When paging through the annals of boxing history there’s something reassuring when those listed are still with us. We can tap into the time they lived, but once they have passed from this life, we are left only with what was captured on camera or recorded for posterity. The doorway to the past closed this week on a boxer who lived in what many feel was one of the most controversial eras of boxing. Johnny Arthur may not be a familiar name in world boxing, but the 1948 Olympic bronze medal winning heavyweight was in the thick of things and scratched the underbelly of international boxing at a time men were men and boxing was a lot more brutal than it is today.
Arthur, who would have been 76 on August 29, slipped and broke his ankle on Wednesday and sadly died the following morning in hospital after complications set in. He was reportedly not well for some time. I had the privilege of meeting Arthur a few times and interviewing him at his home many years ago and remember vividly his enthralling stories of a world which I never knew: his trip to the Olympic games, meeting the Queen, his campaigns in the USA and Canada, including bouts against fistic legends Willie Pastrano and George Chuvalo, as well his brush with mafia influence in boxing.
Arthur had no interest in boxing until the age of 18, and then he only got involved to toughen himself up for the upcoming rugby season. He had a natural aptitude for the sport, however, and his size and strength convinced selectors to include him in the Springbok team which went to London to contest the 1948 Olympic Games. “I never really though anything of it,” said Arthur “They were having trials for the games so I just went along and tried out. It was a tremendous honor however to go and represent my country in London.”
Arthur knocked out Jean Gallie, a 25 year old Blacksmith from Alsace-Lorraine in the first round without working up a sweat. Then he beat Jay Lambert, a student from the University of Utah, who was a heavy favorite to win the gold medal. Arthur lost in the semifinal to Argentinean Raphael Inglesias, the eventual winner of the gold medal, by a narrow margin, one of the judges scoring the fight for Arthur.
The South African boxing team that year was a formidable one. Besides Arthur’s bronze, Gerald Dreyer took gold in the lightweights, George Hunter took gold at light-heavyweight, and Dennis Shepard took silver in the featherweights. Hunter also won the Val Barker trophy as the best boxer at the games. Another member of the 1948 team who was controversially eliminated early on was Vic Toweel, who later went on to claim the bantamweight world title by defeating the legendary Manuel Ortiz over 15 rounds.
“We were a good group and we had a lot of fun,” said Arthur. “One of the highlights was definitely being invited to meet the Queen, who became the Queen Mother. She was wonderful and she treated us very well. She made some comments about and apologized for the Anglo-Boer War and was definitely trying to make us feel welcome.”
On his return home, Arthur remained in the amateur ranks to gain some experience and claimed the national title before turning pro. It was never going to be easy for Arthur to win over the public in his home country. Even though he scored fourteen knockouts in his first seventeen fights and was an incredible tough and durable heavyweight, he was following in the footsteps of the nation’s darling, Johnny Ralph, as the new heavyweight hope. Ralph enjoyed an incredible following and was one of those magical characters who had the ability to captivate an entire country with his every move. It didn’t matter how talented Arthur was, he could never replace Ralph in the minds of the paying public.
Ralph’s career was cut short due to a car accident, so the two could never meet in the ring. Arthur claimed the national heavyweight crown, and then realizing that he was not receiving the accolades he deserved on the home front, campaigned in Britain, Canada and the US. He challenged twice unsuccessfully for the Empire heavyweight title against Johnny Williams and later Don Cockel, who himself gave Rocky Marciano an entertaining scrap. In addition to battling through many of his fights, Arthur was diagnosed as suffering from Bilharzia, a debilitating semi-tropical disease, which made him sluggish and took the snap out of his punches. Although he received treatment, many theorized that the aftereffects of the disease dogged him for his entire career.
Arthur had eight bouts over eighteen months in North America and was completely convinced that boxing in the States was mob controlled: “I had to pay over 10% of all my purses to the mafia, and I can tell you stories of so called accidents which happened to fighters and managers who didn’t toe the line. While in the gyms I learned a lot. You’ll be surprised at the things you’re taught and just how tough things were. I was even taught how to break a man’s arm in a clinch.”
Arthur was well-bred and never resorted to these kinds of tactics.
“There was one guy,” he recalled. “Everybody feared him. If you wanted to challenge Marciano for his title, you first had to fight him. I’m not just talking about official matches either. If they wanted to keep it quiet you had to fight him in the gym. He was brutal. He’d either beat you so badly that you’d pull out of the fight with Marciano, or just hurt you real bad so that when you climbed into the ring for the fight you were still hurting. He was better than Marciano, but they never let him fight him. He was just the guy you had to go through to get a title shot.”
Among the men Arthur met on his stay in the US were Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, who were both later imprisoned for manipulating boxing through corruption and strong-arm methods. He was matched with big names of the day – Willie Pastrano, George Chuvalo and James J. Parker – but lost on all three occasions. Arthur claimed he was forced to throw the fight against Chuvalo, who later went on to meet the likes of Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
“I knew Chuvalo well and had sparred against him on many occasions,” Arthur said. “There was no doubt that I would have beaten him, but as the fight approached I received threats that my wife would be badly hurt if I won the fight. At first I didn’t believe it, but then I got a phone call which left me cold. They told me in detail how they would cut my wife’s face up. It was terrible and I decided there and then that we would leave the US. I just went through the motions with Chuvalo. I was even scared that I might catch him by accident so tried to pull my punches. I just wanted to get out of there.”
Arthur returned to South Africa, scored three good wins, and retired in 1957 with a record of 33-8 (27 KOs).
During his career, Arthur was in a league of his own as far as local competition was concerned, but never received the spotlight he deserved. In his day and age people were afraid to be outspoken about things like corruption, and if his willingness to talk kept many away from him. When he finally hung up his gloves, Arthur became a widely respected businessman. He had four sons and a daughter.
And while the above story is by no means an epitaph for the man, it is a reminder that he was here and that he was part of the history of a sport we love dearly. Something which has stayed with me over the years about Arthur is when I asked him if I could see his Olympic medal. He answered: “It’s in a box somewhere. I’m not even sure where it is. You know it wasn’t the biggest thing in my life. It was just something I did. I’m a lot prouder of my family. That’s just a piece of metal.”