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Mahershala Ali to Portray First Black Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson In Upcoming HBO Series

Legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first Black person to become heavyweight champion, will be portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali in a limited HBO series.

The six-part series is titled “Unruly.” It will focus on the late boxer’s journey to becoming heavyweight champ and all he had to endure as an outspoken Black fighter in the early 1900s.

Mahershala Ali (L) will play late boxing legend Jack Johnson (R) in an upcoming HBO series. (Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images/The Ring Magazine/The Ring Magazine via Getty Images)

The series will be based on the 2005 PBS documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” and Geoffrey C. Ward’s book of the same name.

Variety reports that Ali is producing the release through his Know Wonder production company. It will be the second time that he’ll play Johnson, the first being in 2000 when he portrayed him in “The Great White Hope,” a stage play. James Earl Jones played Johnson in the original 1967 stage production.

Johnson was born John Arthur Johnson in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. He had his first boxing match at 19 years old, which he won according to PBS.

He eventually made a name for himself in the Black boxing circuit and set out to become heavyweight champion by the early 1900s.

Then heavyweight champion Noah Brusso, a boxer from Canada who fought under the name Tommy Burns, agreed to fight Johnson in Sydney, Australia, in December 1908, according to PBS. The fight ended with a technical knockout in round 14, making Johnson the world’s first Black heavyweight champion.

A white boxer, Jim Jeffries, came out of retirement to try to reclaim the heavyweight champion title he’d held. Johnson fought Jeffries in July of 1910 in Reno, Nevada. The bout was dubbed “Fight of the Century,” and Johnson beat Jeffries — who was called the “Great White Hope” — after 15 rounds.

Race riots broke out in different parts of the U.S. after the victory, with whites violently attacking Blacks who celebrated the win. Several people were killed in various states during those riots.

Later, a search for a white man who again could reclaim the title continued.

From historic accounts, Johnson was financially well-off, seemed to love the spotlight and married white women, which also led to many whites hating him and his success.

The boxing great died in a car accident in 1946 in Franklinton, North Carolina.

Ali hasn’t commented on the HBO project yet. He’s also set to star in Marvel’s “Blade,” taking on the role previously held by Wesley Snipes 

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