Harold Johnson: The
Master Mechanic haunted by Archie Moore
By Mike Casey
with laser-like accuracy, he slipped and blocked punches, he double-feinted all
night long in a sublime exhibition of masterful boxing. For forty-five minutes
of near technical perfection, Harold Johnson mesmerised the more than capable
Doug Jones on a May night in Philadelphia in 1962.
Like a rare
diamond that had been kept shut away in a vault, Johnson finally stepped out and
sparkled as the master of all he surveyed among boxing’s 175-pounders. How great
was he on that magical night in the City of Brotherly Love? Well, Doug Jones
would go on to scare the life out of young Cassius Clay just ten months later.
Against Johnson, Doug could barely hit the target, never mind hit it with
Jones was no
mug. He was a tough, hard-hitting fighter who compiled a solid and honourable
world class career. Against Johnson, however, Doug was a bewildered pupil
against a master.
ringsider Lew Eskin wrote: “Harold Johnson may not be the best fighter in the
world, but there were few among the 5,000 plus who sat in on his fight with Doug
Jones in the Philadelphia Arena who could argue the point, and that included
thirty-four year old Johnson, a veteran of seventeen years in the professional
ranks, gave a masterful performance as he handed out a lesson in the art of
outset Johnson’s left was a thing of beauty as he stabbed his foe off balance in
a continuing pattern of motion. Doug, with only twenty fights behind him, could
not figure out a defense for Harold’s left.
round went by along the same lines. Jones would try to open up Johnson so that
he could land his right, but to no avail. When he was ready to punch, Harold
would shift, jab and be gone.
to double feint Johnson, but ended up off balance as the veteran double feinted
him into knots. Doug had the edge in reach, but was unable to make use of it as
Harold would slide his head out of the way of jabs and counter with his own, or
as Doug was moving forward, shift and nail him with a right hand lead.”
the old adage, people do sometimes remember the guy who finished second. But
that is scant consolation to those luckless souls who never quite achieve the
recognition they strive for. What must it feel like to be a champion, win every
trophy in the case and still carry the stigma of being second best because
someone out there is even better than you? Ask Esteban DeJesus, who just
happened to share the same pocket of time with Roberto Duran. Ask Howard
Winstone, who got Vicente Saldivar as his swinging sixties companion. Rodrigo
Valdez, the brilliant Colombian middleweight, had to put up with a fellow
called Carlos Monzon.
In a far
gentler domain, a long time ago, I became acquainted with the feeling of trying
to overtake a natural talent. Excelling in English and History, I was kept out
of the number one spot in both classes by an earnest fellow who once told his
careers officer, in all deadly seriousness, that he wanted to be Prime Minister
of Great Britain. I whipped everyone at English and History, but I never could
beat the would-be Prime Minister.
if you will, a similar scenario. A marvellous ring mechanic compiles a
glittering record against some of the finest fighters in the business. He wins
the world championship and is acknowledged by his peers and critics as a master
of his trade. Yet throughout his career, he is consistently overshadowed by a
fighter of even greater ability and stature.
ringmen have fallen into this category, yet the man who prompted these thoughts
was former light heavyweight champion, Harold Johnson.
recent sort-out of the hundreds of boxing magazines that make my study resemble
a besieged fortress, I came across a copy of Johnson’s record and this
inevitably led to my seeking out original reports of his fights. Most accounts
were glowing tributes to Harold’s superb skill and general boxing prowess, some
devoid of even the slightest criticism.
Yet who talks
about Johnson now? Here was a man who laboured for years to win the biggest
prize in his class. He never gave up the chase and he toiled in an era of
ferocious competition when a dozen wins wouldn’t get you a shot at the world
crown. How many realise that he wound up in a gloomy old people’s home in his
native Philadelphia with a rapidly fading memory?
As a young
fighter working his way up the ranks, Harold Johnson was certainly a sight to
behold. He was a magnificent physical specimen throughout his career, a natural
in the way of Max Baer. Harold was proud of his fitness. Several years ago, he
told writer Tris Dixon: “I was very good in training. A lot of fighters told me
they wish they could have trained like me, because I was always training.
“I was always
running in the morning at about 6.30, not too early, not too late. I’d run in
the rain and the snow because I wanted to be in good shape to fight. I used to
jump rope and loved the speed bag. A lot of guys wished they could hit the speed
bag like I could, too. I guess I had a little rhythm. I’d have music on when I
hit it and punch to the rhythm. I always took it seriously – everything I did in
training I’d take seriously.”
couldn’t abide alcohol and was quick to point out that weights played no part in
carving his outstanding muscular definition. “The only weights I lifted were
dumbbells for shadow boxing to put power in my punches. I was told I could hurt
myself lifting weights, so I didn’t. I didn’t want to get injured.
“It’s no good
for fighters – it makes you slow, muscles you up. They might give you power, but
your opponent will see your punches coming. What’s the point in having power if
you can’t hit nobody? People were sure I lifted weights, but I never.”
