It sat in a cardboard box with a mess of miscellaneous memorabilia from his past. It was old when he tossed it in the box years ago. It was even older as he looked at it in the garage of his home in Tampa, Florida now in 1948.
He couldn’t even remember what had happened to the other shoe. He hadn’t worn those shoes—or boxed—in many years. He doubted that the shoe would even fit him anymore. He’d really been nothing but a big kid when he’d worn it last. Still, it brought back a flood of memories.
He hadn't always lived in Tampa. In fact, he hadn't even lived in the United States. He was a farm kid from northern Yorkshire, in England. He worked on the family farm where his dad was a hard-drinking farmer who was sometimes a bit too heavy handed when it came to his wife and son. That was why he had learned to box in the first place. He was tired of the beatings and the shame that went with them.
It didn’t take him long to get pretty good in the ring. He was a natural. And while he wasn’t a bulky behemoth like some of the boxers he ran into, he was strong and tall—with a long reach and a wicked right hook, and he grew in confidence.
Then, of course, came the real test, as he knew it would. His father had been drinking again and started taking out his frustrations on him as he had a hundred times before. But instead of cowering before his father, he stood his ground. The older man was surprised at first, but then, with a sneer, decided to teach his son a lesson.
He came after his son with a snarl and threw a haymaker at the boy’s head. The punch never landed. After effectively slipping his old man’s punch, the boy followed up with a right hook that caught his father square on the chin—and he went down for the count.
Staring at his father, lying unconscious on the ground, the young man realized he couldn't continue to live this way. He knew his father wouldn't change and he took no delight in having triumphed over him. In that moment, he made his decision. He ran back to the house, packed a few things in a worn-out suitcase, and fled the farm—never to return. He was 15 years old.
The options for uneducated 15-year-old farm kids in northern England in the early 1900s were pretty limited. As a result, he took the same route that countless other young men had taken. He lied about his age (he was big and strong enough to pass for 18) and joined the British Navy.
The Navy wasn’t exactly what he’d hoped for either. The physical rigors of training didn’t phase him at all. But the rigid adherence to countless rules began to wear on him. He grew increasingly unhappy and frustrated. To be honest, he even felt a bit homesick. As miserable as life had been under his father’s heavy hand, he’d never been more than a few miles from the family farm and he felt lost and scared.
Once more, he found a bit of solace in the boxing ring. Boxing was one activity that was sanctioned by the Royal Navy, so he took advantage whenever he could. He soon established himself as the best boxer on his ship—which gave him an increased sense of confidence.
Boxing, however, certainly wasn’t something that was limited to ships of the British Navy. It was a sport that was watched and celebrated around the world. And it was at that time that the first ever African-American world heavyweight champion had been crowned. He was an American fighter by the name of Jack Johnson and he was a powerhouse. Not everyone, however, was thrilled that the new world heavyweight champ was a black man.
Jack didn’t make it easy on himself, either. He wasn’t content to simply dominate in the ring. He was flamboyant and didn’t care who he offended. He definitely wasn’t someone who “knew his place” and he wasn’t shy about letting people know it. To be honest, he was reviled by many in the United States—not because of what he did in the ring, but because he was black and because seemed to throw that back in their faces.
Jack would regularly run afoul of the law. Sometimes it was because of his own doing. Often, however, it was because of the color of his skin (coupled with his brash nature). He was, however, greatly celebrated and admired in Europe. So Jack went where he was appreciated. He often did goodwill exhibitions, which further bolstered his popularity with the European populace.
One such event was scheduled to take place on board the very ship where the young Yorkshire farm boy was stationed. The opponent was a popular and well-known regional boxer. At the last minute, the local boxer took ill and couldn't make it to the bout. The crowd had already assembled to watch the match and so the organizers frantically searched for a replacement. The Captain of the ship suggested that Johnson spar with the best boxer on board—the young man from Yorkshire.
The young sailor really didn’t have much say in the affair. If the Captain said you were going to box, that meant you were going to box. The two fighters met before stepping into the ring, and Jack Johnson dwarfed the young sailor. With a disarming grin, Johnson told him, “Don’t worry, son. I’m not going to hurt you. Hit me as hard as you want; just don’t take any cheap shots or low blows. Let’s just go give the people a good show!”
So they stepped into the ring and when the bell rang, they went at it. The Yorkshire farm boy put everything he had into it. He pummeled Johnson with body blows that would have felled any other man he’d ever fought. Johnson would grimace and groan loudly, but the twinkle in his eye told the kid that he hardly felt a thing. Johnson pulled his punches dramatically, and still, the young sailor swore he’d never been hit so hard in his life.
They went three rounds, shook hands, and waved to the crowd. They never saw each other again. Jack Johnson reigned as world heavyweight champ for seven years (1908-1915). The young sailor never fought again and after his brief brush with fame found his life in the Navy increasingly unbearable. He finally jumped ship at a stop in a remote port and deserted. It wasn’t out of cowardice. He was simply (by then) a 16-year-old kid who was scared, lonely, and homesick.
He immigrated to the United States, where he learned to weld and began a career as a boilermaker in Toledo, Ohio. When World War I broke out, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but was turned down because he wasn't yet a citizen. So he went to Canada and enlisted in the Canadian army and was sent to France to fight. He was wounded in France and lost three fingers on one hand.
Eventually, he married an English woman who had also relocated to Toledo. They had two children, moved to the suburbs of Chicago where they raised their family during the Great Depression, doing whatever it took to keep body and soul together. Eventually, they made their way to Tampa where they lived out the rest of their days.
Unlike his father, he never drank a drop of liquor and never raised a hand against anyone outside of the ring. He may never have boxed again, but he was still a fighter. He really didn’t need a worn out boxing shoe to remind him of that.