The original Broadway production of "The Great White Hope" by Howard Sackler opened at the Alvin Theater in New York on October 3, 1968, ran for 546 performances and won the 1969 Tony Award for the Best Play. James Earl Jones won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actor in Play and recreated his stage role in the movie version. Jane Alexander won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play and recreated her stage role in the movie version. The play author also wrote the screenplay for the movie version.
Redd Foxx, who knew former heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, whose career and struggle against racism inspired the original play, turned down a role in the film as he believed it was not a true picture of his old friend.
In addition to Jack Jefferson being based on Jack Johnson, several other characters are based on real life individuals. Frank Brady is a stand-in for Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champion who came out of retirement to try to end Johnson's title reign, Cap'n Dan is based on "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, the racist former champion refused to fight black men as champion, and the Kid is a stand-in for Jess Willard, the fighter who eventually beat Johnson for the title in Havana in 1915. Eleanor is a composite of two white women Johnson married, Etta Duryea, and Lucille Cameron, who he fled the country with after being convicted.