The greatest fighter ever seen, the best of all time, of any age. A student of Shakespeare. A champion against racism. Superlatives echoed around the globe when he was taken by a debilitating disease. This isn’t Muhammad Ali. It’s Peter Jackson, the Australian boxer who 115 years ago next month died in outback Queensland.
Jackson was the most scientific, perfect boxer, blessed with speed, strength, and physique. He was an educated gentleman, both in and out of the ring, and was rightly referred to by everybody as Peter the Great. He was modest, pleasant, and intelligent. Filled with integrity, and too honorable to administer punishment to a beaten opponent, of which there were plenty.
Jackson was born on the 3rd of July 1861 in the Danish West Indies, the grandson of a freed slave. He arrived in Australia as a teenager in the 1870s. When his single punch prevented a Sydney docks mutiny, he came to the attention of Larry Foley, a former undefeated champion and father of Australian boxing.
A giant in his day at 6′ 1½” and 14 stone, Jackson won the Australian heavyweight championship in 1886. He then went to England and America where he fought 28 of their best men between 1888 and 1892, losing to none. He won the British Empire title and the world ‘coloured’ heavyweight championship. Jackson was indisputably the best in the world.
This was the time of a ‘coloured line’ however. Consecutive heavyweight champions refused to fight him. American John Sullivan declined to put his title on the line when he said, “I will not fight a Negro. I never have, and I never shall.”
Jackson made his protest in other ways. He formed a theatrical company and starred in the anti-slavery play Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just like in boxing, he was a natural talent whose acting carried so much passion that audiences were moved to tears.
He came home to Australia when struck down with tuberculosis. He died on the 13th of July 1901, trying to beat the condition in the dry climate of Roma in western Queensland. He was buried in Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery. The champ was just 40 years old.
Two years later, on a fine and warm Sunday afternoon, thousands of people flocked to the spot where Jackson was buried. They were there to witness the unveiling of a memorial lovingly paid for by public subscription. A stone cube 8 feet tall, weighing 10 tons, sandstone lion on top, marble likeness and Shakespearean quote on the sides. It was immediately a mecca for visitors from around the world.
Five years later when Jack Johnson became the first black ‘official’ world heavyweight champion in Sydney in 1908, he sought out Jackson’s resting place. The homage made news around the world. “It was an impressive sight indeed to see the splendid form of the living gladiator bending for a moment over the tomb of he who was Australia’s fistic idol.” Another black world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who held the title from 1937 to 1949, is considered one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. But even he was rated less than Jackson by those whose lives spanned both men.
The Shakespearean words on the monument are simply, “This was a man”. It’s Antony speaking of the slain Julius Caesar.
All the rest of the conspirators acted out of jealousy of great Caesar. Only he acted from honesty and for the general good. His life was gentle, and the elements mixed so well in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.”
This was the greatest.
[…] triangle with two other sporting greats from the same era. The world’s best boxer of the 1890s Peter Jackson lays just one hundred metres away, as does Ipswich football star Steve Welch who was the 1888 […]