About a year ago the phone rang in our editorial offices and on the other end was a gentleman with the improbable name of Body Johnson. A pleasant-sounding man with a faint western twang, Mr. Johnson had heard that we were about to publish an account of the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons heavyweight championship fight held in Shelby, Montana on July 4, 1923. Indeed we were. What was on Mr. Johnson's mind was the accuracy of the Shelby story we planned to print. This sporting phenomenon—a heavyweight championship fight in a town with a population of less than 1,500—has been described in newspapers and magazines many times in many different and often sharply conflicting versions. None of them, according to Body Johnson, had presented the complete story and, to set the record straight, he was willing to record it for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. And how was Johnson in a position to know the complete story? Well, in a way, he was the Dempsey-Gibbons fight. It was James W. (Body) Johnson himself, 43 years ago, who thought up the idea of having the fight in Shelby, and it was he who saw the whole complicated business through from the first telegram to Jack Kearns, Dempsey's manager—just a joke, really—to the final unpleasant bit of tax litigation with the Government long after the last punch had been thrown. We encouraged Body Johnson to send his story to us and, in this July 4 issue, we present his account of that historic Independence Day battle of more than 40 years ago (page 64).
This is an article from the July 4, 1966 issue
Dempsey-Gibbons may have put little Shelby on the map (there is some question about this, since Shelby is still remembered only for the fight), but it also put Body out of business. To recover, Johnson became active in oil-well drilling and with his father developed a large (44,000 acres) cattle and sheep ranch. By 1927 all the Johnsons' fight debts were settled and Body, age 28, was on his way to becoming a millionaire.
In 1944 Johnson left Shelby for Spokane, where he lives today with his wife Marjorie. "Same gal I took to the fight," says Johnson, "but it took me two years to live it down before she said yes." The Johnsons have two children and seven grandchildren. He is president and principal owner of three lumber companies and an oil company. Aside from his spacious home in Spokane, Body owns three summer homes, two in Idaho, one in Montana. He has understandably given up promoting fights but he is a golfer (14-handicap and recent fifth-flight winner in the Spokane Country Club championship), a duck hunter and a dry-fly and deep-sea fisherman.
Though Johnson became fairly friendly with Jack Dempsey during the training period before the fight, he has not seen or talked to him since. "We've been in the same town many times," says Johnson, "and I've walked by his restaurant in New York, but I've never felt like getting together. I've always wanted to forget the whole thing and now that I've given out my story for publication, I hope I can."