The hunt for a boxing man of experience—and, if it be not contradictory, innocence—to promote Heavyweight Champion Ingemar Johansson's first title defense seemed on a hot scent for a few hours in Gothenburg, Sweden last week. Then the scent cooled.
Joe Tepper, aspiring promoter of the hour, a New Yorker who burps enthusiasm in long and frequent bursts, jetted across the Atlantic to Gothenburg, Ingemar's home town, and prayerfully presented his credentials to the champion and the champion's adviser, Edwin Ahlquist, Scandinavia's foremost boxing promoter. The credentials included Tepper's love for boxing, a brief career as amateur fighter and professional corner man, some years as a functionary of the New York State boxing commission, the persuasion that his current lack of means bespeaks a scrupulously honest past and a list of impressively reputable men who would put up the money.
The list, Tepper told them, included Stephen Masters, pioneer of the discount-house approach to retail selling and president of a chain of such stores; Angier Biddle Duke, former ambassador to El Salvador and president of the International Rescue Committee, devoted to the rescue of persons from behind the Iron Curtain; and Thomas E. Murray Jr., son of the former member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Bill Shea, who heads the movement to form a third major baseball league, was enlisted to serve as legal counsel for the promoters.
Every last one of them is an active Democrat, and that is how Tepper, a Lower East Side boy who grew up in idolatry of Benny Leonard, met them. Gifted at organizing sound trucks and getting them rolling on the right streets of New York, he was a useful worker in Averell Harriman's campaigns for governor and the Democratic presidential nomination.
December 7, 1959
In presenting his case Joe Tepper leaned perhaps too heavily on these names, unaware that Ingemar would be unimpressed by their prestige but knowing that the champion is determined to let no one resembling Tony (Fat) Salerno, the East Harlem racketeer involved in the promotion of the first fight between Johansson and Floyd Patterson, have anything to do with the projected return bout. Last week Tony Fat escaped extradition from Florida to New York on a Florida judge's very curiously technical decision that Tony (shown in sullen arrogance on the opposite page as he awaited the decision) would have to pass through Georgia on the way, thus balking New York District Attorney Frank Hogan's plan to have Salerno tell a grand jury the extent and nature of his involvement in the promotion. It was the discovery of Salerno in the background of the first promotion that set Ingemar on his search for a new and impeccable promoter.
For more than an hour the champion and Ahlquist listened—it is hard to do anything else in Joe Tepper's company—in the swank privacy of the Park Avenue Hotel's KAK Room (KAK are the initials of Sweden's Royal Automobile Club). They emerged, Tepper still smiling, to report no substantial progress.
While Ingemar, in scarlet shirt and scarlet socks, sat otherwise quietly, Tepper told an international press gathering that "we had a long discussion and decided that nothing can be done until we know what's happening in New York."
That was a reference to the revocation of Cus D'Amato's right to manage Floyd Patterson, to the precarious legal status of Ingemar's provisional contract with whatever may remain of Rosensohn Enterprises, promoter of the first Johansson-Patterson fight, and to the sum of $152,000 still due Ingemar from the proceeds of that fight. Ingemar's money was put in escrow to guarantee that he would meet Patterson in a return match, then was released a few days ago by the New York boxing commission, which also revoked the Rosensohn Enterprises license. But D'Amato announced he would sue to keep the money in escrow.
All this was quite enough to immobilize any sensible effort toward promoting a fight. Joe Tepper was not, however, immobilized. He is a man of sometimes erratic but nevertheless incessant action. To see him cross a hotel lobby is to see a rudderless sloop tacking in variable winds. He starts for the concierge's desk, veers toward a display of Swedish glass and luffs into the newsstand. Sometimes he trots for a few paces, then halts suddenly. When he starts up again he lunges.
The announcement to the Swedish press that no commitments were going to be made for a while was logical but, nevertheless, a letdown. Tepper, with headlong cheerfulness, promised that on the following Tuesday he would announce the names of his backers in New York. The names, however, were already being bruited from Gothenburg to Gotham.
Joe Tepper insisted his setback was only temporary, and, in fact, he remained a reasonably good prospect to promote the second Johansson-Patterson fight, if only because he has a reputation for honesty and a total lack of criminal associations. His principal handicap is Johansson's antipathy for persons who talk as long and hard and relentlessly as Joe Tepper. But that is not insurmountable if the champion is otherwise satisfied.
A cool head in the ring or in a business conference, and a man with a profound sympathy for the problems of prizefighters, Ingemar made it clear that Floyd Patterson is his chosen opponent for his next fight, partly because he expects the match to draw the best of any that can be arranged but also because he has a sincere admiration for Patterson as a man. Patterson has made no excuses for being knocked out, has made no attempt to disparage Johansson's victory as the mere result of a lucky punch. The former champion has maintained a decent and dignified silence ever since the fight, and Johansson, a quiet man himself, respects him for it.
When Tepper announced that a consummation in Gothenburg was impossible without clarification of the New York situation, he paused as if for once that was all he had to say. Ahlquist prompted him.
"You forget something," Ahlquist said.
Tepper looked blank, but Ingemar knew what Ahlquist meant.
"There is going to be a fight with Patterson," Ingemar said firmly, "I don't know if Tepper will promote, but one thing I know—it will be Floyd Patterson. Floyd Patterson is a good sportsman. Even if our contract is null and void I am standing by my promise. Floyd Patterson is a nice boy and they are not taking his license away, even though they take away D'Amato's."
Neither Johansson nor Ahlquist seemed to care particularly whether Tepper promotes the fight or who his backers are. Ahlquist pointedly told the Gothenburg press that "it is unimportant what the names of the backers are because there is plenty of Swedish money available here and in America to promote the fight."
Granted that Tepper or another suitable promoter can be found, the fight will take place in New York next June. If Johansson wins the return bout the chances are that he will make his second defense in Gothenburg at the very modern Nya Ullevi Stadium, possibly against Zora Folley, ranked No. 2 behind Patterson. Ahlquist believes that such a fight in September would warrant $100 ringside tickets, draw $1,200,000 at the gate alone and sell out the 60,000 seats in a couple of weeks. On the night that Johansson knocked out top-ranked Eddie Machen in a single round, before Ingemar was seriously considered as a challenger, the stadium was almost filled. Now that he is champion, Sweden's very first, it would seem that Ahlquist is not just being optimistic.
Johansson, letting promotional nature take its course, starts a Caribbean and Latin American exhibition tour at Ciudad Trujillo on December 2, winding up at Trinidad in mid-December. While this is going on, Ahlquist may well turn up in New York to look at Joe Tepper on his native soil and discuss affairs of state with Joe's potential backers.