One of the legendary world champions from the Manayunk section of Philadelphia Harold Johnson passed away this week at age 86.
I remember the first time I met Harold. He was in the stands at a show when his brother-in-law Ike White was fighting. I foolishly asked “how did that bum Pastrano ever beat you?” His answer surprised me. “He was a good boxer.” Harold never had a bad word for anyone. When I met Jim Jacobs who would eventually manage Mike Tyson several years later at his office on Park Avenue in New York he told me of all the fights in his collection (biggest fight collection in the world) the worst decision was Pastrano over Johnson.
Harold told me that Gustav “Bubi” Scholz, 85-1-6, whom he beat in Germany in a title defense came to his house offering him a chance to come to Germany and train boxers for him. Harold told him he wouldn’t leave this country. So Scholz took him to eat at Bookbinders Restaurant in a Rolls Royce and gave him a check for $300 and said he hoped he would change his mind someday. He said of Scholz “he was a good boxer who could be most Americans. Harold was playing drums in a band to make ends meet so it wasn’t like he didn’t need the money.
Harold had won the vacant light heavyweight title just six weeks before fighting in Germany defeating Doug Jones, 19-1, in Philly. In February of 1961 he defeated Jesse Bowdry, 29-5, for the National Boxing Association title in Philly. He had Bowdry down four times before the fight was stopped in the ninth round. Less than three months later he defeated fellow Philly fighter Von Clay, 13-3-2, who had defeated Chic Calderwood, 29-0, in the UK in order to get the title fight. Harold had Clay down once in the first and three times in the second round to automatically stop the fight.
Less than three months later Harold went to Atlantic City, NJ, and in a non-title bout defeated one of the top heavyweight contenders Eddie Machen, 37-3-1. The following month he went to Seattle, WA, where his opponent Eddie Cotton, 39-11-1, was from winning a split decision. I remember coming home on leave from the Army in 1966 when Cotton lost a disputed decision to then champion Jose Torres. It would be nine months before Harold would fight again defeating Jones and Scholz for the world title and his first defense.
In just sixteen months from winning the title Harold defended it four times and won a non-title fight. When he lost to Pastrano he was on a nineteen fight win streak and would never get a rematch. I remember him telling me that his manager Pat Oliveri who owned “Pat’s Steaks” in Philly waited until the night of the fight to tell him there would be no rematch clause if he lost. Harold knew something wasn’t right because all champs did if they lost their title. He also told me that when he was in Germany he shared a room with his trainer Skinny Davidson while his manager was in a nicer hotel.
Harold and I drove to Atlantic City for a show and there was the son of Oliveri working behind the counter at Pat’s Steaks down there. There were pictures of boxers and Harold asked him where his picture was. The younger Oliveri pulled out one from under the counter with Harold and the great heavyweight champion standing next to one another in a gym.
I took Harold to Wilmington, DE, for the manager of Mike Tinley from Camden, NJ, to train. When Harold saw Tinley on the speed bag he told him to raise it more and Tinley gave him a look of disgust. When he finished he was walking toward Harold when Harold said “throw a punch at me.” Tinley looked surprised but threw a right hand while Harold side stepped it making him not only miss Harold but falling flat on his face. Instead of getting up and asking him how he did it he walked away embarrassed. I told Harold that’s it and its time to go.
Francis Walker, then Executive Boxing Secretary of the PA commission, told me they were at an event when a heckler made light of Harold and Harold’s father both losing to heavyweight champion “Jersey” Joe Walcott. Harold walked up to the guy and whispered in his ear and he quickly shut up. Harold then told Walker it was time to go and outside Walker asked him what he said to the heckler. He said “I told him he says something like that again before I leave this room he would regret it.” Notice he didn’t put the guy down in front of everyone.
I was told of another incident when Harold was at a show and someone was loud behind him and he turned around and dropped the guy. This was later in life when his memory was starting to fade. He once told me when he went to fight a heavyweight he was too light and put iron weights in his shoes and all you could hear when he walked to the scale was “klunk, klunk, klunk.”
Harold was 24-0 and just 19 when he lost his first fight of five he would have with legendary Archie Moore who was 102-17-7 at the time. In his previous fight he defeated heavyweight Arturo Godoy, 83-19-9, of South America. Just six months later he defeated heavyweight Jimmy Bivins, 72-16-1 who was considered the heavyweight champion while Joe Louis was serving in the Army during WWII.
In September of 1951 Harold fought Moore again three straight fights. He lost, won and lost decisions to Moore. Moore’s record was 125-18-8 in the first fight of the three. In 1954 they would have their fifth meeting with Harold ahead on two of the three scorecards going into the fourteenth round when Moore, 145-19-8, would stop him.
I remember having lunch with Harold and his daughter along with former amateur boxer Herbie Brown from Norristown at a diner in the Germantown section of Philly. I later saw him at one of the VBA Ring One’s banquets when he received an award. The last time I saw him was at the Veterans Home near the National Guard Armory in North East Philly. His front teeth were out but he looked great physically.
Harold ended his career 76-11 (32) over twenty-five years with wins over Ezzard Charles, Archie Moore, Bob Satterfield, Henry Hank, Hank Casey, Eddie Machen, Eddie Cotton and others. In 1992 he entered the World Hall of Fame and in 1993 the IBHOF. Harold was a classic boxer and an even classier person.
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