At the end of the last millennium, Lennox Lewis led a parade of heavyweight champions who spent their formative years in Europe. Last year, Tyson Fury joined the list. Anthony Joshua wears the IBF crown.
Prior to Lewis, several Europeans held watered-down heavyweight titles. Francesco Damiani, Frank Bruno, and Henry Akinwande come to mind. But one has to go back to the 1950s to find a true pre-Lennox “world” heavyweight champion from Europe.
Ingemar Johansson created an enormous amount of excitement in the world of boxing for a short period of time.
After an ignominious appearance (he was disqualified for refusing to engage) in the final round of the heavyweight competition at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Johansson returned to his native Sweden, turned pro, and defeated a series of undistinguished European opponents.
He was technically lacking as a fighter and fought cautiously, waiting for the opportunity to land his only destructive weapon: a big right hand later known as “The Hammer of Thor.”
Victories over Henry Cooper and Joe Erkine raised Johansson’s standing a bit. Then, on 14 September 1958, he knocked out previously-undefeated American heavyweight contender Eddie Machen in the first round. Given the fact that Machen would go the distance with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, Jerry Quarry, Doug Jones, and Ernie Terrell during the course of his own twelve-year career, that was no mean accomplishment. And it earned Johansson a 26 June 1959, title shot against reigning heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.
Johannson was a heavy underdog against Patterson, a “Swedish meatball” who, it was thought, would be pulverized by the champion. The odds grew even longer when, prior to the fight, the challenger defied tradition by cohabiting with his girlfriend, eating cheesecake, and going dancing at night during training camp. It had worked for him in the past, so why change now?
When the hour of reckoning came, Johansson knocked Patterson down seven times en route to a third-round stoppage. Suddenly, the heavyweight champion of the world was a good-looking, charismatic Swede, who enjoyed listening to Frank Sinatra, was media friendly, and charmed virtually everyone within his orbit.
Ingemar Johansson by Ken Brooks (McFarland & Company) is the first major biography to be written about Johansson.
Early on, Brooks states, “I will make no claim that Johansson belongs on the same tier with Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Jack Dempsey, or any of the other giants of the game. His infighting was non-existent, his jab without sting, his chin suspect, his title reign too short. In retrospect, one could be excused for dismissing Ingemar as a lucky one-shot champ, one of those ignominious few who won the heavyweight title only to lose it in their first defense.”
That’s a good start because it signals that the author will avoid the pitfall of praising his subject beyond what is deserved.
Brooks then goes on to note that Johansson “hated school, disdained reading, despised teachers, and disliked books.” He starting boxing at age thirteen and quit school two years later.
By the time Johansson was seventeen, he’d fathered two children by two different women. Both babies were put up for adoption. At age eighteen, he married Barbara Abramson. The couple quickly had two children and separated soon after. In 1951, at age 19, Johansson fathered a fifth child by yet another woman.
Adding to his resume, in 1954, Johansson spent sixty days in prison for insubordination during an eleven-month stint in the Swedish Navy occasioned by Sweden’s mandatory military service law.
In 1954, Johansson, then 22 years old and separated from his wife, met 17-year-old Birgit Lundgren, who became his longtime companion. They married in 1963, had two children together, and separated in 1969.
Johansson was a popular champion. As Brooks notes, sports coverage in the 1950s “bordered on hero worship. Columnists and beat writers tapped out glowing hagiographies on ballplayers and prizefighters. Sportswriters who interviewed Johansson mostly stuck to the script, depicting Ingemar as debonaire, witty, educated, sophisticated.”
When Johansson dethroned Patterson in 1959, all was forgiven in his native Sweden (although Ingemar ruffled feathers later that year by becoming a Swiss citizen in an attempt to avoid high Swedish taxes).
A 1959 poll of three hundred sportswriters awarded Johansson the Hickout Belt emblematic of the year’s outstanding professional athlete. The Associated Press named him “male athlete of the year.” He was honored by Sports Illustrated as its “sportsman of the year.” And the Boxing Writers Association of America designated him “fighter of the year.”
Johansson also appeared on myriad American television shows and engaged in flings with a bevy of head-turning women, including Elizabeth Taylor and Playboy centerfold Stella Stevens.
