in the UK on Monday April 27 from the States, when the German steamship, the Kronprinz Wilhelm, docked in Plymouth. He was accompanied by his manager, Sam Fitzpatrick, and the two men immediately took a train from Plymouth to Paddington Station in London, checked into the Adelphi Hotel and, in the evening, visited the National Sporting Club, Covent Garden, to see a 20-round contest in which the New Zealander, Charlie Griffin, stopped the British bantamweight, Joe Bowker, in eight rounds.
Johnson was in the UK to hunt down Tommy Burns, also visiting London, to force him into a title defence which, as we know, eventually took place in Sydney eight months later. The two men traded words in the sporting press and Burns, who was staying at Jack Straw’s Castle, a pub in Hampstead, immediately posted £1,000 with the Sporting Life, stating that if Johnson’s camp would match this amount then the fight was on. Fitzpatrick objected to the terms that Burns was insisting on for the proposed match and refused to cover the money. Johnson then challenged Gunner Moir but this was rebuffed when Moir drew the colour line and refused to meet the American.
Johnson spent most of that summer appearing at various music halls around Britain, boxing in exhibitions with a wide variety of British heavyweights, including Jewey Smith, Jem Styles and Fred Drummond. This was quite lucrative for top-flight boxers in those days. He was then matched with Ben Taylor (Woolwich) for a 20-round contest in Plymouth. Jack trained for the bout at Regent’s Park and in the gymnasium at the National Sporting Club. He left Waterloo Station on July 30 to travel down to Plymouth for the fight, which was due to take place the following day at the Cosmopolitan Gymnasium, Mill Street. A large contingent of fans welcomed him to the Devon town, which was at that time a fight centre of great importance.
The contest, predictably, proved to be one-sided, as Johnson beat Taylor with ease, flooring him 11 times before the referee called a halt in the eighth round. After the bout, Johnson complimented Taylor on his pluck, stating that he had never met a gamer man during his whole career. Later that night a crowd gathered at the Mount Pleasant Hotel, not far from the Cosmopolitan, where Taylor had established his training camp, and Jack turned up to once again give Taylor his congratulations for having put up such a good contest.
Johnson then took part in a series of exhibitions in Dublin and then in Bristol, where he attended the Bristol City vs Everton football match at Ashton Gate – his first experience of the sport. By September 7 he was back in London and it was announced that he had been matched to box Mike Schreck at the National Sporting Club on October. On September 14 it was announced by Schreck’s manager, Jimmy Kelly, that the fight was off as Schreck could not be relied upon to get into decent condition for the bout.
With Burns now in Australia, Johnson was left high and dry, without a meaningful fight, and so the National Sporting Club arranged a contest against Sam Langford, due to take place at the Club on November 9. What a coup that would have been – a match between the two finest heavyweights in the world – but sadly it never happened. On Monday September 21, Johnson left Charing Cross Station on the scheduled 1.20pm boat train to France, to begin his long journey to Australia, where three months later, he finally met, and beat, Tommy Burns.