The Mightiest Right?
By Mike Casey
When Joe Louis knocked out Johnny Paychek with a fast right to
the jaw at Madison Square Garden in 1940, Johnny’s almost uniquely surreal and
dreamy fall to the mat prompted one reporter to ask his readers, “Did you ever
see a ghost walking? I did.”
Louis had proved conclusively, as if proof were needed, that he
could knock out a man with a single shot. Joe’s famous quick-fire salvos always
looked more spectacular and are probably best remembered, but Johnny Payckek and
Jim Braddock were just two fellows who learned with shocking suddenness that
Louis didn’t have to get too fancy in times of need.
Misconceptions are easily fashioned. Many younger fans see Rocky
Marciano whaling away at Don Cockell and Archie Moore for what seems an
eternity. The impression is gained that Rocky, probably past his prime at that
juncture in his career, needed a thousand blows to drive an opponent into the
floor, which wasn’t always the case. Jack Dempsey and many others in the know
frequently praised the Brockton Blockbuster as one of the great one-punch
finishers when the chance presented itself. The short, right hand blast that
sent Jersey Joe Walcott to dreamland still stands up as one of the greatest ever
Dempsey modestly said that he needed to knock his opponents down
repeatedly to finish them off, but Jack too could be stunningly economical. So
short were some of his killer blows that ringsiders often missed them and
questioned what they had seen. Bear in mind too that Jess Willard would never
take anything like seven trips to the canvas in these far gentler times, which
would likely make Dempsey’s victory at Toledo look even greater. We will
re-visit that interesting point a little later on.
The ability to knock a man clean out with one punch or a quick
combination is a wonderful gift, bestowed upon far few fighters than we might
imagine. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious, and I recall my fellow
historian Mike Hunnicut saying to me some time ago, “It’s a heck of a thing to
be able to knock a man out of a fight – never mind literally knock him out.”
We are talking here of the select group of heavyweight champions
who could apply the sudden death finish; the elite precision punchers who
continue to jolt our senses and make us gasp whenever we watch their films.
There is a certain laziness and an apparently innocuous air to
the mighty blows of those men who have the talent, as if the hands are separate
entities working themselves. The punches strike home with speed and suddenness,
yet appear at first sight to be slow and almost ponderous. The delayed reaction
that so often follows isn’t confined to the stricken man. Listen for the
discernible pause between the crunch of the blow and the roar of the crowd.
Just recently, I played back Ingemar Johansson’s chilling first
round destruction of Eddie Machen in Gothenburg in 1958. Nothing much happens
before the curtain comes down as Johansson, ever the cautious counter puncher,
circles the ring with his high guard and his curious habit of keeping his left
fist churning in little circles.
Then he finally throws the right hand, the punch he christened
Thor’s Hammer. It seems to ease out of its shell in slow motion, as if oddly
divorced in mind and matter from its owner’s body. It meets Machen’s chin,
knocks him down heavily and still hasn’t registered with the watching thousands.
Eddie is sprawled on his back before the thunderous roar finally goes up.
Nine months later at Yankee Stadium, Johansson would similarly
catch the masses napping with the first thunderous right that would send Floyd
Patterson into a brutal and tortuously prolonged nightmare.
Whatever else Ingemar Johansson didn’t possess as a fighter, and
let it be said that he was one of the most technically lacking of the
heavyweight champions, I say unhesitatingly that he was one of the greatest
natural punchers that boxing has ever seen. A one-handed puncher for sure, but
the subject matter here is that one right hand and just how great it was.
The Perfect Heavyweight Champ
Back in the eighties, when everyone and his brother was rushing
out books on Mike Tyson, the eternal and greatly knowledgeable British fight
commentator, Reg Gutteridge, weighed in with his own commendable effort.
It was Reg who very nearly caused Muhammad Ali to faint in horror
with a ghoulish trick. Ali, unaware that Gutteridge had lost a leg in the Second
World War, watched aghast as the old fox casually plunged a knife into his
wooden substitute as part of an ‘I bet you can’t do this’ bet.
Reg knew his boxing well and continues to know it well to this
day. At the conclusion of his 1987 book on Tyson, Gutteridge presented his
identikit of the perfect heavyweight champion.
