There were three men last week at Earls Court, London's famous arena, who had a chance to fight Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship of the world. One was Brian London, holder of the Great Britain and Empire title, a brawler who has Bob Hope's prominent chin, Sir Aubrey Smith's prominent nose and the latter-day Bing Crosby's prominent belly. Another was the challenger, Henry Cooper, who had stopped London in one round almost three years before, a fellow with a stately style and a sturdy jab. The third was Ingemar Johansson, a spectator in a dinner jacket.
This is an article from the Jan. 26, 1959 issue
Circumstances alter cases and faces. Cooper, who won, came out of the fight so cut about the eyes that he probably will not be able to fight again until June. That had been the time planned for a Floyd Patterson-Johansson bout, which was to have been preceded by a Patterson-Cooper fight in March, assuming Cooper won, because Patterson, sluggish from inactivity, sorely needs to sharpen his weapons before taking on a man of Johansson's ability. Now chaos prevails. Cooper must be allowed time to heal, and the schedule looks like something the Long Island Rail Road would improvise in a blizzard.
London, who had been the press favorite, was beaten in spite of some very intelligent heeling and butting. He may never be seen again, and, if so, the world will not have lost a Mona Lisa.
Johansson, who had already beaten Cooper, had just been insulted publicly by the surly London, who refused to shake hands with him when they were introduced in the ring before the bout. As a result, Johansson's Swedish blood steamed like hot buttered aquavit. Throughout the fight, which went 15 rounds to a blood-spattered decision, he rooted for Cooper. Afterwards, he issued a terse statement to the press.
"London is a bum," he said.
The best prizefighter in Sweden's history is a former street paver who disapproves not only of Brian London but also of Picasso and all modern art, a hardheaded businessman with a blonde secretary and downtown suite of offices, and a handsome, dimple-chinned young fellow of 26 who looks very like the Lindbergh of Le Bourget Field. All this has made Ingemar Johansson a Swedish hero, the protege of businessmen who admire his commercial intelligence, and very attractive to women. He himself has a very pretty girl friend, but he believes that prizefighters should not marry.
He is, you might say, a conservative type but with built-in contradictions. This is true even in the ring, where he spars cautiously and studiously until a certain moment arrives when he decides that a large, businesslike profit might be realized by throwing a right hand at his opponent's jaw. It was thus that he made his future last September against Eddie Machen, then allegedly the No. 1 boy among the challengers to Floyd Patterson's title.
The chances are that Johansson owns the most devastating right-hand punch of any heavyweight currently practicing. With it, and a sometimes surprising left, he has scored 12 knockouts in 21 professional fights and has won the heavyweight championship of Europe, an honor that became quite respectable during 1958, when top-rated American heavyweights fell before him and England's, so to speak, finest.
What is Ingemar (Ingo) Johansson, European champion and Gothenburg businessman, thinking of these days? He is thinking that he would like to fight Floyd Patterson for the championship of the world but he is also thinking that he would like to add to his already considerable business investments—he is an earth-moving contractor—by buying a $100,000 fishing vessel in Holland. The deal is now in progress. These two considerations, sport and business, are always in his mind and sometimes intermingled.
The Patterson bout is all but certain, despite legalistic difficulties that are being ironed out. Terms were discussed thoroughly two weeks ago at Gothenburg's Swedish-American-style Park Avenue hotel in meetings between Bill Rosensohn, promoter, and Edwin Ahlquist, Johansson's adviser. Lawyers for both Patterson and Johansson were present. The talks were continued later in London before the London-Cooper fight and in New York this week.