The party came to an end in 1960. One year less a week after dethroning Patterson, Johansson was knocked unconscious in the fifth round of their 19 June rematch. Nine months later, they squared off for the third time with each man visiting the canvas before Patterson emerged victorious on a sixth-round stoppage that many observers considered premature.
Johansson retired from boxing in 1963 with a 26-and-2 record. Still commercially viable, he steadfastly resisted comeback offers. Promised one million dollars to fight Sonny Liston, he responded “I like money, but not that much.” As a footnote to his career, it should noted that Johansson never faced an opponent with a losing record.
With the arrival of Cassius Clay, who would become Muhammad Ali (the ultimate charisma machine), people forgot how charismatic Johannson had been.
In 1974, Johansson moved to Florida, where he purchased and operated a motel in Pompano Beach. “I got tired of running around, tired of parties,” he said. “You can’t be a swinger all your life. I’ve had my glory. Now it’s over. I loved the old life. I love this one too. I don’t sit and dream of the old days. I never thought of boxing as my life, just some fun I had when I was younger.”
Johansson enjoyed his early years in retirement. He was polite to autograph seekers. “It takes longer to say ‘no’ than it does to sign my name,” he noted. In 1979, he met a Swedish journalist named Edna Alsterlund. They began living together in 1981 and later married.
1981 also saw Johansson succeed on a quixotic quest. His weight had ballooned to almost 300 pounds. And on a whim, he decided to enter the Stockholm Marathon. He shed fifty pounds and completed the run in four hours and forty minutes. Later that year, he entered the New York City Marathon and, fifteen pounds lighter, shaved ten minutes off his time.
Asked about the difference between long-distance running and boxing, Johansson replied, “In a marathon, you might get sore feet, a sore body. But in a day or two, you are all right. After a fight, it might be forever.”
[Image credit: ullamontan.com]
Forever came too soon.
Ih the mid-1980s, Johansson returned to live in Sweden. Ten years later, he began having noticeable memory-loss problems. Eventually, his mind decayed into a hellish dementia. In 2001, Edna told an interviewer “It is best not to remember Ingemar as he was, but to learn to love him as he is.”
Meanwhile, Floyd Patterson was suffering from a similar fate. Patterson died in 2006 at age 71. Johansson followed him to the grave at age 76 three years later.
Brooks writes objectively rather than over-praising his subject. His book humanizes Johansson and is engagingly written. The stunning first-round knockout of Eddie Machen and three Patterson-Johansson fights are nicely told. There’s also an interesting look at some of the shady financial maneuvers engaged in by Cus D’Amato, who served as Patterson’s longtime trainer and manager.
But there’s a problem. What appears to be a generally well-researched book is marred by factual errors. Some of these errors are just sloppy. At one point, Brooks writes that Johansson and Lundgren married in 1962. At another juncture, he says they wed in 1963.
Other errors are the result of more serious lapses. For example, Brooks writes, “Patterson-Johansson I marked the first heavyweight title fight in history to be simulcast live to theaters via closed circuit.”
That’s simply wrong. Several previous heavyweight championship fights were telecast live in theaters via closed circuit. Indeed, when Rocky Marciano defended his title against Archie Moore, 400,000 paying customers watched via closed-circuit in 133 venues across the country.
Brooks also occasionally lapses into misleading hyperbole (e.g. writing that Sonny Liston quit in his first fight against Cassius Clay because his shoulder was “torn from its socket from swinging at air”). Liston did claim an upper-arm muscle injury after the fight, although that claim was suspect. His shoulder was certainly not “torn from its socket.”
In another misstatement, Brooks writes that “Patterson served competently for years on the New York State Athletic Commission” until dementia robbed him of his cognitive abilities. In truth, Patterson’s appointment as chairman of the NYSAC was a cynical ploy by corrupt power brokers from the start. He never functioned as a competent chairman.
These inaccuracies undermine an otherwise entertaining and informative book. Instead of saying, “This is interesting; I didn’t know that,” readers have to wonder what other errors might lurk beneath the surface.
That said; Ingemar Johansson is a good book. In the introduction, Brooks writes, “The time has come to more fully appreciate boxing’s most overlooked and under-appreciated champion. Hopefully, this book is a start.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (Muhammad Ali: a Tribute to the Greatest) was published by Pegasus Books. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.