The great Harold Johnson was born on August 9, 1928, and should not be confused with the modern day tomato can from Milwaukee by the same name. He started boxing at age eight at the North Lake Boys Club in Philadelphia. Prodigiously talented, Johnson enjoyed a successful career as a boxer, yet his name is largely overlooked among the great light heavyweights. He worked hard and captured the laurels of a champion, but was consistently overshadowed by men who were just a little bit better.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Harold Johnson turned pro in July 1946 just across the river in Wilmington, Delaware. Johnson enjoyed a swift and smooth rise to the top, although like many boxers in the 1940s and 1950s, he skipped around weight divisions frequently. He started his career as a middleweight, and his first fight against a “name” opponent was when a 178 lbs. Harold Johnson fought a 200 lbs. Arturo Godoy in 1949. Godoy was 37 by then, but the Argentine had given Joe Louis a hard time before the war, and Johnson handily outpointed the bigger, harder-punching man.
The bout with Godoy set the stage for a showdown with another prominent figure in the light heavyweight division, Archie “The Old Mongoose” Moore. The two met in April 1949, and Johnson was thoroughly over-matched by Moore at that stage in his career. Moore knocked him down in the 7th and won a solid decision victory. Still, Johnson was only 24-0 at the time, with only one quarter of Moore’s ring experience. It was only the first stanza of what would prove to be an enduring rivalry.
Johnson bounced back in the summer of 1949 with a pair of wins over fringe contender Henry Hall, using his razor-sharp jab to set up varied combinations. In October, he out-pointed Jimmy Bivins. Yet in February 1950, Johnson bit off more than he could chew when he challenged heavyweight contender Jersey Joe Walcott, who destroyed Johnson in three rounds.
Johnson returned to his winning ways after the Walcott loss, and in September 1951 had earned a rematch with Archie Moore. Johnson hurt Moore badly in the 2nd and 5th, but in both instances the guileful Moore was able to survive. The result was a win for Moore, but a much closer one than he had scored over Johnson in 1949. The two fought a rubber match in December. Johnson came on harder in that bout and managed to win a narrow-but-unanimous decision victory over Moore. Now 1 for 2 with Moore, Johnson fought a fourth bout (and the third in a row) in January 1952. Moore rebounded from his loss and won another decision over Johnson, leaving their rivalry at 3-1 in favor of Moore.
Having fought three bouts with Archie Moore back-to-back, Harold Johnson moved on in 1952 and met Bob Satterfield. Johnson was knocked down in the 5th, which undoubtedly contributed to his Split Decision loss. The pair had a rematch in October, and Johnson scored his revenge and then some when he knocked Satterfield out cold with an uppercut in the 2nd.
Harold Johnson then won what was the biggest victory of his career to date. Still only 25 years old, Johnson got in the ring with the man who had bested Archie Moore on so many occasions, former World Heavyweight Champion Ezzard Charles. In a stunning upset, Johnson out-pointed Charles with a close Split Decision. If the world had started paying attention to Johnson during his three back-to-back fights with Archie Moore, the win over Charles cemented his standing as a major player in boxing.
Meanwhile, Archie Moore had won the Light Heavyweight Championship following his string of fights with Johnson. In 1954, Moore made the third defense of that title against his old rival. In a tough, see-saw battle that had Moore down in the 10th. The fight was close or even on the scorecards going into the 14th when Harold Johnson faltered, being first knocked down and then stopped by Moore. Johnson had never fought a 15 Round fight before, and that might have proved his undoing. He was certainly spent for some time after that, for in his very next fight in October 1954, Johnson was knocked out by a journeyman.
Waiting For His Chance
Harold Johnson would never fight Archie Moore again, and would therefore wait for years before getting another crack at the 175 lbs. title. He beat Bob Satterfield again in 1957, running up that rivalry to a score of 2-1. After that, Johnson fought a string of journeymen until 1961, when he got an offer to fight heavyweight contender Eddie Machen. Praised as a good boxer in his day, Machen proved less skilled than Johnson, who edged his bigger opponent in a close-but-unanimous decision.
The Machen win was big, and it got Johnson a 1961 bout against Eddie Cotton for the NBA Light Heavyweight crown. Cotton was another long-time, frustrated contender, and the two men fought for all they were worth. At the end of the night, it was Harold Johnson who came away with a narrow Split Decision victory.
Nine months later and Harold Johnson was squared off with a 24 year old, 19-1 Doug Jones. Jones would later grow into a formidable heavyweight contender, and in that role he would give a young Cassius Clay the first tough fight of his career. Johnson took his young opponent to school and thumped him in a big points win. Harold Johnson was 33 years old and 66-8, but he had finally become the World Light Heavyweight Champion.
The Bittersweet Reign
The truth is that the title came very late in Johnson’s career, and he had been made to wait too long to get it. Archie Moore avoided a sixth bout with Johnson throughout the mid-to-late 1950s, so Johnson only got his shot after Moore vacated the crown in 1961. He traveled to Germany and beat Gustav Scholtz in June 1962, but that was as far as his reign as light heavyweight king went.
In June 1963, Harold Johnson defended his hard-won title against Willie Pastrano in Las Vegas. Pastrano swept the first five rounds of the fight, but Johnson’s body attack got him back into the game, and he almost knocked Pastrano out in the 13th. Nonetheless, it was not enough to forestall an upset, Split Decision loss. It was a very close fight, and UPI had scored Johnson as the winner. Nevertheless, Harold Johnson lost his title and would never get another crack at it.
Johnson fought periodically in the mid-to-late 1960s, losing once in 1966. He lost again in 1971, and finally decided to hang up the gloves. His record was 76-11 with 32 KOs. Harold Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993,
Sources: boxrec.com; phillyboxinghistory.org; cyberboxingzone.com; thesweetscience.com/boxing-article/1555/harold-johnson-preferred-style-savagery/;