Joined by Sylvester Stallone, current and past boxing champions, earlier today President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned boxer Jack Johnson.
[Transcript] Oval Office – 12:55 P.M. EDT – THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. This was set up quite a long time ago. And while this is a very interesting day we have going, this was very important to Sylvester Stallone — my friend for a long time, Sly — and the whole group.
We have incredible people here. We have the current heavyweight champion of the world, Deontay Wilder. He’s 40 and 0. This gentleman right here. He’s 40 and 0, with 39 knockouts.
And we have Lennox Lewis, who, as you know, is one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Unbelievable heart, and, in all fairness, unbelievable talent. He was a talented, talented fighter. A great and talented fighter.
LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. And, Deontay, thank you.
WILDER: Yes, sir. Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: So, Lennox, if I really went and started working out, could I take Deontay in a fight? (Laughter.) Please tell me. This is 40 and 0, 39 knockouts. Could I take him in a fight if I really went to work?
LEWIS: You’d have to get past those long arms.
THE PRESIDENT: I get it. They’re long arms.
LEWIS: Yeah, they’re long arms.
THE PRESIDENT: And we also have Linda Bell Haywood, the maternal great-great niece of Jack Johnson. Now, we all sort of have heard of Jack Johnson — had a very tough life, and an interesting life. One of the greatest fighters — Lennox was just telling me — one of the greatest fighters ever of the early 1900s.
Today, as President, I’ve issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon, posthumously, to John Arthur “Jack” Johnson — he was known as “Jack Johnson” — the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. A truly great fighter. Had a tough life.
They say he violated the Mann Act, and he had a conviction that occurred during a period of tremendous racial tension in the United States, more than a century ago. Johnson served 10 months in federal prison for what many view as a racially motivated injustice. He was treated very rough, very tough.
Born in 1878, in Galveston, Texas, to former slaves, Johnson overcame difficult circumstances to reach the heights of boxing. One of the greatest that ever lived. And both Deontay and Lennox were telling me they studied those tapes. I don’t know, I think you would have been okay. I don’t know. I think Lennox would have been okay, too.
But truly one of the greatest that ever lived. And he overcame these difficult circumstances to reach the heights of boxing in the boxing world, and inspired generations with his tenacity and a very independent spirit.
Congress has supported numerous resolutions calling for Johnson’s pardon. Went through Congress numerous times. No President ever signed it, surprisingly. They thought it was going to be signed in the last administration and that didn’t happen. So that was very disappointing for a lot of people.
These resolutions enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, including from the Congressional Black Caucus. The Black Caucus supported it very, very powerfully, very strongly, but they couldn’t get the President to sign it. One of these resolutions passed Congress as recently as 2015.
Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion. And he was the heavyweight champion for many years. He was pretty much unbeatable.
In light of these facts, and in recognition of his historical athletic achievements and the contributions to society — he really represented something that was both very beautiful and very terrible at the same time — I believe that Jack Johnson is a very worthy person to receive a full pardon and, in this case, a posthumous pardon.
So I am taking this very righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history, and to honor a truly legendary boxing champion, legendary athlete, and a person that, when people got to know him, they really liked him and they really thought he was treated unfairly as a human being and unfairly as a champion.
So I’m going to be signing that. Don, if you bring that up. And then if you’d like to ask a couple of questions to the folks, I think that Mauricio Sulaiman — we have José Sulaiman, a name I’ve heard probably more than I’ve heard any boxer’s name. He’s a big power in the world of boxing, and somehow your name is mentioned at every major match, and Mauricio Sulaiman. And I think, in this case, Mauricio is going to say a few words. But let me sign this first so we get it done.
And congratulations, because I know you all fought very hard to have this taken care of. I know Lennox, and Sly, and my friend, Keith — where’s Keith? And my friend, Keith, who is a very successful guy. And the champ. You all fought very, very hard to get this done. So it’s my honor to do it. It’s about time.
(The presidential pardon is signed.)
How’s that for an autograph? Okay
HAYWOOD: That is fabulous, sir. Thank you. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: That is my great honor. And I think what we’ll do is we’ll do that to you —
MS HAYWOOD: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: — and we have pens for everybody, we’re going to give you. Okay?
Mauricio, do you want to say something about the champ?
SALDIVAR: Mr. President, on behalf of the world of boxing, I would like to praise, congratulate, and thank you for taking this gigantic step for human equality and inclusion. Jack Johnson was the inspiration of many, including Muhammad Ali. This is a great day for the sport, a great day for humanity. And I’m just very proud to be here with the best ambassador boxing has ever had, Sylvester Stallone.
THE PRESIDENT: I agree with that.
SALDIVAR: “Rocky” has motivated so many generations. Lennox Lewis, one of the greatest champions in the history of boxing. And our current king, Deontay Wilder. It is just an unbelievable day for us. And all I can say, just the way you promoted our sport in the ’90s, you’re doing so many things now for the sport of boxing, which is unbelievable, and we cannot thank you enough.
THE PRESIDENT: And our country is doing great. It’s nice to see, but we are really doing great.
Lennox Lewis, one of the great champions of all time, in my opinion. I know them all, or at least I certainly know of them all, but I know a lot of them. But Lennox is one of the great champions. Tremendous physical talent, but he also had a thing called heart. And Lennox, I guess you saw a lot of talented guys —
THE PRESIDENT: — and you were looking down at them at the end of a couple of rounds. Right? (Laughter.)
But Lennox had tremendous heart and has tremendous heart. Would you like to say something about Jack Johnson?