These bargaining sessions were brought about by Johansson's defeat of Eddie Machen, the erstwhile pretender to Patterson's crown, an achievement which had suddenly boosted Ingemar into world prominence. While 53,684 Swedes, who had paid up to $22 ringside for less than three minutes of joy, screamed in Gothenburg's handsome Nya Ullevi outdoor stadium, Ingo knocked out Machen in the first round, banging him to the canvas three times. Ever since then Ahlquist, who promoted the fight and has been Johansson's adviser since he saw a 15-year-old Ingemar knock out an older and stronger heavyweight in his first amateur bout, has been dickering with Cus D'Amato, Patterson's manager. But since Cus is both a dickerer and a bickerer, negotiations have been shadowed over with the black megrims of his war with the International Boxing Club, which claims prior rights to Johansson and contends, in fact, that it owns a contract calling for Johansson to meet Machen in a return match. Ahlquist argues that he alone signed the contract and that he signed it under the duress of a threat by Machen's manager, Sid Flaherty, to pull out of the fight the very day before, when 40,000 tickets had been sold. This is presumed to give Ahlquist some protection against any lawsuit the IBC might bring to stop a Patterson-Johansson fight. But last week the lawyers, as they cast about for all legal weapons available, debated the point with furrowed brows.
Ahlquist, a prosperous publisher of sporting and youth periodicals as well as a fight promoter, has thus come to regard the IBC eye to eye with D'Amato.
"I will not fight for the IBC," he said, meaning that he would advise Johansson not to fight for the IBC.
If Johansson never fights again his future is as solid as the Swedish royal family's. The Swedes are thought to be phlegmatic, but their admiration for Ingemar is restrained only on the surface. Before and since the night that Ingo went bingo before Eddie was ready, and in the presence of the young Crown Prince Carl Gustav at that, his business has prospered increasingly.
Whereas American prizefighters customarily invest in saloons, the Swedish Ingemar, noting that Gothenburg has a housing shortage, went into the earth-moving business. And, besides, Sweden has no saloons, though I did find a place where it is possible to play a little 10¢ roulette. Working-class apartment houses of remarkable beauty and utility are springing up all around the city, and Ingemar is getting his share of this and other work.
His investment is high. He owns two caterpillars at a cost of $60,000 and $20,000 each, four steam shovels-one at $80,000, two at $30,000 each and one little $15,000 number—and two trucks, one at $20,000 and the other at $15,000. In addition to his pretty secretary, he employs eight husky men to drive the equipment and puts in four or five hours a day at the office lining up new jobs. Allowing for minor items like office equipment and business machines, of which he seems to be fond, this adds up to business property worth more than a quarter of a million dollars.
"Naturally," he said, "I did not pay cash for these things. A man would be a fool to do that."
Then, in reasonably good English which he has learned from Hollywood movies and Swedish subtitles, he launched into an intricate explanation of Sweden's income-tax laws. It was too much for the simple mind of a boxing writer. The idea seems to be, though, that Ingemar has escaped high taxes by investing his prizefighting money in business and that such investments are wiped off the income-tax books at the rate of 20'; so that in five years he will owe nothing to the tax people. Oh, that Joe Louis had been a Swede.
ARE FISHES RISKY?
It was suggested that, although a former street paver might reasonably graduate into the contracting business, it was farfetched to expect that he could find happiness as a commercial fisherman and that his proposed hundred-thousand-dollar fishing-boat purchase might be a risky venture. It turned out that this shrewd thought had crossed Ingo's mind long before. His knowledge of fishing is confined to fly-casting excursions to northern Sweden and Lapland for trout and salmon and to the fact that the Swedes eat an enormous lot of fish, else why would they produce all that smorgasbord?
"But," he said, "I have just been talking to the ship broker. It is not so good to buy a fishing boat alone. It is best to have a man on the boat who had a part in the boat. So I have a relation—how will you say it, he is married to my mother's sister?—who had his own boat and sold it. He will hold a 25% interest and so will want to catch fish. Five hundred thousand kronor is a lot of money in Sweden, but if you buy a fishing boat, after 20 years it is still there and a little bit more because of the way prices go up. So my boat will always be worth what I pay for it and I will sell fish."
