World Boxing Council president Mauricio Sulaiman looked around the Oval Office on Thursday and was shaken by the moment of late heavyweight champion Jack Johnson finally receiving his full presidential pardon.
“We’re so happy. It’s a victory for humanity, human equality and inclusion,” Sulaiman said. “And it’s a great day for boxing.”
With Sulaiman, former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, current WBC heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder of Alabama and “Rocky” star Sylvester Stallone standing at his side, President Trump’s action forgives Johnson of the racially charged 1913 conviction that led to a 10-month federal prison stay.
An all-white jury found Johnson guilty of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral" purposes.
Trump said Johnson’s conviction for merely traveling to another state with a white woman was a racially motivated injustice.
“He was treated very rough, very tough,” Trump said, pointing out that Johnson’s prosecution and punishment came during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”
The bold Johnson reigned as heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915, defending the belt in the epic 1910 bout in Reno against “Great White Hope” James J. Jeffries by 14th-round technical knockout. He ultimately lost the title to Jess Willard in Cuba after fleeing the U.S. for several years following his conviction for crossing state lines with Belle Schreiber, a former prostitute with whom he had an ongoing relationship.
Johnson returned to the U.S. in 1920 to serve his sentence.
He died in 1946.
The treatment of Johnson by the legal system, along with his boxing heroics, made him a legendary popular culture figure, with biographies, the play and film “The Great White Hope,” and a Ken Burns documentary emphasizing his importance as a civil rights figure.
“This was a long process that has been in negotiation for generations, and it was through the greatest ambassador of our sport, Sylvester Stallone, who went and closed the deal,” Sulaiman said following the White House ceremony. “We’re so happy.”
After Trump said Stallone privately pushed for the pardon with no intention of fanfare, the boxing fan and Hollywood legend spoke.
“My inspiration for the Apollo Creed character [in ‘Rocky’] was Jack Johnson, this bigger-than-life character,” Stallone said. “His pride was taken away, but he still managed to persevere and keep a smile on his face.
“He’s truly an inspirational character, so this has been a long time coming. It’s an honor to take a fictional character and do something in reality.”
Linda Haywood, Johnson’s great-great niece, who pressed for the pardon of Johnson for years along with the support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, attended the ceremony.
Trump pointed out that his predecessor, Barack Obama, failed to grant the pardon. Obama previously cited Johnson’s involvement in domestic violence for allowing the conviction to stand.
“The niece broke up, was very emotional and so thankful for this executive pardon that was long overdue,” Sulaiman said. “It was a very emotional moment.
“From the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, to the current, Deontay Wilder, it was a magical event.”