Vancouver Feature: Heavyweight Champ Battles Future Movie Star

In 1909, everyone knew who Jack Johnson was: the first Black Heavyweight Champion of the World. His opponent at the old Vancouver Athletic Club was a relatively unknown 26-year-old named Victor McLaglen. The young boxer lost this match, but would later win an Oscar and worldwide fame for his cinematic bouts with John Wayne.

Jack Johnson arrived in Vancouver on March 10, 1909 fresh from his victory over Canadian-born Tommy Burns in Australia, where he won undisputed title as Heavyweight Champion of the World. The controversial Johnson, whose white wife drew almost as much attention as her husband, disarmed the press and all he encountered with his mild manner and elegant conversation.

Victor McLaglen was the champ’s first opponent after Burns. They met at the Vancouver Athletic Club on Dunsmuir. According to one report, “Johnson had little trouble with McLaglen, tagging him in the solar plexus within the first minute of their exhibition. Like a giant cedar having received an axeman's final blow, McLaglen paused for a moment before slowing collapsing to his knees." The challenger was able to continue, but Johnson toyed with him for the six rounds of the exhibition, speaking graciously to the crowd from his corner between rounds.

McLaglen had a more successful career as an actor. He was a favorite of the great director John Ford, who cast him in the lead of The Informer, for which McLaglen won the Best Actor Oscar in 1935. Many roles followed, including a memorable one in The Quiet Man, where he fought an epic battle with his old friend John Wayne. McLaglen earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for that performance.