After Harold Johnson knocked out Jesse Bowdry in Miami Beach last week to win the National Boxing Association version of the light heavyweight championship of the world, he was asked, as is the tedious custom, how he felt.
"I feel good," replied Harold, "but I don't feel like the champ. I won't until I beat the old man. But the last time I heard from him he was going to be a movie star."
The old man, of course, is Archie Moore, whom the NBA deposed but who is still recognized as the champion in New York, Massachusetts and Europe. "The NBA don't recognize me and I don't recognize them," Archie says. "So who are they? A congenial, nonconforming body tampering with something that belongs to me."
Despite Archie's wit and his con and his promises "to defend what remnants of the title I have left," he hasn't defended a shred of it since August 12, 1959, which is why the NBA took it away. As Pat Olivieri, Johnson's manager, says: "Archie has done a lot for boxing. I don't want him to kill it, though."
February 20, 1961
Olivieri, a Philadelphia restaurateur who claims he invented the steak sandwich, has been managing—really supporting—Johnson for six years, during which time Harold has been steadily unemployed, except for fitful appearances with a combo: "Harold Johnson, No. 1 contender, on drums." Olivieri wails, "I've been promised 1,000 fights. I've had 12. Harold's too good for his own good. Harold Johnson's name, it's poison. 'Why do I want to get massacrated by your fighter?' they tell me. It cost me more for sparring partners then we took in in purses. I've spent $100,000 cash on Harold, he's earned $14,000."
Harold's problem is simple. Although he is a fighter of such unquestioned ability that his corner neither plots his battles nor gives him advice, his style is as dispirited and academic as a calendar landscape. Moore—who has fought Harold five bouts, winning four—says, "I've always said that Johnson is a very good fighter, within his limitations. But after the first three rounds the crowd begins to yawn. He's harder to catch than a number in a Chinese lottery. That's no good for drawing a gate. Johnson's been slipping around saying I'm afraid to fight him. He's just trying to force me into a fight. But I'm too old to be fooled like that. A fighter, especially a good one, has got to have imagination. You've got to know what you want, and when the chance comes you've got to act immediately. If you don't, your thought is wafted away and your dream is diluted. I have implored with Johnson to refrain from saying things about me. But I do guarantee you one thing—if he keeps talking about me I'm going to make him famous. I'm going to let him introduce a new thing to the public called the St. Vitus dance while flat on your back." Archie's fee as a dance innovator is a $200,000 guarantee, he says. That's what he means by imagination.
Like father, like son
Johnson, for his part, ruefully and earnestly defends his way of fighting. He admits that in these lean years he has felt "like racking up, but it's in my blood." Harold's father was a fighter, too; both father and son were knocked out by Jersey Joe Walcott, a dubious distinction. "It seems," Harold complains softly, "that I can only please the fans when I knock a man out. It's hard to please them. They holler for blood and when they get blood they holler to stop the fight and meantime I'm trying to keep from getting my brains knocked out. A lot of people think I'm yellow. I try, I try lots of times to go in. But I'm missing and stumbling. A lot of people don't realize that I don't fight often. So I step back. What's the use going in and tiring myself out? Let the referee bring him out. I like to watch a fighter, know his moves. Watch how he falls short with his punches. When I get hurt, I fight. The other way, it's not natural." Says Olivieri: "Harold's a timid boy, don't talk too much. That puts him on the outside looking in. Archie, every place he goes he puts his hat on the rack and calls it home."
Bowdry was trained by Henry Armstrong, the persuasive old triple champion who is now a Baptist evangelist (he says he got the call driving to Malibu tanked on Moscow mules when a figure dressed in white appeared beside him, saying: "Henry Armstrong, you're going straight but in the wrong direction").
The fight started slowly and in an eerie silence although there were 4,000 people in the hall. During the first three rounds Johnson did the leading reluctantly, jabbing stiffly and accurately at Bowdry, who fought in a severe crouch and went occasionally for the body, though ponderously and at long range. In the first round Johnson threw only one right hand. In the second he tried three elementary combinations. In the third he began to hook. As Harold explained later: "I didn't want to take no chances with him. Bowdry has a funny style and I didn't want to waste a lot of punches. I was leading to get my opening but I wasn't doing too hot. I wanted to be sure with my right. I put a lot of steam in it and if I miss I might fall on the floor."
In the fourth Bowdry started to come on, sweeping hooks with both hands. Johnson countered with abrupt rights and swift combinations. The fifth was the best round for Bowdry, who seemed to be responding to the stamping of the restive audience. He banged diligently to the body but got his lumps coming in. "I didn't figure him to be so slow," Harold said. "When I saw him on TV he looked very fast. I found I could counterpunch very easily over his jab. This is a 15-round deal, I thought. I looked in his corner—that's the way to tell about a fighter—and he looked relaxed. But round about the fifth or sixth he looked tired. My problem was to make him get up out of bis crouch. So I started using flick jabs so he'd think I was losing my power. And then I kind of got down in the crouch with him, too."
Falling for Johnson's scheme, Bowdry started to take charge and hit Johnson with a good right in the sixth. "It was a daze punch," Johnson admitted. "It wasn't serious but I wouldn't want to get hit with no more." Shortly afterward, he hit Bowdry with a short, fast left hook, almost a phantom punch, and stepped back. Jesse seemed to hang for a moment as if mysteriously levitated, and then collapsed slowly on his side, getting up at the count of nine. Johnson did not pursue his advantage. "I saw a lot of openings," he said, "but I was scared to open." Bowdry survived the seventh and switched from the body to the head, recklessly going for a knockout. Johnson, whose sense of timing and distance is impeccable, hit him with a short right on the side of the jaw at the end of the eighth, and Bowdry fell on his head as if to somersault. The bell came at the count of two.
In the ninth, a right to the temple put Bowdry down for eight and, after considerable punishment, a right to the kidney finally pitched him forward again. Eddie Yawitz, Bowdry's manager, lumbered into the ring flapping a towel, but the referee, who had his back to Yawitz, had already embraced Jesse and stopped the fight.
"I feel kind of good now being No. 2 light heavyweight champion of the world," Johnson said after the fight, scratching his shaven skull. "But I guess I better grow some hair. Those punches starting to hurt my head."