It made for interesting reading and here are the components with
which Reg constructed his boxing Frankenstein: The left jab of Larry Holmes; the
left hook of Joe Louis; the counter-punching of Tommy Burns; the uppercut of
George Foreman; the ring strategy of Gene Tunney; the footwork of Jim Corbett;
the body punching of Bob Fitzsimmons; the raw power of Sonny Liston; the
aggression of Rocky Marciano; the stamina of John L Sullivan; the chin of Jim
Jeffries; the defensive skills of Jack Johnson; the physique of Ken Norton; the
determination of Joe Frazier; the hand speed of Floyd Patterson; the close
quarter work of Jack Dempsey; the sportsmanship of Jersey Joe Walcott; the
strength of Primo Carnera and the flair of Muhammad Ali.
One component, of course, is missing from that recipe, that of
the best right hand. Gutteridge didn’t vote for Max Baer, as many might expect.
The nod went to Ingemar Johansson and this writer was glad to hear it.
In comparing the assets of two fighters, one feels somewhat
compelled in this sensitive day and age to explain that no personal axe is being
ground against the guy who finishes second. I have come in praise of Max Baer a
great many times in my career and have frequently defended the Livermore
Larruper against those who would tell you that he was little more than a clown
with a wallop.
But Max’s nickname was very apt. He was indeed a larruper from
the same school as George Foreman and, to a lesser extent, Sonny Liston. Max
possessed pure power but was rarely a pure hitter. Much like Foreman, Baer
generally pounded the resistance out of opponents with a succession of clubbing
blows. Max and George were men wielding big clubs, which they deployed most
terrifyingly at their best. Johansson was a man wielding a hammer, a genuine
gift of the gods that required no great force or physical exertion to heighten
its impact. Would Ingo have beaten Baer, Foreman or Liston? Of course not. But
that is not the point of our discussion.
The Right Stuff
Although a limited fighter inn terms of overall technique,
versatility and ruggedness, Johansson was a cunning trickster in and out of the
ring, whose engaging smile and casual approach to life masked a clever and
mischievous mind. As Reg Gutteridge points out: “There has never been a world
heavyweight champion quite like Ingemar Johansson. He was a handsome man with a
big dimple in his chin and he had a winning smile.
“Nothing was ever allowed to stop him enjoying the good life, and
he led a playboy existence even when training for major fights. Ingo cleverly
exaggerated his playboy image while in the United States preparing for his title
shot against Floyd Patterson, and he duped the press and Patterson into thinking
he was more interested in fun than fighting.
“He didn’t look a class fighter in the ring, but there was a
procession of battered heavyweights in Europe – including British heroes Henry
Cooper and Joe Erskine – who could vouch for the fact that he was much better
than he looked.
“They had all felt the weight of ‘Ingo’s Bingo’ – his goodnight
right that could put anybody to sleep. His left jab seemed nothing more than a
pawing punch, but in actual fact it was an important range finder for what he
called his Hammer of Thor – a right hand punch that was absolutely lethal.”
Ron Lipton, former fighter, referee and boxing’s
jack-of-all-trades, has long been fascinated by the almost mystical right hand
of Johansson. Ron saw a number of Ingo’s fights and talked to both Johansson and
Floyd Patterson about the Swede’s natural punching power.
“For sheer power, Ingo’s right hand was up there with the best,”
says Ron. “Max Baer’s had more torque and was a looping, roundhouse shot.
Dempsey’s was an iron-fisted right hand delivered in a different manner, heavy,
fast and with crunch.
“Liston’s right was a clubbing machine, which was like getting
hit with a baseball bat. Tyson’s had more snap and he could loop it around your
gloves with great bicep and tricep power behind it or over the top.
“Foreman was a muscular, roundhouse master with a clubbing right
that was devastating in an uppercut or a roundhouse loop.”
Ron Lipton recalls the time he was chatting to Floyd Patterson at
Floyd’s New Paltz gym in 1990. The two men were watching Ron’s pal, Richie
Ozipinkski, working out. Richie, a 235-pounder, was, in Ron’s words, “…slow of
foot and hand but had a right hand on the heavy bag like a ton of bricks. No
real left hook to go with it but a slow and very heavy right hand.”
Patterson wasn’t convinced. “He won’t be able to land it in a
real fight, so it doesn’t matter how hard it is on the bag.”
