February 7, 1961: Harold Johnson TKO9 Jesse Bowdry

Harold Johnson, 1960s light heavyweight champion, was a professional for 15 years before defeating Jesse Bowdry and becoming champion. The road was long and difficult fighting among many good light heavyweights, and this is part of his story.

Jesse Bowdry writhes on the canvas after being deposited there by Harold Johnson in Miami Beach, 1961 (Credit: UPI)

The gnashing gears and sprockets of boxing clack into their notches at their own pace, no matter what humans have in mind. It’s a metaphor for life, to be certain, but something much more specific as well: an institutionalized bloodletting.

In boxing, again as in life, heroes get old. But before new ones can be welcomed, milestones must be reached. And becoming a hero is about the only foolproof way to successfully game the system as the blood itself is cheap.

Occasionally a fighter staves off the gradual damage of the sport, making examples of their prospective replacements if need be. On February 7, 1961, Harold Johnson, already a veritable hero, turned away the challenge of Jesse Bowdry, thus making his stamp of recognition official.

Johnson, born in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia, was the son of journeyman Phil Johnson, who didn’t necessarily encourage his son to fight. It wasn’t until Harold joined the U.S. Navy that he actually learned the craft, reportedly fighting only one amateur bout before participating in an exhibition with former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn.

Light heavyweight Harold Johnson was champion in the early 1960s

The meager experience apparently satisfied Johnson, who turned professional in July of 1946 after exiting the Navy, rattling off 20 wins in two years under the management of Young Loughrey, a turn-of-the-century Philly welterweight born Thomas Loughrey who fought nearly everyone of importance in his day. Most of Johnson’s bouts were fought in Philly or nearby New Jersey, which put him directly close to many gyms swelling with talent.

In September of 1948, Johnson signed to fight Billy Fox, who was trying to mend his career following a dubious win over Jake LaMotta and a subsequent quick loss to then-light heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich. The interesting match fell through and Johnson fought Portuguese heavyweight Agostinho Guedes instead.

Ahead of the win over Guedes — Johnson’s 21st as a professional — Loughrey told an Associated Press reporter hot on Johnson’s trail, “We’re going to gamble with him. He has done everything we have asked of him so far and now he is ready for the big boys.” Loughrey went on to say that when he approached Lesnevich’s manager Joe Vella about pairing the two up, Vella replied, “You want to see my boy to get slammed around?”

Two more wins brought Johnson to the doorstep of aged former heavyweight title challenger Arturo Godoy, who he out-dashed and kept at optimal distance to earn a decision victory. April 1949 saw Johnson dropping a decision to Archie Moore, though a fighter could do much worse for a first loss. Two wins over New Orleans battler Henry Hall and one each over Jimmy Bivins and Bert Lytell, all top 10 at light heavyweight in The Ring magazine’s rankings at the time, put Johnson on a path to face recent heavyweight title challenger Jersey Joe Walcott.

Jersey Joe Walcott, born Arnold Raymond Cream, eventually won the heavyweight championship

Walcott’s unsuccessful attempts at taking the heavyweight championship from Joe Louis hung fresh in the minds of the public, making the heavyweight bout a huge opportunity for Johnson. And apart from the usual chance to springboard his career into orbit, Johnson’s father had been knocked out by Walcott in three rounds 14 years earlier, adding an element of a possible revenge win.

Fatefully, after a good 1st round, Johnson was decked in round 2 and suffered a freak back injury in round 3, ending the fight. Not only did Walcott become the first fighter to stop a father and son in professional boxing, he stopped them both in the same round.

It was discovered soon after the fight that Johnson had injured a disc in his spine, presumably while getting knocked down in the 2nd round. The injury sidelined him for much of 1950.

From the time Johnson returned in December of 1950 to mid-1954, he fought 22 times, and 10 of those bouts were against contenders in The Ring‘s top 10. Johnson managed a return win over Moore sandwiched between two more losses to him, but a loss to the wily Bob Satterfield was nicely offset by a close win over former heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles.

