Jack Johnson rose to prominence in an era when white heavyweight champions drew the color line and refused to fight black challengers. That practice did not deter him from doggedly pursuing heavyweight champion Tommy Burns across the globe and finally cornering him in Melbourne, Australia, on Dec. 26, 1908, and beating him senseless to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
Having broken one color barrier, Johnson then proceeded to break another. He challenged a tenet of Jim Crow, one that some say was indeed the raison d'etre of Jim Crow laws: He openly pursued white women as sexual companions. Johnson not only pursued them, but openly flaunted his breaking of this taboo.
A panic-stricken white public craved for a white hope who would defeat Johnson and return this cocky black to his place. Former champion James J. Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement to attempt the task, only to be dispatched by Johnson in 15 brutal, humiliating rounds at Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910.
Having failed to produce a competent white hope, the anti-Johnson contingent violated the very spirit of the Mann Act -- designed to curb interstate prostitution -- to trump up charges against Johnson and run him out of the country in 1912.
Less than 60 years later, young Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship. He joined the black separatist sect, the Nation of Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and preached black pride and self-help in between thrashing his opponents.
Originally declared ineligible for the draft, he was reclassified as eligible in a move that, according to syndicated columnist William F. Buckley, may have been politically motivated by the draft board of Louisville, Kentucky. When Ali was inducted into the armed forces in 1967 and asked to give at least tacit approval to a war in which the casualty rate for black soldiers in 1965 was 25 percent, he unhesitatingly refused. He was stripped of his championship, convicted of draft evasion and exiled from boxing for 3 1/2 years.
How does the case of Mike Tyson, recently convicted and sentenced for raping Desiree Washington, compare to those of ''Papa Jack'' Johnson and Muhammad Ali? It doesn't. Johnson and Ali were authentic black heroes who each in his own way defied white supremacy. Tyson is a heel, a thug with a history of thuggery whose misdeeds finally caught up with him.
Many blacks, particularly black men, won't have it that way. To them Tyson is a victim. Proponents of the ''Tyson as victim'' school of thought espouse two beliefs.
The first is that Tyson is the victim of a system dedicated to destroying affluent, successful black man. One letter writer to the Afro-American newspaper even suggested that Tyson's views in a Spike Lee documentary provoked the ''conspiracy'' that resulted in his conviction.
Spike Lee himself offered the distinctly non-expert opinion that Tyson did not receive a fair trial, regardless of whether he was guilty of the rape. This is simply a care of black men rallying around another brother in a gesture of brotherly solidarity, proving that there is at times a thin line between brotherly solidarity and fatuous delusion.
The second doctrine of the ''Tyson as victim'' school of thought asserts that Desiree Washington is a cunning, calculating, gold-digging vixen who lured poor, sweet, innocent Mike Tyson into a trap to get his money. All such women in the world, you see, single out Mike Tyson as their victim. Robin Givens was either a Machiavellian bitch or a conniving bitch -- depending on how metaphoric her detractors wanted to be, I suppose -- who first victimized Tyson by marrying him for his money.
The level of public outrage at Ms. Givens and support for Tyson during their marriage was both puzzling and sickening and is now having a residual effect in the Tyson-Washington rape case.
Don King, the ex-convict and self-appointed character reference for Tyson and character assassin of Ms. Washington, insists that her motives, like Ms. Givens', are strictly mercenary. That sentiment has been echoed by persons who -- while probably quite rational under normal circumstances -- insist that Desiree Washington is simply a greedy slut who, assuming she was raped, got what she deserved.
How do those of us still grounded in reality respond to such flapdoodle? We could point out that a guy who used to mug elderly women as a teen-ager just might be capable of committing rape. We could point that Tyson's own defense attorneys portrayed their client as a man capable of committing rape. We might remind the Misogyny Brigade that a woman's presence in a man's hotel room at 2 a.m. does not imply consent to have sex.
We could mention that former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes predicted that Tyson was headed for trouble, and that former heavyweight champion George Foreman -- pugilism's current wit and sage in residence -- once remarked that his goal was to get Mike Tyson in the ring ''before a good district attorney got to him.''
Now a good district attorney has gotten to him, and the only thing left to say to the ''Tyson as victim'' rabble is this: ''Mike Tyson is no Jack Johnson. He's certainly no Muhammad Ali. He's simply an reconstructed thug who raped Desiree Washington and now he's going down for it.'' End of discussion.
6* Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.