A gold watch fob given to boxing’s most controversial heavyweight champion will be featured in Heritage Auctions’ Summer Platinum Night Sports Collectibles Auction in mid-August.
No, it did not belong to Muhammad Ali, although his career certainly was controversial. The fob was awarded in 1910 to the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, who won the title two years earlier against Tommy Burns. Johnson was talented, bold, cocky and flaunted his preference for white women during an era where interracial marriages were looked upon as taboo or even illegal.
Johnson’s bout against Jim J. Jeffries on July 4, 1910, was the origina
l “Fight of the Century,” and the gold watch fob he received two months before the fight is the key piece of memorabilia in the Summer Platinum Night Sports Collectibles Auction, which will be held Aug. 18-19.
Johnson has been the subject of numerous books and articles, a Broadway play and a major motion picture. Controversy followed Johnson throughout his career as he compiled a 73-13-10 record, and his 1910 title defense against Jeffries, who came out of retirement, was billed as a bout between a champion at his peak and a “great white hope.”
“This was the first great modern happening,” social historian Leone Bennett Jr. wrote in an April 1994 article for Ebony. “It was the first great media morality play.”
It was a media field day, but Johnson dominated the fight, knocking out Jeffries in the 15th round.
Johnson was badgered by authorities for several years but managed to avoid prosecution. But in October 1912 he was arrested and charged with transporting a white woman named Lucille Cameron — who would become his second wife — across state lines for immoral purposes, a violation of the Mann Act. The case was dropped when Cameron refused to testify, but a month later Johnson was arrested on the same charge and an alleged prostitute, Belle Schreiber, testified against him.
In June 1913, Johnson was convicted. The presiding judge was the future first commissioner of major league baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Johnson jumped bail and fled to Europe, fighting several times before losing the heavyweight title in Havana to Jess Willard in 1915. Johnson returned to the United States from Mexico in 1920 and surrendered to authorities, serving a year in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
On May 24, 2018, President Donald J. Trump posthumously pardoned Johnson, “to correct a wrong that occurred in our history.”
The gold watch fob offered by Heritage Auctions was presented to Johnson by the bout’s co-promoters, Tex Rickard and Jack Gleason. It is in near-mint to mint condition and measures 1¾ inches by 1½ inches, weighing 14 grams.
The obverse of the fob features a pair of boxers with the names “Jeffries-Johnson” above the high-relief figures. At the bottom, the fob has the inscription “California 1910,” which was where the fight was originally supposed to be fought until legal complications sent it east to Reno, Nevada.
The inscription on the back of the fob reads, “Presented to Jack Johnson, Heavy-Weight Champion of the World By Tex Rickard & Jack Gleason, May 10, 1910.” At the bottom is the inscription “Solid Gold, Larson & Co., S.F.”
Included in the lot is a 1978 letter of provenance from British boxing writer and historian Gilbert Odd.
Johnson died in an automobile accident near Franklinton, North Carolina, on June 10, 1946. He was 68. Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.
Opening bid for the fob will be $5,000. A reserve price, if any, will be posted on Aug. 11. Buyer’s premium will be 20 percent.