Johansson loves fast cars and owns a creamy-skinned white Thunderbird, but he is about to dispose of this sweetheart for business reasons. He has made a deal with the manufacturers of the Swedish Volvo to endorse their product. Hereafter he will be seen only in a Volvo, which is not too bad a fate at that.
At present Ingemar lives in the suburbs in a very modest two-story house of seven rooms, which are so tiny they could probably be contained in the American five-room equivalent. It is the home of his father, a manual laborer for the city of Gothenburg, who is also, technically, Ingemar's manager, thus keeping the money in the family. His brother Rolf, a 22-year-old amateur middleweight who sometimes boxes exhibitions with Ingemar, lives there, too, as do his mother, older brother Henry and a sister. There is a baby grand piano in the living room for the special benefit of Ingemar's 8-year-old daughter, Jean, who lives nearby with her divorced mother.
The house, situated on a small plot with apple trees in the front yard, is furnished to Ingemar's taste with the profits of prizefighting. Living-room sofa and chairs are overstuffed velour in tones of burnt orange and red but the kitchen is a sparkling place, what an American would think of as Swedish modern, with white procelain and blond woods everywhere. The kitchen also contains a loudspeaker connected to a transmitter in Ingemar's bedroom. It was a whim of Ingemar that he could thus call down from his bedroom whenever he felt like a snack. His mother has not responded to the idea, though it is clearly efficient.
"She does not think well of it," Ingemar said a little sadly. "She does not like the new ways."
On one wall of the living room there are five paintings, four small and one about three feet high. He bought them after one of the fights he has had in England. Aging brown varnish has obscured the large painting, but the others are bright seascapes and pastorals in oil, their predominant colors blue and yellow, very suggestive of the Swedish flag and of the bright skies and grain of Sweden which inspired the flag's colors. Johansson regards the paintings fondly. "I do not care for modern painting," he says. As a fly-fisherman and art critic he thinks of Picasso as he thinks of codfish.
On another wall there is a realistic wood carving of a Laplander's head, which Ingemar admires because, he said, "You can see from his lip that he uses snuff and that is why I bought it."
A friend of Ingemar insists that he has a taste for modern Swedish and Finnish poetry, but if you ask Ingemar to confirm this his response is the cold stare of a man who feels his private life is being invaded.
"When I was young," he admitted finally, "I wrote poetry. My father and mother liked it but it was no good." He shrugged.
Unless a fight is scheduled he does only light training to keep in shape. On an average day he will be up at 8 o'clock, which is just about sunrise now in this part of Sweden, and will run steadily for about an hour. Breakfast is a cup of coffee. He does not actually eat until one p.m., when he tackles a steak or some chops. He spends mornings and afternoons at his office "or outside with the machines, talking with the guys who run them if they are having some trouble." About 5 o'clock he goes to the gym for a brief workout, punching the light and heavy bags, skipping rope but doing no boxing. Then he may have dinner and take in a movie or go dancing with his girl friend, the pretty, chestnut-haired Birgit Lundgren, 22, who does not seem to mind at all her boy friend's views on the incompatibility of marriage and prizefighting.
He is building a new house, which should be ready in the spring, and it has been assumed that he would then marry Birgit, whom he refers to as his fiancee. But Ingemar says he has no definite plans about that.
"I do not believe boxers should marry," he said. "It is hard for a girl when her husband is away so much. She has to be very understanding. They want he should be home but I have many exhibitions, so she would be alone most of the year and that's no good."
The new house is American ranch style, quite a new thought for Sweden.
"The Swedes will have to get used to it," Ingemar said.
He has been too busy to improve his 36-handicap golf game, but he has found time to learn to fly and hopes someday to own a small plane, something to take him quickly to the good fishing spots of Scandinavia.
"Business has been good this year, and I have been active," he says. "Many big things they have to start this year, so I think it will be good, too."
Ingo has his future figured out pretty well. There is an adding machine on his bedroom dresser. It has a used look.