Johnson was not only one of history’s most masterful boxers, but also a “pioneer” as one of the most powerful cultural symbols during one of the United States’ most intense periods of racial tension, according to The Guardian. After becoming the first Black man to win the World Heavyweight Championship in 1908, Johnson held the title for seven years. Johnson defeated challenger after challenger, who were often billed as the new “Great White Hope” to take him down. Johnson’s dominant reign eventually ended in 1915 in a match that saw the most famous boxer of the time cross paths with Jess McMahon.
McMahon — known for promoting fights that transcended racial barriers, according to Vice — already had a working relationship with Johnson after helping organize a title fight in 1912. While Johnson’s 1915 defense against Jess Willard was less successful (Johnson was knocked out, ending his legendary title reign) the match was a hit. Sports Illustrated reported roughly 16,000 were in attendance. Jess went on to promote boxing matches for decades after, adding professional wrestling to his roster after promoting his first card in 1932.
The rest, as they say, is history: The next three generations of McMahons turned the professional wrestling world on its head time after time, swallowing up the territory systems that dominated the 20th Century, taking the business mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, and spearheading a monopoly in the form of WWE, which remains the top company today.