Ezzard Charles took out Archie Moore in 1948, their third fight, and both later faced Harold Johnson

Though a rematch with Charles appeared to be in the cards, Johnson killed time with five wins, leading him to a showdown with his old nemesis Moore, who had lifted the light heavyweight title off Joey Maxim two years earlier. In the fight’s lead-up, Johnson was portrayed as the hard-working top contender who trudged his way to earning a title shot but wasn’t granted one in a timely fashion.

During the fight, Johnson walked Moore into combinations while moving backward, occasionally finding holes in Moore’s peculiar defense. Moore kept matters close, but in round 14 “The Old Mongoose” flashed his vaunted punching power, nearly ending the fight with a crushing right hand. Moore pounced immediately, putting Johnson down and taking him to the verge before the fight was stopped.

Perhaps not fully recovered by two months later, Johnson was taken out early by Oakland Billy Smith. Three wins, including one over Julio Mederos, put Johnson back in the win column, but his May 1955 rematch with Mederos was a game-changer.

A sluggish and almost sickly Johnson wobbled his way into the Arena in Philadelphia, but seemed to fight normally in round 1 before getting rocked toward the bell, and then inexplicably collapsed in round 2. Johnson would later say that he was drugged with an orange given to him by someone claiming to be a fan, and trace amounts of barbiturates were found in his system.

Light heavyweight Harold Johnson answers questions asked by Pennsylvania commissioner Alfred M. Klein after his strange loss to Julio Mederos (Credit: AP)

Following the strange loss to Mederos and subsequent investigation by the Pennsylvania boxing commission, Johnson largely avoided the state, honoring the six month suspension he was handed for allegedly failing to report to commissioners on hand that he was unfit to get into the ring that night. In his off-time, Johnson picked up a new manager named Pat Olivieri, who a local reporter called a “Philadelphia steak sandwich impresario.”

The truth was the incident with Mederos tore down much of what Johnson had gained. Most top contenders were already reluctant to cross paths with a strong, crafty tactician like Johnson, but when a tainted reputation came along with him for a spell, he struggled.

Over the next six years, Johnson would fight only 12 times, and only three in Pa. During one of Johnson’s training sessions before meeting Jesse Bowdry, a reporter asked if Johnson would have any difficulty due to ring rust. Olivieri snapped back, “I’ve had him working out every day. Watch him. See how sharp he is.”

Harold Johnson was always in superb condition, as this “Tale of the Tape” between he and Archie Moore demonstrates

When Johnson returned, 19 months later, he brushed aside battle axes like Bert Whitehurst and Bob Satterfield, but it was dispatching Clarence Hinnant and Wayne Bethea, both of whom were ranked The Ring‘s top 10, that launched him forth in the rankings. Despite slow progress he found himself rated as Moore’s top contender by The Ring, a position he solidified with a stoppage win over another top-10 ranked contender, Sonny Ray, in November of 1959.

When not punching at people, Johnson helped form a five-piece band in which he played drums, earning $15 per night in Philadelphia during the week. He played in jazz bands for years, in fact.

In February of 1960, the National Boxing Association issued a warning to Moore that he would be stripped of their belt if he didn’t defend it against Johnson, their top-ranked contender. Moore’s response from his home in San Diego was, “The NBA championship doesn’t mean anything at the box office. I’ll draw just as many people if they take my title as I would if I kept it.” In a nearly Shakespearean move, Moore’s manager Jack Kearns implored the United Nations to step in and vanquish the NBA, who naturally took the title from Moore, “a citizen of the world.”

Archie Moore wraps his hands while seasoned manager Jack “Doc” Kearns stands over him in 1962 (Credit: Los Angeles Herald Examiner)

Meanwhile, Johnson attempted to secure a bout with either Willie Pastrano or Erich Schoppner, among a few others, but settled for a decision over Clarence Floyd in May before sitting out the rest of the year. It appeared as though the NBA intended to have Johnson fight for their belt and it was simply a matter of finding an opponent.

