- What most bothered whites about Johnson was that he openly had affairs with white women—and even married them—at a time when miscegenation of this sort was not only illegal but was positively dangerous.
- Johnson did not seem to care what whites thought of him, and this bothered most whites a great deal. He was not humble or diffident with whites. He gloated about his victories and often taunted his opponents in the ring. (This behavior was not unique to him as a champion boxer. Many boxers, notably John L. Sullivan, acted this way. It was unique for a black public figure.)
- He also did not care what blacks thought of him, as some were critical of his sex life. His preference for white women seemed an embarrassment and something that would bring the wrath of whites down on the heads of every black person.
- Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement to fight Johnson, some arguing that since Jeffries never lost his title in the ring, he was, in essence, the real champion. That fight took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910. It was the most talked-about, most publicized sporting event in American history. It was seen by nearly the whole country as a symbolic race war.
- It was also richest sporting event in American history: the two fighters split unevenly—the winner getting 60 percent—a sum of $101,000, a staggering prize for the time. Johnson once again won easily. Jeffries could not overcome a five-year layoff. Moreover, he probably lacked the skills, as he himself admitted after the fight, to have ever beaten Johnson.
- Since Johnson could not be defeated in the ring, the battle moved to defeating Johnson in the area where he most offended and where he was most vulnerable—his sex life
Johnson, who was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, began boxing as a young teenager in the Jim Crow-era South. Boxing was a relatively new sport in America, and was banned in many states. African-Americans were permitted to compete for most titles, but not for the title that whites considered their exclusive domain: Heavyweight Champion of the World. African-Americans were considered unworthy to compete for the title — not for lack of talent, but simply by virtue of not being white.
"Johnson's story is more than the story of a tremendous athlete, or even one who broke a color line," said Ken Burns. "It is the story of a man who forced America to confront its definition of freedom, and that is an issue with which we continue to struggle."