LEWIS: Yeah, you know, Jack Johnson is a great inspiration to me, especially throughout my whole career. And I was always wondering how come he didn’t get a lot of press and what the situation was with him. But I’m very happy that I was here this historic day for Mr. Johnson and his family. And I think it’s going to weigh a heavy weight around the world that this actually happened, and everybody will thank you, and I’ll thank you as well.
THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s great when a great champion, who, in theory, doesn’t have to worry about somebody from the early part of the century — I think it’s great when a great champion comes to honor and even press that another great champion be honored. I think that’s a great thing.
LEWIS: Yes, thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: I think that’s a great thing.
Now, you know, everybody knows Sly and what a job he’s done. One of — I tell you what, I love his movies. And I don’t care if it’s “Rambo” or “Rocky,” I still don’t know which I like better. Right? (Laughter.) But Sly is a special guy, and he’s more shy than you would think. So I won’t even tell him, but if you want to say a word, you can, Sly.
STALLONE: Well, no pressure here, right? (Laughter.)
I want to thank you, Mr. President. It’s incredible that you’ve done this because — it’s one thing, I’ve been so blessed with the “Rocky” situation and playing that character. And actually, when I was writing it, I’m thinking about inspirations for this Apollo Creed, and that was Jack Johnson — this bigger than life, incredible character, and who is, you know, treated so unfairly — his prime was taken away — but somehow he still managed to persevere and kept a smile on his face, and he’s truly an inspirational character.
So this has been a long time coming. Of course, Linda, thank you very much. You’re so amazing. Probably the — I don’t know how many blood relatives are left, but you’re, like, the one that really, really fought for him, and I appreciate that.
HAYWOOD: Yes. Yes, I have.
STALLONE: So it’s an honor to take a fictional character like Rocky, and do something in the world of reality. And thank you for making that happen. And keep punching, Jack. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: And, you know, the beautiful thing about Sly — and I’ve known him for so long, such a great guy — he didn’t want to have any press. He didn’t want anything. He just wanted Jack Johnson to be recognized. He really said he didn’t want any press. I said, “Do you want to get the press?” He said, “No, no, no.” And he said it even before he came down. He did not want any press. And we just said, “Hey, let’s do it.” And I will tell you —
STALLONE: I have stage fright. Can you believe it? (Laughter.) After all these years, I just discovered it.
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think — hey, I don’t think you have any fright, I’ll tell you what.
STALLONE: I do. I do. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: But you are a really great guy, in so many ways. Long beyond sport and boxing, you are a great guy, and you’ve been a great friend.
STALLONE: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Linda, would you like to say something on behalf of Jack?
HAYWOOD: Yes. This has been a long time coming. And I am really overwhelmed because, for so long, my family was deeply ashamed that my uncle went to prison because of how he was treated, and they never really spoke of him. And I’ve said many times, I did not realize and know he was my uncle until I was 12 years old because of the shame that the family carried, and most of them took it to their graves.
By this pardon being issued, that would help to rewrite history, and erase the shame and the humiliation that my family felt for my uncle, a great hero, being in prison unjustly. And so many people have come along with me on this journey. So many people, I cannot really thank them all.
The most important person that decided to do this is sitting here to my left: President Trump. And I thank him. I thank Mauricio Sulaiman. I thank Miguel Torrucogarza, who took a lot of effort to find me. And Mr. Sylvester Stallone, who boldly put it in his ear. And when he tweeted, my entire life changed. (Laughter.) People wouldn’t leave me alone. Now, it’s going to be even more insane, but I’m fine with that. But I appreciate you rewriting history.
And also, let me just thank Senator John McCain for all of his efforts, and Congressman Peter King. And I’ve spoken with Samuel Collins of Hitchcock, Texas, and Reverend Jesse Jackson. So many people have helped me. And my family, now, can go forward knowing that the shame and the pain has been erased, and history will be rewritten. And I sincerely thank you, sir. And you and everybody that brought me here. I am the spokesperson for my family. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Beautiful. Thank you, Linda. Beautiful.
Champ, would you like to say — the current heavyweight champion of the world — would you like to say a few words about Jack Johnson.
WILDER: Yes, I would. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. The Jack Johnson pardon is something that should have never happened. You know, I’m here to support the pardon and his family. You know, this is an event that’s been long overdue, and it’s amazing to see a wrong corrected. And thanks — all thanks to Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, champ.
WILDER: Yes, sir. Thank you so much.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. And keep knocking (inaudible). (Applause.) Thank you.
And they were just nice enough to present me with this. That’s a beautiful thing, but I think now the White House staff take it, and they put it away. I’m not allowed to receive. Can you believe it? So they put it away —
STALLONE: Oh no, they expect you to start training immediately. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: But we’ll put it — yeah, we’ll start training.
STALLONE: Getting ready for a rematch.
THE PRESIDENT: We’ll start training. (Laughter.)
Well, on behalf of the White House, on behalf of the presidency, on behalf of this country — our country is a great country, and we have done something today that was very important because we righted a wrong. It was a wrong, and a lot of people knew it. I knew it. Without being an expert on the subject, I knew it for a long time. Jack Johnson was not treated fairly. And we have corrected that, and I’m very honored to have done it, Linda.
HAYWOOD: Thank you. Thank you so much.
STALLONE: Yeah, thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: And thank you all very much. Thank you, Sly. (Applause.) Thank you all. Thank you all very much. (Applause.) Thank you all very much. Thank you.