Harold Johnson was my boyhood hero. My friends would dream about being Mickey Mantle or Tommy McDonald or Wilt Chamberlain, but for me, Harold Johnson was The Bomb. It got to the point that when I was in high school, I would get my hair cut so short, just like Harold’s, that my head looked like a dirty tennis ball. Friends would yell “there goes Peltz with his Harold Johnson haircut.”
His passing this morning leaves me empty and comes at a time when I am questioning my own future in the sometimes wonderful, sometimes wretched world of professional boxing.
Harold was the light-heavyweight champion of the world when, as he would remind me, there was only one world, not a conglomeration of close to 70 belt holders. Rarely were there more than eight world champions in Harold’s time.
There are so many Harold Johnson stories I could tell that would fill up an entire book. Here’s one of them!
Harold had signed to fight Doug Jones, of New York, for the undisputed world title on May 12, 1962, at The Arena in West Philadelphia. He held the NBA version and Jones was the leading contender. Archie Moore was recognized by New York and Europe, but he no longer could make the 175-pound limit so the powers that be sanctioned the showdown between Harold and Jones for universal recognition. I was 15 at the time and in my sophomore year at Lower Merion High School. That’s right, Kobe Bryant went to my high school, I didn’t go to his.?
The top priced ticket for the fight was $10. Somehow, I came up with the money because mom had put her foot down and didn’t want dad taking me to any more fights. She thought boxing was a bad influence on me. I took the bus downtown one Saturday and went to the Central City Ticket Office, which was the major ticket outlet back then for the big fights. I bought a ticket for a seat in the Ringside Elevation, dead center, about eight rows up.
When I got home, I ran to my sister’s bedroom, jumped on her bed and showed her the ticket with Herman Taylor’s (promoter) signature on it. I was in heaven! She couldn’t believe I had done it.
The week of the fight—it was on a Saturday night—I told mom I was going to a party at a friend’s house. I walked a couple of blocks to the Bala Cynwyd shopping center, got a bus to 54th & City Line near St. Joseph’s College, then hopped another bus to 52d & Market in West Philly. From there I took the Market Street El to the Arena at 46th & Market. I bought a program outside—I still have it—and I was the first person in the Arena that night.
I remember the usher who took me to my seat remarking that $10 was a lot of money for a young kid to be spending.
The man who sat next to me said he had a son who played soccer for Lower Merion. I knew his son because I had played briefly for the junior varsity.
Harold entered the ring from our side of the building and I remember his blue robe with the white lettering. I was so nervous watching the fight that the pen I used for scoring snapped in half in my hand because I was holding it so tight. The ink was all over my palm.
Harold fought one of his best fights that night, winning a unanimous 15-round decision against a man who less than one year later would give a young Cassius Clay fits in Madison Square Garden.
Afterward, the man next to me asked to drive me home and I freaked out because I didn’t want mom to see me getting out of someone’s car. I told him I could take the subway and the bus but he insisted so I told him I lived about a block or two from where I really lived and I got off there and walked home. Mom never knew.
Less than six weeks later, Harold flew to Berlin, Germany, where he earned a 15-round decision over Gustav Scholz to convince the European Boxing Union that he, indeed, was the man at 175 pounds. Scholz had lost just one out of 92 fights going in. There were 40,000 people in that outdoor soccer stadium and the voting referee and both judges were from Europe. Imagine today’s prima donnas doing that!
I’m not going to waste space writing about the despicable decision that cost Harold his title against Willie Pastrano in 1963 in Las Vegas, but I believe it ranks among the 10 worst in boxing history.
Years later, when I was a senior at Temple University, I was also working full-time on the sports staff at The Evening Bulletin. It was 1968 and the first story I ever wrote for The Bulletin was about Harold’s latest comeback and his win over Eddie “Bossman” Jones in Las Vegas.
The next year, when I began promoting fights, I had wanted Harold to headline my first card, but we couldn’t agree on terms and it never happened.
In 1989, when I had a weekly boxing talk show on WIP radio in Philadelphia, he was the guest on my first show. Harold and I became good friends, but he was not doing well financially. He needed money to get his car out of a repair shop so he sold me the championship belt he had received from The Ring magazine along with the blue-and-white robe he wore that night against Doug Jones.
The Ring belt had been wasting away in a shoe box in his closet and several of the chain links had been broken. I had it restored and framed and it is the crown jewel in my collection. His robe hangs in my closet. I recently was able to purchase a poster from the Doug Jones fight, something I had been wanting for years.
?When Harold was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993, I drove him to Canastota, NY, and back. He was so shy he didn’t want to sign autographs so he put a fake cast on his right hand to dissuade people from asking. It was no use. He gave in and was one of the most popular figures that weekend.
Over the years I would call him, disguising my voice and telling him it was Willie Pastrano on the phone, and how easy it was beating him that night in Las Vegas. He’d say something like “ok, yeah, sure, get over here where I catch you.”
That was about as nasty as Harold could get. I never heard him curse, never heard him use a four-letter word. I remember one time he was talking about a guy who had a great body and the best Harold could say was that the guy was built like a brick outhouse. He couldn’t use the other description. He had class!
I went with his son Chuck to see him last year at the Veterans Administration Home in the Northeast section of Philadelphia. It was not a pretty picture. He didn’t recognize me and was virtually incapable of putting sentences together. This was sad, coming from a man who was once so virile, so strapping, such a physical specimen.
Teddy Brenner, the legendary matchmaker from Madison Square Garden, once remarked that Harold Johnson was as close to being the perfect fighter as one could be but that there was no room in boxing for perfection.
Harold won 76 out of 87 fights against some of the baddest light-heavyweights and heavyweights who ever strapped on the cup and he did it at a time when boxing really meant something on the sports landscape. I will miss him and I will miss those wonderful days.