Jesse Bowdry, a St. Louis, Mo. native, made his way through Midwestern Golden Gloves tournaments, reportedly going 45-0 with 38 knockouts as an amateur. His slam-bang right hand grew its own reputation before Bowdry even made much of a name for the rest of himself.

Charles J. Livingston of the Baltimore Afro-American said of Bowdry in March of 1955, after he’d won the Chicago Golden Gloves middleweight title by defeating Nate Ellison, “The St. Louis squad also produced the brightest star of the tournament — middleweight Jesse Bowdry, a 17-year-old two-fisted scrapper with a lot of class. Bowdry is a willing mixer and a fine counter puncher. He also possesses one of the finest right crosses ever seen in amateur competition.”

Jesse Bowdry glares at fight gloves a few days before taking on Harold Johnson in Miami Beach (Credit: John Pineda/Miami Herald)

Under the management of St. Louis drugstore owner Eddie Yawitz and the training of Bill Farrell, both of whom also handled future welterweight champion Virgil Akins, Bowdry turned professional in May of 1955 with a 1st round knockout of Evan Buford. Before long, Bowdry found himself back in Chicago, staking a claim as a regular at Chicago Stadium and running up a record of 21-2 with 18 knockouts. The two losses were to contender Sonny Ray, who wasn’t a fistic marvel in any sense, but knew his way around a ring.

Yawitz would later say of Bowdry’s first stoppage loss, “Being kayoed by Ray was a good lesson for him. He was getting careless. I told him to apply pressure all the time and he is in the ring, never let up. Since the knockout, he’s been doing it.”

Bowdry made his television debut at 19, against Clarence Hinnant in April of 1958. Hinnant was ranked number eight by the NBA at the time, while Bowdry wasn’t ranked. Ahead of the bout, Yawitz told AP reporter Charles Chamberlain, “Bowdry has been fighting since he was 14 and I am sure he will convince the fans that he has a bright future. He has natural ability, he’s a good boxer and he’s a punishing puncher.”

A unanimous decision over Hinnant sent Bowdry forward, and he earned two stoppage wins before taking on Ray once more in September of 1958. Bowdry had apparently done enough since their first two bouts to be a 3-to-1 favorite and stumble into The Ring’s light heavyweight rankings at number six, despite losing both of their previous bouts. And the odds makers were dead wrong on this one.

Sonny Ray, born Rogers Moten, Chicago-based light heavyweight poses in 1960

After being stopped by Ray in nine rounds, Bowdry was apparently so distraught that he needed to be sent to the hospital. Said the ringside physician from outside of Bowdry’s dressing room, “He’s just terrifically upset and a little hysterical.” A UPI reporter quoted Bowdry as shouting from his dressing room, “I’m the champ, I’m the champ and I’m not talking to anybody!”

Perhaps a factor in Bowdry’s losses to Ray was his style, which was peculiar in that he used a cross-arm defense, with his arms parallel across his body even while coming forward and crouching, not unlike Archie Moore. In fact, not long after Bowdry’s introduction to the U.S., Moore commented, “Bowdry is an action fighter that has borrowed a few things from the Moore book.”

Bowdry hooked up with new manager Bernie Glickman, an associate of Chicago Outfit mob boss Tony Accardo, toward the beginning of 1959, keeping him in Chicago. After two wins, a bout against fringe contender Tony Anthony was scheduled for May.

Bernard Glickman, later a key figure in cases against Chicago mob members, and Italian junior welterweight star Duilio Loi

Anthony entered the fight a healthy 3-to-1 favorite, but a clear victory for Bowdry moved him up slightly in the rankings, in addition to earning him “Boxer of the Month” honors with the NBA.