Lipton replied, “Maybe, champ, but Ingemar had a slow right hand
and he took you out with it when it landed and then knocked you down a few times
in the rematches before you got him. And you are as fast as lightning, what
about that? How hard was his punch compared to Liston’s, for example?”
“Harder but different,” Floyd explained. It was then that he gave
his insight into Johansson’s deceiving power. “No one, and I mean no one, hit me
harder than Ingemar with that right hand. His right hand would knock you
unconscious and was very difficult to recover from, it was so hard. It was so
hard that on his best night he could knock out anyone with it if he trained
right all the time.”
Ron Lipton has studied punching technique for a great many years
and rates Johansson highly for one-punch stopping power of the most shocking
variety. “The old pros would know the secret of changing the rhythm of their
punching in exchanges. They could get a man used to faster punches and then
change the speed to tag them right.
“On his best night, Ingemar stopped a gold medal winner and one
of the fastest punching heavyweights who ever lived in Floyd Patterson. Ingo
also scored a first round victory over Eddie Machen, one of the craftiest and
most sophisticated of heavyweight boxers, who nullified all the power of Sonny
Liston over twelve rounds.
“Johansson’s proclivity for being lax in training while having
his fiancé Birgit with him, proved to be his undoing in the rematch with Floyd.
The thunder dissipated with time in that right hand, but when Ingo was on top of
his game his right hand chop was devastating in its ponderous impact. It lost
power in its roundhouse delivery, but the chopping right hand was akin to the
rights with which Frankie DePaula dropped Dick Tiger.
“When Johansson got a man into serious jeopardy with that short
chop that would come out of nowhere, he had his way with the delirious fighter,
looping it over and under and around the corner, all producing knockdowns.
“Yet his initial shocking punch, with his thick heavy hand packed
with the power he inherited from his father and grandfather and his thick and
sturdy skeletal frame, had concussive impact. Enough to garner him the
heavyweight championship of the world and eliminate two of the most dangerous
heavyweights in the division at the time in Eddie Machen and Henry Cooper.
“I believe that right hand of Ingo’s, sneaky and well timed, had
enough kinetic energy to pierce and shake a chin carved out of Mount Rushmore.
But once the power of that punch was revealed to the boxing world, Johansson’s
lack of other skills defused his ability to get it in by setting it up.”
Swedish publisher and promoter Edwin Ahlqvist harboured a great
ambition. He longed to produce a world heavyweight boxing champion, but had
suffered nothing but disappointment. Then along came a young kid called Ingemar
The son of a maintenance foreman, Ingo was just fourteen when
Ahlqvist saw him for the first time at Lorensberg’s Circus in Gothenburg. “I
first heard of Ingemar when he was thirteen but waited a year before looking at
him. It had always been my ambition to develop a heavyweight champion, but I had
been sorely disappointed with four hopefuls and had given it up as a bad job.
“But this night they had Ingemar, weighing 180 pounds at fourteen
but carrying it with the awkwardness of a growing boy, in with a husky
195-pounder from the shipyards. The big fellow started after the kid with the
smooth muscles as though he would eat him.
“But Ingemar dropped that right on his chin and the referee
counted him out. When the big guy came to, he asked who in the hell threw in the
towel. Like Machen and Patterson, he didn’t know what hit him.”
Ahlqvist had Johansson boxing with professionals from the age of
fifteen. “I managed Nils Anderson, who boxed Bruce Woodcock of England and
others, and I had Ingemar work with him at my training camp twelve miles from
Gothenburg. Anderson’s knees buckled when Ingemar hit him with his right.”
That shattering right of Johansson’s would earn him rapid
progress through the heavyweight ranks when he turned professional at the age of
twenty in 1952. The handsome Swede certainly had a point to prove, having been
disqualified at the Olympics earlier that year for not trying against American
Ingo’s twelfth fight in the paid ranks, his first significant
test, was portentous of things to come. Germany’s Hein ten Hoff was a former
European champion who had lasted the route against Jersey Joe Walcott five years
before. Hoff lasted two minutes with Johansson. Ingo jolted his opponent with a
left-right combination and then knocked him out with a right to the jaw.
That thunderbolt right, which so often resembled a half-hearted
stab in its fascinating delivery, would fool everyone during Johansson’s few
years of glory. In 1956, a year after despatching Hoff, Ingo travelled to the
always intimidating cauldron of Italy to challenge Franco Cavicchi for the
European crown. Johansson proved two important points in that memorable triumph.