Even in his
heyday, Harold Johnson’s name was never one to fire the imagination of the
greater boxing public. He was never a fashionable or exciting fighter, but
rather one of that rare breed whose gifts are only appreciated by the
connoisseurs. More significantly, perhaps, he was misfortunate in being a
contemporary of the one man he couldn’t beat when it counted the most: Archie
book tells us that Johnson outpointed Moore over ten rounds at Milwaukee in
December 1951, but it was Archie who dominated their five-fight series by a
score of four to one. The Old Mongoose underlined his mastery of Johnson in
audacious fashion in their final meeting in New York in 1954. Challenging for
Moore’s light heavyweight crown, Harold scored a tenth round knockdown and
seemed assured of a points victory with only two rounds to go. But his hopes
were brutally dashed in the fourteenth as Moore launched a dramatic attack to
floor Johnson and force a stoppage.
seemed to strike at the wrong moment in Johnson’s life. It was Archie who had
inflicted Harold’s first professional defeat in 1949. The die was cast. There
was a division of class between the two men, however thin, and it was Johnson
who ran second. If Johnson ever felt that fate had singled him out as a nearly
man, he made an admirable job of disguising his frustration. He was a model
professional who took his lumps with dignity and never stopped pursuing his
dream of becoming world champion. By the time of his eventual coronation in
1961, he had been a professional for fifteen years and his record sparkled with
the names of famous fighters.
The son of a
good class heavyweight, Phil Johnson, Harold turned professional in 1946 and won
his first twenty-four fights before dropping his first decision to Moore in
Philadelphia in 1949. Among Johnson’s victims that year were the tough Chilean,
Arturo Godoy, who twice challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight title, Bert
Lytell and Jimmy Bivins, who had been caretaker champion during the Brown
Bomber’s stint in the army.
1950, the still young and relatively inexperienced Johnson stepped out of his
class when he crossed gloves with the seemingly ageless Jersey Joe Walcott, who
would proceed to win the heavyweight championship a year later at the age of
thirty-seven. Walcott knocked out Johnson in three rounds at Philadelphia in an
odd twist of fate. Jersey Joe had kayoed Harold’s father in the same city and in
similar time some fourteen years before.
some time to recover from the defeat, and it was December of that year before he
came back to knock out Harry Daniells in two rounds. Johnson scored a further
four victories before the haunting figure of Archie Moore stepped out of the
shadows to torment him again. Between September 1951 and July 1952, the two men
clashed three times, with Johnson’s lone success in Milwaukee being outweighed
by two defeats.
Yet it would
be wrong to suggest that Moore was the only obstacle in Johnson’s path. Top
class fighters were richly abundant in every weight class at that time and
generally had only one undisputed champion to aim at. Even the light heavyweight
sector, historically boxing’s most maligned division, featured a host of tough
and talented ringmen. The swarthy and skilful Joey Maxim was the champion, and
among the other outstanding contenders were Harry Matthews, Wesbury Bascom, Bob
Satterfield, Bob Murphy, Yolande Pompey, Dan Bucceroni and Danny Nardico.
hard even for a fighter of Johnson’s calibre, yet it was a measure of Harold’s
ability that he was also able to step up a weight class and defeat ranking
heavyweights. Within two months of losing his third fight to Moore in Toledo,
Johnson decisioned Clarence Henry, rated among the top ten heavies at that time,
and then split a pair of decisions with that dynamite puncher, Bob Satterfield.
Harold rounded off his 1952 campaign with a points victory over Nino Vales in
is possible for a young American boxer of today to go through a whole career
within a tight geographical circle, fighters of Johnson’s era constantly
criss-crossed the country to get work. In 1953, Harold fought in New York,
Toledo, Miami Beach, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Hershey, posting victories over
Jimmy Slade, Toxie Hall and Ezzard Charles.
finally challenged Moore for the championship the following year, it seemed
Harold was on the verge of dispersing the black cloud that had hovered over him
for so long. The manner of his defeat was almost too cruel to be true and his
chance of levelling the score with Archie was gone forever. Fate kept the two
men apart thereafter, and while Moore set his sights on heavyweight champion
Rocky Marciano, Johnson’s career nosedived. Two months after the Moore setback,
Harold was knocked out in two rounds by Oakland Billy Smith and engaged in only
five fights over the next two years.
He was judged
the villain of the piece in a bizarre meeting with former victim Julio Mederos
in May 1955, in which Johnson collapsed mysteriously in the second round and
later claimed he had eaten a poisoned orange. He was subsequently fined for a
suspected dive and it was nearly two years before he got his next fight, when he
outscored Bert Whitehurst in Portland, Maine.
Mederos incident was the making of Johnson as a fighter, because it was eight
years before he was beaten again, even though he competed infrequently. He
fought only twice in 1959 and just once in 1960, but in 1961 the years of
experience shone through gloriously as the hard old campaigner won himself a
share of the light heavyweight championship.