Unbeaten slugger Von Clay was scheduled to take on Bowdry in October after Clay mowed down Sonny Ray in August. An unknown viral infection sidelined Bowdry until December, when he would take on Henry Hank, a hot-and-cold middleweight fringe contender.

Unexpectedly, Hank rocked Bowdry early in the fight repeatedly, then went on to dominate the bout, downing Bowdry multiple times later on before halting him in the 10th and final round. It was a fluke, according to Glickman, and caused by Bowdry’s recent illness. So a return bout was scheduled for January.

Bowdry was on the opposite end of the NBA’s “Boxer of the Month” award this time, as Hank’s second win against him inside the distance gave it to Hank for January, 1960. Largely out of the press in 1960, Bowdry resurfaced in October to defeat Florida novice and most recent Sonny Ray conqueror Freddie Blades by stoppage, followed by a decision over ranked future champion Pastrano. The two-fight streak set Bowdry up for an opportunity to win a belt.

In over three years, Moore had made the light heavyweight limit just three times in 20 fights. The New York State Athletic Commission wanted Moore to defend against German challenger Erich Schoppner, and the NBA grew impatient, formally stripping Moore of the belt in October of 1960. Moore eventually scheduled the bout with Schoppner, the European light heavyweight champion, for March of 1961, but the bout fell through. NBA president Dave Ott announced the organization would recognize the winner of the Johnson vs. Bowdry fight at the Miami Beach Convention Center as their champion.

The poster for the 1961 Miami Beach clash between Harold Johnson and Jesse Bowdry

Each fighter was guaranteed 25 percent of the gate, which promoter Chris Dundee predicted would be nearly $50,000. The high expectations were in part due to the Johnson-Bowdry main event, but also the appearance of 1960 Olympic gold medalist, Cassius Clay, who Johnson had been training with.

Bowdry wasn’t exactly lacking for great minds in the gym, though. Former three-division champion Henry Armstrong had taken up training Bowdry for the bout, working on his feints and defense. Armstrong said before the fight, “I think I have given him confidence. We won’t do anything without consulting me, though. I think he has a real good chance.”

About one week before the fight, a chairman for the NBA announced that Johnson posted a $5,000 forfeit in case he won the belt, but refused to defend it against the proper challenger within 90 days, and Bowdry followed suit. The move appeared to be a jab at Moore, by both the NBA and Johnson. But more importantly, the demand of a monetary forfeit or guarantee by a sanctioning organization amounted to a sanctioning fee — a term that hadn’t yet been put to wide use in the sport of boxing.

Initially a 2-to-1 favorite, odds grew to 3-to-1 for Johnson by fight time. Both fighters were undefeated in Miami Beach too, adding a bit of bragging rights to the equation.

The “Tale of the Tape” between Harold Johnson and Jesse Bowdry

Johnson held a record of 62-8 with 28 knockouts coming into the bout, with four of those eight defeats coming at the hands of one of boxing’s most feared punchers ever, Archie Moore. Bowdry sported a record of 29-5 with 23 knockouts — respectable, but dwarfed by that of the grizzled figured who would stand across from him at bell time.

When pressed once more about Johnson’s inactivity a few days out, Olivieri told an AP reporter, “Nobody wanted to meet [Johnson]. I’ve had a thousand offers for a fight with him, but when it came right down to it, nobody would come through.” Olivieri apparently felt the need to turn defensive, however, and he said he’d spent “close to $100,000” on Johnson’s career since becoming his manager six year prior. He continued, “I never took a cent of his purses, which were very small anyway. If we win the fight Tuesday it will be well worth the money I put out.”

Johnson was somewhat pensive in the days leading up to the tussle for the a piece of the fractured light heavyweight title. He told a United Press International reporter in Miami Beach, “I won’t be happy until I fight Moore again and get it settled. Sure, half [of the title] is better than nothing but I’ve had more than my share of that. I want to win recognition everywhere. There’ve been a number of times where I felt like hanging them up and chucking the whole business. My family wanted me to quit but I couldn’t do it. I felt that all the time I’ve spent since I came out of the Navy in 1946 should be rewarded and that if I stuck with it, sooner or later something would break right.”

