Former light heavyweight champion Harold Johnson is one of the most respected boxers that Philadelphia, this City of Brotherly Love, has ever produced. Johnson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993 with a 76-11, 32 KOs record over a 25 year career. The late Jim Jacobs once told me the worst decision in his entire collection of fights was the split decision they gave Willie Pastrano over Harold Johnson for Johnson’s light heavyweight titles.
Ken Hissner: Harold, you had won your first 24 fights before losing in 1949 to Archie Moore in the first of your five bout series. Was he the best in your 87 bout career?
Harold Johnson: Since he beat me 4 out of 5 times, I would have to say yes he was.
KH: Archie had over 100 wins when you fought him in 1949. You were only 20 years old. Before you could get a rematch with him, you fought former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott in a fight that you suffered an injury to the intevertebral disc in your back which sidelined you for 10 months.
HJ: My mother cried when she heard I was going to fight Jersey Joe. (Walcott had beaten Johnson’s father). I weighed a career high of 180. He was almost 200 pounds.
KH: Were you having problems getting fights with light heavyweights?
HJ: Earlier in my career weighing 166 pounds, I had to put lead weights in my pockets and shoes to be over 175 pounds to fight a 200 pounder. When I walked up to the scale all you could hear is “clunk, clunk, clunk.”
KH: You had your second match with Moore in 1951. The decision was so close that you had a third match against Moore three months later in which you would score your lone victory over him. A month after that he would again beat you. With that loss and him not able to get a title fight, did you continue fighting heavyweights?
HJ: I took on former heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles in 1953 winning a split decision. It would be almost a year before I would get my last chance at Archie. He was then the light heavyweight champ.
KH: You had him down in the tenth round. Even though most at ringside felt you were ahead, the judges had it even going into the fourteenth. What happened?
HJ: He dropped me in the fourteenth in the corner. I just couldn’t beat the count. As close as that fight was, I would never get a rematch.
KH: You earned a shot at the vacant NBA light heavyweight title in 1961 because Moore said he had already fought you too many times. You were scheduled to fight Jesse Bowdry in Miami Beach. I understand you had a sparring session with a young Olympic champion. Who was he?
HJ: That was my first meeting with Cassius Clay. At least that’s what they called Muhammad Ali at the time. He was quick and I banged him good to the jaw. Afterwards, he came over and asked me what he could do about the aching jaw. I told him to chew some gum.
KH: You stop Bowdry in the ninth round to take the title in 1961. You remain champion until 1963. During your reign as champion, you had a non-title win over No.1 heavyweight contender Eddie Machen and a win over Doug Jones who a year later would give a young Cassius Clay all he could handle in Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. Your final defense was in Berlin against the European champ Germany’s Gustav “Bubi” Scholz who ended his career with only two losses in 96 fights.
HJ: The people there (in Berlin) were very nice to me. I got my largest payday which was $50,000. Scholz was a southpaw and as good as most of the American light heavyweights I fought. I won a unanimous decision.
KH: I understand Scholz came to the United States years later with an offer for you.
HJ: He shows up in a Rolls Royce. Takes me to Bookbinders for lunch and writes me a $300.00 check. He then asks me to come to Germany and train some fighters for him. I had to decline. He was real nice about it.
KH: It was a year before you would fight Willie Pastrano. He had fought to a draw with Archie Moore the previous year. What happened in the Pastrano fight?
HJ: In my dressing room before the fight, my manager’s (Pat Olivieri of Pat’s Steaks) wife tells my wife, “Harold better win by a knockout for there is no return clause.” Well, in those days, if a champ lost he always got a return match. The only thing I want to say is Pastrano was a pretty good boxer. I think Jacobs told you the rest.
KH: Harold, how do you think you would have done against Roy Jones, Jr.?
HJ: I probably could have knocked him out, if I could have caught up with him.
KH: After becoming light heavyweight champ, Michael Spinks said he never heard of you.
HJ: I had neighbors who said I wasn’t champ. Can you believe it?