Jack Johnson fought well into his 60s


    Are we entering an ‘Age of Exhibitions?”

    Fifty-something fight legends Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr engaged in a high-profile exhibition in November and, last year, all-time great Evander Holyfield, one month shy of 60, faced former MMA champ Vitor Belfort.

    So, how far back will boxing go? Perhaps George Foreman and Larry Holmes, ages 72 and 71, respectively, will get finally get it on? They were supposed to fight in 1999 but it never happened. Of course, soon after Vitali Klitschko became the recognized heavyweight king in 2004, Foreman, then in his mid to late 50s, teased the idea of returning to the ring against the big Ukrainian.

    Age is just a number, right?

    Evander, who will be 58½ when he tangles with McBride, will be far from the oldest star to participate in a boxing exhibition. Fight legend Jack Johnson fought exhibitions well into his 60s.

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    Jack Johnson, named by some historians as the single most important athlete in modern sports history, was the first black man to win the World Heavyweight Championship and is considered an all-time great.

    Johnson was part of the inaugural class of inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In fact, Nat Fleischer, the founder of The Ring Magazine, a man who had witnessed every World Heavyweight Champion from Jeffries to Joe Frazier, considered Jack Johnson the greatest heavyweight of all time until his dying day.

    Following his first stint as a professional, Johnson, then a past-his-prime former heavyweight champion and mainstream celebrity, was incarcerated in July 1920 via the frivolous Mann Act – a charge that was posthumously pardoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018.

    While in jail for a year, Johnson, now in his early 40s, engaged in a number of undeclared professional fights and one exhibition. And apparently, the matches were more than just gentlemanly scraps because he earned knockouts in 4 of those 5 recorded events.

    • 1920-11-25 W 4 “Topeka” Jack Johnson
    • 1920-11-25 KO 6 Frank Owens
    • 1921-04-15 KO 6 Jack Townsend
    • 1921-05-28 KO 5 Joe Boykin
    • 1921-05-28 EX 2 John Allen (Exhibition)

    After his release from prison in July 1921, the flamboyant, unabashed former heavyweight champion wasn’t finished with boxing yet. 

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    A young Jack Johnson stands in the center of the ring with a man who is believed to be a promoter. Circa 1905-1915

    He returned to the ring for eleven more “professional” boxing matches from 1923 to 1931, presumably leaving the four-square jungle as a paid pugilist at the age of 53.

    Jack went 6-5 in that stint.

    Some reports suggest Jack Johnson fought professionally until 1938 at age of 60. And while there are photographic data to support he did step in the ring during that period, we can’t confirm the legitimacy of those bouts because he allegedly engaged in “cellar” fighting, unadvertised bouts in the underground circuit for private audiences. Hence, maybe those fights were staged and maybe they weren’t.

    Still not finished showcasing his craft, the legendary Jack Johnson fought three exhibitions in 1944 before famously stepping back into the ring one last time on November 27, 1945, at the age of 67. Both three-round exhibitions, held in New York City, took place to promote U.S. war bonds. He faced 66-year-old Joe Jeannette, also a boxing legend, and John Ballcort.

    The following year, Jack Johnson, aged 68, was killed in a car accident.

    As seen in the attached video, Johnson vs Jeanette was a light-hearted scrap. Nevertheless, the great Johnson briefly exhibited the footwork that helped revolutionize the sport decades earlier.


    Steve Hamas and a 50-something Jack Johnson admire an image of fight legend Jack Dempsey. (Circa 1930-1935)

    How special was Johnson’s return to the ring?

    Keep in mind, back then a 33-year-old fighter was considered an old man. The fact Johnson fought professionally until the age of 53 or 60 is a testament to his greatness, longevity, and passion for the sport.

    It’s 2021 and 50 seems to be the new 40. After all, some fighters these days – especially heavyweights – aren’t reaching their prime until their early 30s.

    Perhaps popularizing 50-something stars in exhibitions is something that is long overdue.

    Before the decade is over, don’t be surprised to see more fighters compete professionally in their fifties. And don’t be shocked when two fellas in their 60s mix it up again on the big stage in an exhibition.