He could win over the long haul and he didn’t have to hit a man on the chin to
In the thirteenth round, he stopped Cavicchi dead in his tracks
with a paralysing right over the heart. Another right in the same area sent the
Italian down for the full count.
Reflecting on Johansson’s climb up the ladder, Ron Lipton says,
“I saw that right hand over and over again on film, in the Machen fight and in
the three Patterson fights. I saw Ingemar’s faults in the Ed Sanders bout in the
Olympics and in the Brian London fight where London floored him in the last
round. I also read about how Ingemar took out the formidable Henry Cooper in
five rounds. That damn right of his was no joke.
“I knew Eddie Machen went the distance with Cleveland Williams
and Sonny Liston and was one of the best heavyweights of his time. When Ingemar
took him out in one round a year after stopping Henry Cooper, it was an all-time
showstopper for me. Ingemar knocked down Machen three times in one round.”
Henry Cooper has particular memories of the Johansson fight in
Stockholm in 1957. Henry and manager Jim Wicks knew they had a difficult
Some years later, Cooper recalled: “Anyone could lose against
Johansson. He had a hell of a right hand punch. He was also the worst fellow in
the world to box. He liked a man to come to him, and we knew it. Our tactics
were to make him come after us, make him reverse his usual style. We knew he had
a good right hand counter punch.
“So for four rounds I’m standing my ground and Johansson’s
standing his. It was in the open air and they were crafty. They stuck me in the
corner where the sun was shining on my eyes. For four rounds, then, I’m saying
to myself, ‘I’m not going to take the fight to you’.
“It was a lousy fight. Johansson would flick with his left hand
and that was all. I could hear the crowd getting restless and then start to
talk. A hum comes over the arena when everyone’s talking. I went back to the
corner after the fourth and Jim Wicks says, ‘We’ll have to do something here’.
“So, like a fool, I take the fight to him, thinking someone’s got
to make a go of this. What does he do? He backed me up where the sun was in my
eyes and – bosh! – he gave me a really good right hand punch. I didn’t see it. I
got up, but I was groggy and the referee stopped it.”
Someone else would get a ‘bosh’ as Johansson approached his
pivotal fight with Eddie Machen. Former European champion Heinz Neuhaus was
floored twice and swept away in four rounds.
European heavyweights didn’t have glowing reputations in the
United States, and for good reason. Max Schmeling’s ascendancy to the
heavyweight throne in the thirties had been little more than a brief
interruption to the American dominance of boxing’s crown jewel.
The Europeans kept nattering about Johansson and that big right
hand, but surely the one-trick pony from Sweden would trot only so far up the
world rankings before being unhinged by one of Uncle Sam’s finest.
The slick and fast punching Eddie Machen was undefeated like
Ingo, but had fought a higher level of competition. Eddie’s record sported the
names of Nino Valdes, John Holman, Johnny Summerlin, Joey Maxim, Bob Baker,
Tommy (Hurricane) Jackson and Zora Folley.
What Johansson did to Machen stunned the boxing world. Eddie was
slammed to the canvas three times and heading back to his dressing room after
two minutes and sixteen seconds. His cold destruction, brutal and unnecessarily
protracted in a more lenient era, stuns the young fans of today when they
stumble upon it on the Internet. Even for hardened tradespeople, watching that
slaughter requires a strong stomach. Oddly enough, it shakes the viewer more
than Johansson’s seven-knockdown hammering of Patterson.
Eddie never recovered from the first knockdown and did extremely
well just to survive it. Lost in his fog and the mighty and continuous roar of
the Gothenburg crowd, he was scuttled for a second time and resembled a drunken
sailor when he staggered to his feet. Hustled and punched towards a corner, he
was struck repeatedly by heavy punches as he blindly grabbed the middle rope in
a squatting position. The last few blows mercifully released him from his trap
and sent him to the sanctuary of the canvas.
Commenting on Machen’s crushing defeat, Dan Daniel wrote in The
Ring: “The heavyweight who fought a draw with Folley was outclassed. He was
beaten to a pulp.”
It would be Floyd Patterson’s turn just four months later and
that story, of course, has been told a thousand times.