Harold Johnson on a 1960s Exhibit Co. boxing card

When the reporter asked about his inability to draw well and a more cerebral style, Johnson replied, “I know some people call me yellow. But it’s just that when I’m in the ring I’m not only trying to beat the other guy but I’m trying to keep from getting my own brains beat out, too. So I don’t believe in taking reckless chances. But remember this, when I get hurt, I fight my way out of trouble. Some guys quit when they get hurt. Not me. I fight harder. I wouldn’t call that being yellow.”

As the AP described it, “It was a match between a fighter of a the classic style against the bobbing, weaving fighter, who tried to emulate his trainer, Henry Armstrong, to little success.”

The UPI’s brief description read, “Johnson looked like a deadly glatiator with his shaved head and relentless left jab–a punch he slackened intentionally as the rounds went on and fooled Bowdry into coming out of his crouch and leaving Johnson clean openings.”

The crowd of about 4,000 spectators watched as Johnson essentially took Bowdry to school, suckering the younger man out of his comfort zone and making him reach. In round 4, Bowdry connected with a body shot and right hand upstairs that Johnson would later admit had him slightly groggy, but the veteran controlled most of the action with guile and a sweet jab.

A left hook in round 6 took Bowdry’s legs, and he went down in a sort of delayed reaction to a snapping punch. Again Bowdry went down before the bell, and Johnson felt the opportunity would be the next round. Bowdry held and survived, though, seeing his way through to round 8, only to be again folded up, this time by a right hand that had him wonky on the canvas at the sound of the gong.

Jesse Bowdry finds himself on the deck against Harold Johnson in Miami Beach (Credit: AP)

Round 9 was simply academic, with Johnson swarming Bowdry, who couldn’t keep himself upright under the attack of an experienced foe who sensed victory. Less than a minute into the round the fight was stopped, and an ecstatic Johnson was declared the winner.

UPI reported Oscar Fraley reported, “It was almost too easy after the years the 32-year-old Johnson had waited. For the veteran Philadelphian actually toyed with the bull-rushing young Jesse Bowdry at Convention Hall last night. Johnson made like an adagio dancer, jolted his 23-year-old rival with a triple-hammer jab and knocked him down four times before Bowdry’s corner threw in the towel after 45 seconds of the ninth round. It was strictly no contest. Johnson of the weight lifter’s muscles and shaved head was a sepia Yul Brynner with lighting reflexes and crunching power. He pirouetted away from Bowdry’s head-down charges like Manolette scoring a blind bull. At times he slapped the young man from St. Louis on the derrier as he went past, which seemed to 4,000 spectators like the worst blow of all.”

Harold Johnson sends Jesse Bowdry to the canvas for the final time in the 9th round (Credit: UPI)

After the fight Johnson told an AP reporter, “Only when I beat the old man will I really feel like a champ.” He continued, “The last time I heard about Moore he was going to be a movie star.”

Olivieri answered questions about the next move, “We may never get Moore, he may not want to fight us. But we don’t need him. Harold, though, feels like he has to beat Moore for revenge.”

Johnson would go on to make two defenses of the title before losing it to Willie Pastrano in Las Vegas, June of 1963. He would fight nine more times over the next eight years, losing to Johnny Persol and Herschel Jacobs before retiring at 42 in 1971.

Of eleven more fights in his career total, Bowdry won two more. Only one was against a man with a winning record.

Boxing chewed up both men and spit them out, but at different rates; Bowdry was put on a quick, intense burn, while Johnson was slow-cooked over the course of decades. It’s impossible to say which is better, or worse. Far clearer is that both Harold Johnson and Jesse Bowdry stood in the way of boxing and lived to tell about it. They even walked away with a story or two.

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