National Boxing Association (now the WBA) stripped Archie Moore of the
championship for his failure to defend, and Johnson was matched with Jesse
Bowdry for the vacant title at Miami Beach. Harold was magnificent in
outclassing Bowdry, stopping his man in the ninth round after a faultless
exhibition of box-fighting.
constant presence of Archie Moore continued to haunt Harold. “I won the NBA
title,” he said, after defeating Bowdry, “but I won’t feel like a real champion
until I beat the old man, Archie Moore.” That day would never dawn for Johnson,
but he did the next best thing by decisively beating the best challengers the
division could offer.
and 1962 were arguably Harold’s finest years as a fighter. In his first title
defence, he had the calm and relaxed look of a man taking a walk in the park as,
almost effortlessly, he knocked out his fellow Philadelphian Von Clay in two
succeeding fight, Johnson improved irresistibly like vintage wine. When he
outpointed top ranking heavyweight Eddie Machen in a non-title match in July
1961, there were those who were so impressed by Harold’s skills that they
accorded him an excellent chance of beating the mighty Sonny Liston. Johnson’s
next title defence against another grand veteran, Eddie Cotton, was a somewhat
poignant affair for those who truly feel for their fighters.
Cotton was an
excellent ring technician, who had also laboured long and hard to earn his title
chance. But while Johnson had fought in the shadow of one legend, Cotton had
toiled in the shadow of two. Eddie had the misfortune of being the third man in
the triumvirate of Moore, Johnson and Cotton, a man who could have been king but
for his two great contemporaries.
finally got his chance in his hometown of Seattle, he challenged Johnson
spiritedly but could not beat him. Harold paced himself beautifully, closing the
fight strongly to win a unanimous decision. It was to old Eddie’s credit that,
all of five years later at the age of thirty-nine, he would challenge for the
title again and convince thousands that he had done enough to dethrone Jose
Johnson had truly come into his own and was rightly hailed as a superb,
thoroughbred champion. In 1962 he was again unstoppable as he saw off two of the
finest contenders of the decade in Doug Jones and Gustav Scholz. The Jones
triumph was one to savour for Harold, for at last he was given universal
recognition as world champion. Johnson then travelled to Berlin to face Scholz,
scoring another emphatic points win. The defeat was one of only two suffered by
Scholz in 96 professional engagements.
that Johnson would reign interminably, but in June 1963 the master boxer caught
a tartar when he was toppled from his throne in a major upset. He pitted his
crown against Willie Pastrano in Las Vegas, in what seemed a fairly safe
defence. Pastrano was an experienced and skilful campaigner, but a bon viveur
and poor trainer whose recent form had been erratic. Willie had lost, drawn and
won in three successive fights with fellow contender, Wayne Thornton, and was
third substitute for the Johnson fight.
But the slick
stylist from New Orleans frustrated Harold with speed, guile and a flicking jab
to shock the fight fraternity by winning a close and disputed split decision.
Many observers believed that Johnson had won the bout comfortably and the
verdict caused a storm of controversy, yet Harold took his defeat with supreme
grace and sportsmanship.
It was as if
he had become quietly resigned to the fact that fate was never going to hand him
any special favours. Discussing the fight in a 1970 interview, Pastrano said of
Johnson: “Harold took it like a man, even though it was close. He didn’t squawk,
he didn’t say boo. His manager did a lot of screaming. Harold just took his hand
wraps off. I told him, ‘You’re a man, baby’. He’s still a fighter’s fighter.”
thirty-five by that time, and most thirty-five year old ex-champions were ready
for an easier life in those more competitive days. Yet Harold plodded on for a
further eight years, campaigning only occasionally, yet still showing flashes of
his old brilliance in beating some quality fighters.
only once in 1964, knocking out the tough Hank Casey in eight rounds. Johnson
was inactive in 1965, 1969 and 1970, yet kept resurfacing to defeat the stellar
likes of Herschel Jacobs, Eddie (Bossman) Jones and European champion, Lothar
Stengel. Harold was like a ghost from the past during that final phase in his
career, an old maestro who kept coming back to show the Young Turks how it was
ran out for the grand old professional in 1971, when he attempted to shake off
the rust of a two-year layoff in a return fight with Herschel Jacobs. Even at
forty-three, Harold still possessed much of his old magic, but after winning the
first two rounds, he was stopped on a cut eye in the third. He never fought
again and faded quietly from the scene, but he should never be forgotten.
We live in an
age of megastars and megabucks, where everything is larger than life and
frequently pumped up out of all proportion. The past seems to recede and grow
insignificant with ever greater rapidity, like an old black and white film. Past
champions are all too quickly dismissed as old hat by those who can’t be
bothered to get out their shovels and dig.
I only hope
that the passing years don’t behave so cruelly to Harold Johnson. In an era when
Philadelphia was renowned for its fistic scientists, Harold earned his degree.
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