Would Ingemar Johansson now be rated an even greater puncher if
the Machen and Patterson fights had been stopped earlier? It is a moot point.
Retracing our steps to our earlier point about the difficulty of knocking a man
out of a fight (a world class man especially), the reputations of many past
punchers have perhaps been unfairly tainted by the virtual ‘fight to the death’
conditions of their eras.
Floyd Patterson was never the most robust or resilient of
heavyweight champions, and let it be remembered that Johansson didn’t literally
knock him out. Was Ingo’s reputation as a big hitter therefore exaggerated?
Today, surely, things would never reach the point where we would be permitted to
pose that question.
Johansson himself had a few things to say about this a few years
ago when he gave his last interview to his namesake and good friend, Olof
Johansson, of the Swedish fight magazine, Boxning.
Already fading into the dreadful fog of Alzheimer’s Disease, Ingo
was still sufficiently in control of his faculties to be able to give the old
memory wires one last tug.
Of the Machen fight, he told Olof, “Practically everything Edwin
Ahlqvist and I had invested in my career was at stake that evening. This was the
biggest thing we ever did.
“He was good, Machen, a very dangerous opponent. We took a gamble
that night and it paid off.
“I was as sharp and well prepared as possibly good be, yet cool
and ready. I hit him with a tremendous right hand only a minute into the fight
and he went down heavily. The rest of it was almost a slaughter – two more
knockdowns. None of that would have taken place today. He took a bad beating and
never was really the same.”
Ingo expressed similar sentiments on his decimation of Patterson.
“In the third I saw the opening for my right – and I hit him, almost perfect,
just a fraction high, on the bridge of his nose.
“He barely beat the count – actually he didn’t. What followed
after that is slightly gruesome. He was down seven times and I was far from
perfect executing these knockdowns.
“But it was like that in those days. Today none of it would have
occurred. Today it would have been broken off after the first knockdown.”
Go To Sleep!
One little story Ron Lipton told me made me chuckle. Ron got the
chance to talk to Ingo in 1994 and ask him about the magic punch. “I told him
that his right hand did not seem to be very fast, but very hard. What was the
secret of its power?
“He said, ‘I knew when to throw it and it was fast enough to win
me the heavyweight title. Anyone I hit with it….’ He paused and motioned with
his fingers in a downward gesture to the floor simulating a knockdown, and then
brought his hands to his face to imitate a man sleeping.”
Ingo’s Bingo ceased to be a devastating secret after his trilogy
of fights with Patterson, but it still packed all its old force. My father saw
Johansson regain the European title by knocking out the rugged and durable
Welshman, Dick Richardson, in eight rounds in 1962. Dad said this of the
decisive wallop: “It was quite incredible. It looked for all the world as if
Johansson had done little more than casually stroke Richardson on the chin – and
Richardson went down like a sack of bricks.”
However, the hunger to fight was waning in Ingo’s playful soul,
while the mighty right was obeying the commands of its owner with less
frequency. In his last fight in 1963, Johansson met the notoriously erratic
Brian London, who could be utterly lifeless or sufficiently galvanised to wreck
a man of Roger Rischer’s class inside a round.
Brian was a bit of both against Ingo. Trailing on points after
eleven rounds, London erupted late in the final session to knock Johansson flat
on his back. Only the bell saved the Swede from a knockout.
“London couldn’t beat my sister,” Ingo had once famously bragged.
The old champ should have known that those little jibes have a nasty habit of
coming back and biting a fellow in the backside.
So, then, some final thoughts on that special punch from our
friend Ron Lipton: “Ingo’s right hand was made on Odin’s Anvil, forged into a
hammer with a short handle and, although from Sweden, his right hand was
devised, forged and embedded in Norse mythology. They say the God of Thunder’s
Hammer, Thor’s Hammer, was being created as a weapon and gift for the God of
“The God of Mischief, Loki, turned himself into a fly and stung
the mythical blacksmith in the eyes. He made a mistake from the pain while
tempering the hammer on the anvil in Valhalla’s fiery forge. Its handle was too
short but the weapon was still able to be launched, slay giants and return to
the hand of its owner, Thor.
“Obviously the God of Thunder leant this hammer to Ingemar
Johansson in his fights with Patterson and Machen. His short right hand was at
one with Thor’s Hammer. Then when the mission was accomplished, the Gods said he
had to give it back.”
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