When Jack Johnson defeated Tommy Burns to become the first Black man to win the World Heavyweight Championship on December 26, 1908, a cry went out for a White fighter who could reclaim the title for the Caucasian race.
Famous novelist Jack London, who covered the Johnson-Burns fight for the New York Herald, called for James J. Jeffries, who had retired as the undefeated World Heavyweight Champion in 1905, to return to the ring to fight Johnson. London wrote:
Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He was a white man and so am I. Naturally, I wanted to see the white man win. Put the case to Johnson. Ask him if he were the spectator at a fight between a white man and a black man which he would like to see win, and Johnson's black skin will dictate a desire parallel to the one dictated by my white skin... But one thing remains. Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the smile from Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you.
After Johnson dominated Jeffries en route to a fifteenth-round knockout on July 4, 1910, the term "White Hope" was coined.
It was back in the period between 1910 and 1915 that every overgrown small town lad who thought he had any ability, was signed by big and small time managers, placed in the hands of trainers, with the dethroning of Jack Johnson as the chief objective. From the most unheard of places there came prospective heavyweight champions. They loomed on the fistic horizon from far off sections which were scarcely visible to the naked eye.
Some came on and begged for a chance because they saw big money ahead. Others were sent along by big moneyed men who thrived on the publicity they were getting. Still others were grabbed up by good judges of fighters from the mines, the lumber camps and the farms. Most of them came quickly and hit the trail back home even quicker.
White Hope Tournament:
A White Hope tournament, organized by Tom O'Rourke, was held at the National Sporting Club in New York City on May 26, 1911. Twenty-three hopefuls entered, but only eleven showed up on fight day. In his book Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, Randy Roberts wrote of the tournament: "For a day they fought each other, inept boxer against inept boxer, with the least inept winning." In the final, Al Palzer defeated Sailor White by a four-round decision.
Jack Johnson was ringside to witness the competition. At one point, a sportswriter asked him, "Learning anything, Jack?" Laughing heartily, Johnson replied, "I'm learning plenty."
World White Heavyweight Championship:
Luther McCarty knocked out Al Palzer in 18 rounds to win the inaugural White World White Heavyweight Championship on January 1, 1913. Five months later, on May 24, 1913, McCarty was knocked out in one round by Arthur Pelkey. McCarty reportedly went down after being hit with a light left to the chin and a right to the chest. He died a few minutes later. A coroner's jury decided that McCarty's death was not a result of the fight, but an injury he suffered two days earlier when he fell off a horse.
Pelky lost the title to Ed (Gunboat) Smith by a fifteenth-round knockout on January 1, 1914. Smith held the title for seven months. He lost it to future World Light Heavyweight Champion Georges Carpentier on July 17, 1914. Smith came back from a fourth-round knockdown to floor Carpentier in round six, but he was disqualified for hitting the Frenchman while he was down.
After Jack Johnson lost the championship to Jess Willard in 1915, the "White" title became defunct.
Max Baer was awarded a belt declaring him the "White Heavyweight Champion of the World" after he knocked out Pat Comiskey on September 26, 1940, but it was just a publicity stunt meant get Baer a rematch with World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, who knocked out Baer in a 1935 non-title fight. The stunt didn't work.
White Hopes during Jack Johnson's title reign included:
- Jim Coffey
- Joe Cox
- Fireman Jim Flynn: Fought Jack Johnson for the title in 1912, and was disqualified in the ninth round for repeated headbutts.
- Alfred (Soldier) Kearns
- Tom Kennedy
- Tom McMahon
- Luther McCarty
- Carl Morris: Considered the original "White Hope" (although he was part Cherokee). His hopes for a title shot were crushed by a lopsided loss to Fireman Jim Flynn in 1911.
- Al Palzer
- Arthur Pelkey
- Frank Moran: (See: ) Fought Jack Johnson for the title in 1914, and lost by a twenty-round decision.
- Charley Miller
- Tony Ross: Lost a six-round newspaper decision to Jack Johnson in 1909.
- Jim Savage
- Ed (Gunboat) Smith: Boxed a three-round exhibition with Jack Johnson in 1911.
- Sailor White
- Jess Willard: Defeated Jack Johnson to win the World Heavyweight Championship in 1915.
Later White Hopes included:
- Max Schmeling: Called the "Aryan White Hope of Hitler." He knocked out Joe Louis in a 1936. Two years later, when Louis was champion, Schmeling was stopped in one round.
- Jerry Quarry
- Duane Bobick
- Gerry Cooney
- Tommy Morrison