Swedish Heavyweight Champion
By Ken Brooks
(McFarland, 272 pages, $29.95)
reviewed by Bobby Franklin
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Post Gazette about Heavyweight Champion Ingemar Johansson. In the limited research I did on that story I learned what a fascinating character the man with Toonder in his right hand was. In the time since that column appeared I have had the opportunity to read Ken Brooks’ detailed biography of the former world champion.
In recent years biographies of boxers have been coming out on an almost daily basis. Most are labors of love. Many are well researched but poorly edited. Some are quite good. And a few rise to the top of the heap. This book is one of those that deserves a wide readership.
Mr. Brooks has done meticulous research, organized his material, given an array of footnotes to back up that research, and ends up with a lively narrative about a fascinating figure in the world of boxing
. Though he clearly admires his subject, this is no hagiography.
Ingemar was born in Goteborg, Sweden in 1932, the son of Ebba and Jens Johansson. His father, Jens, was a street paver and it is from him that young Ingo inherited his great physical strength.
The young Swede was not particularly fond of school work, nor did he do well when dealing with authority figures. His career in the military was less than stellar. But this disdain for being a team player made him a perfect candidate for the sport of boxing where an athlete is on his own and answers to no one but himself.
Ingo ran up an impressive amateur boxing record culminating in his representing Sweden in the 1952 Olympics. Fighting against American Eddie Sanders in the final Ingo was disqualified for “lack of effort”. Johansson returned to Sweden in shame and with the press writing off any hopes of his having a future in boxing.
Well, not only did he prove the press wrong by going on to win the European Heavyweight title, he also became the first Swede to hold the World Heavyweight Championship. But, he did much more than that.
Even though Ingemar was champion for less than a year, he singlehandedly revived boxing which, under the reign of Floyd Patterson, had begun to become more of a sideshow.
In this book Ken Brooks writes not only about Johansson, but also pens an excellent history of boxing during the late 50s and early 60s. It turns out Cus D’Amato was not the valiant warrior against organized crime that so many believe he was. He had his own criminal connections, and Mr. Brooks lets us in on them. While D’Amato is remembered for standing up to Jim Norris and the IBC, he was not looking to clean up boxing. Rather, he was attempting to make his own power grab. This all makes for fascinating and enlightening reading.
It is interesting to contrast Johansson’s rise up the ranks with the two best known of D’Amato’s protege’s, Patterson and Mike Tyson. Mr. Brooks points out the fact that Ingo never fought an opponent who had a losing record
. Every one of his fights were against fighters who had more wins than losses. Compare that with the steady stream of hand picked opponents that both Mike and Floyd faced on the way up. Ingo earned his title shot by knocking out number one contender Eddie Machen, a man Patterson refused to grant a chance to.
On the night he won the title from Patterson with a devastating seven knockdowns in the third round, very few people gave Johansson any chance of winning the fight. He didn’t appear to have trained very hard for the fight, and in the first round he didn’t appear particularly fired up. Ingo’s laid back personality carried through with him when he climbed through the ropes. The reality was, even though he often seemed disinterested in boxing and more interested in having a good time, Johansson loved boxing and took it very seriously.
He had developed an awkward yet effective style that worked well enough to gain him the world title.
Ken Brooks covers much ground in his taut and concise book. Readers learn about Howard Cosell’s first time behind the mic for a national broadcast. The unlikely friendship between Sonny Liston and Johansson. Ingo actually made Sonny smile, and they enjoyed each other’s company. We get the truth behind the two round sparring session between a young Cassius Clay and the former champion that took place before the third Patterson fight in Miami. A myth has grown around this, and once again, the author delves into what actually happened that day.
Ingemar’s social life was more one of Hollywood celebrity than professional athlete. The new champion was extremely popular in the United States, particularly among females. His good looks and dimpled chin coupled with his charm made him very sought after. Among his paramours was Elizabeth Taylor. You can get a glimpse of this attraction by looking on Youtube at his appearance on What’s My Line as well as his time on the Dinah Shore Show where he sings and banters with his host. The Champ had a great singing voice.
Mr. Brooks also gives us details on Ingo’s marriages and home life. The saddest part is the description of his final years when dementia set in. Johansson did not want people to think his illness had come from boxing. He loved the sport that much, but it was indeed the tragic outcome of the blows he took to the head.
On a happier note, Ingo was one of the few boxers to leave the sport financially well off. He eventually bought a small motel in Florida where he enjoyed a number of very happy years. He also resisted a number of lucrative offers to return to the ring. When he was done fighting the decision was final.
Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion is a must read even for the most casual of boxing fans. Ingo deserved to have a good book written about him, and Ken Brooks has done him that service.