Johnson hoboed to Chicago in the spring of 1899. He realized that to get anywhere in the boxing business, he needed to find a white manager, but he was unable to find anyone willing to represent him. So he moved on to Springfield, Illinois, where he met ex-bantamweight Johnny Connor, a saloon owner who put on twice-a-month boxing shows. Connor hired Johnson as the fifth man in a "battle royal" that was to be the opening card in the next event. (Battles royal were a spectacle of the Jim Crow South in which several black men were gloved, blindfolded and placed in a ring. The last man standing won the purse, usually a handful of coins thrown from the all-white audience.) Johnson was the last man standing, and won $1.50, which he had to turn over to the white "manager" who had gotten him the fight.
Despite the lack of prize money, Johnson's victory in the ring had impressed Jack Curley, the young assistant to boxing promoter P.J. "Paddy" Carroll. Curley and Carroll arranged for Johnson to come to Chicago to fight a black heavyweight prospect named John Haines, who used the name "Klondike" in the ring. Johnson's big-city debut on May 5, 1899 was less than auspicious he abruptly quit after five rounds. Afterwards he worked as a sparring partner and trainer, and picked up fights when he could. On May 1, 1900, Johnson took on his first white opponent, an Australian named Jim Scanlon, whom he knocked out in the seventh round.
In January 1901, Paddy Carroll arranged a Johnson-Klondike rematch in Memphis for a $1000 purse. Johnson battered Klondike badly enough that he quit in the 14th round. A rematch with Jim Scanlon was also scheduled, but it was cancelled by the chief of police at the last minute, saying that "no white boxer should meet a Negro in Memphis." Johnson returned home to Galveston.
The following month, veteran boxer Joe Choynski arrived in Galveston, ostensibly to give boxing lessons to members of the Galveston Athletic Club. Actually, he was there to take on Johnson. Many in the local boxing establishment thought Johnson was cocky, and they had brought Choynski in to knock Johnson down a peg. On the evening of February 25, the veteran and the newcomer met in Galveston's Harmony Hall. Choynski knocked out Johnson in the third round, just as the Texas Rangers arrived. Both men were arrested for engaging in an illegal contest. They spent 23 days in jail together, and Sheriff Henry Thomas allowed a crowd to gather at the jail every afternoon to watch the two men spar. Choynski was impressed by Johnson's skill, and told him "A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch."
The grand jury failed to return indictments against Johnson and Choynski, so Thomas let the two men out of jail on the condition that they get out of town. Johnson hopped a freight train for Denver, where he met up with a group of boxers living and training at Ryan's Sand Creek House. His "wife" Mary Austin joined him there for a time. In August, the couple moved to Bakersfield, California.
By 1902 Johnson was an up-and-coming heavyweight on the California circuit, and had a record of at least 27 wins. Johnson wasn't satisfied he had his sights set on the biggest title in all of sports, Heavyweight Champion of the World. But as in many other areas of life, the boxing world of the early 20th century had its own color line. Jim Jeffries, the current heavyweight champion, refused to fight Johnson or any other black boxer.
On May 16, Johnson took on the champion's younger brother, Jack Jeffries. After toying with the younger Jeffries for five rounds, Johnson knocked out his opponent, then helped carry him to his corner. He turned to Jim Jeffries, who was sitting at ringside, and taunted, "I can whip you, too."
Johnson's rise through the heavyweight ranks continued the following year. On February 3 at Hazard's Pavilion in Los Angeles, he defeated "Denver" Ed Martin to win the unofficial "Negro heavyweight championship." Before long, he'd also beaten the three other best black heavyweights of the day: Sam McVey, Joe Jeannette and Sam Langford. By the end of 1903, the Los Angeles Times declared that "Jack Johnson is now the logical opponent for Champion Jeffries.... The color line gag does not go now." Even the Police Gazette, the most influential tabloid in the "sporting" world, was calling for Jeffries to fight Johnson. Jeffries continued to refuse, and on May 2 announced that, having defeated all "logical challengers," he planned to retire to his alfalfa farm. But first, he planned to referee a bout between two white contenders, with the heavyweight title going to the winner.
That fight, between Marvin Hart and former light heavyweight champion Jack Root, was scheduled for July 3 in Reno, Nevada. In the 12th round, Hart landed a right to Root's solar plexus, sending him to the floor. Jeffries counted Root out, then held up Hart's arm and declared him the winner and new Heavyweight Champion of the World. After the fight, Hart declared that he would gladly meet "any man in the world in a fair fight," then quickly added "...this challenge does not apply to colored people."
On February 3, 1906, Hart lost the heavyweight title to a Canadian named Noah Brusso, who fought under the name Tommy Burns. Afterwards, Burns declared:
I will defend my title as heavyweight champion of the world against all comers, none barred. By this I mean black, Mexican, Indian or any other nationality without regard to color, size or nativity. I propose to be the champion of the world, not the white or the Canadian or the American or any other limited degree of champion.
But Burns wanted "to give the white boys a chance" first. It was not until Australian promoter Hugh "Huge Deal" McIntosh offered Burns $30,000 (plus the majority of proceeds from the fight films) that he agreed to meet Johnson. On the day after Christmas, 1908, in Sydney, Australia, Johnson would finally have a shot at the Heavyweight Championship of the World.