Johnny Wilson: Middleweight Champ 1920-1923

By Norman Marcus on May 2, 2012
Johnny Wilson: Middleweight Champ 1920-1923
The kid liked to mix it up. He was a body puncher and liked to get in close to a guy.

There were way too many Italian fighters at the time on all the local cards, so he picked out an English sounding name—Johnny Wilson…

Giovanni Panica was born in Harlem near 108th Street and Third Avenue on March 23, 1893. It was all Italian there in those days, all the way up to 125th Street. He went to school with Frank Costello, the famous gangster. Frank lived just down the street from Giovanni. The boys lived in a tough immigrant neighborhood. It was a good breeding ground for young boxers and for crime. Frank was a few years older than Giovanni. He never was in any trouble in those early days and everybody liked the soft-spoken Costello. A few years later however, Costello met up with Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, the leader of Manhattan’s East Side Gang. Costello threw in with Charlie and his associates, Meyer Lansky and Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. They took over Johnny’s neighborhood and the result was predictable. Robberies, extortion, gambling and drugs became uncontrollable there. In the meantime, Frank saw some potential for his old friend Johnny in the ring. He introduced him to Vince Morello, who became his first manager. So Costello went into crime and Wilson into the square ring. Funny how some neighborhood kids wind up so different, isn’t it? Anyway, the first thing Vince did was to give the kid a “ring name.” There were way too many Italian fighters at the time on all the local cards, so he picked out an English sounding name—Johnny Wilson. Now all the Sicilians could come and see their favorite countrymen beat up on the “limey” opponent.

So that was the start of it for Johnny as a fighter. The kid liked to mix it up. He was a body puncher and liked to get in close to a guy. Johnny was always careful of his hands and would only aim for the head when necessary. It was a good idea, since many of his friends in boxing had ruined their careers by breaking their hands on the tough, thick skulls of their opponents.

Johnny had a few decent fights at the Sharkey A.C. where they paid you around two dollars for a four-rounder. He later hooked up with a new manager named “John the Barber.”He was a full time barber and part time manager for the up and coming fighters. He had a barbershop at 45th Street and Broadway. Johnny bumped into Jack Johnson one day at the shop. Johnson was a customer there. Here is how Johnny described the ex-champ to Peter Heller in an interview in 1970. “Big, real brown, statue, big, wonderful, powerful fellow, and nice to talk with. I was a kid and I used to look up to him and admire him. He was a nice fellow…”

Wilson was on the way up now and his contract was sold to yet another manager Marty Killerly. Wilson had cleaned out all of the competition in town and so Marty got him a shot at the middleweight title then held by Mike O’Dowd.

This was a real title shot and Johnny trained hard for this fight. His camp was in Bedford, Mass. He was in bed by 10:00 pm and up at 5:00 am for a five-mile run. He came back to a good breakfast, usually steak and eggs, orange juice, and huge mugs of hot tea with honey. Johnny would then spend most of the morning in the weight room or tossing the medicine ball. Sometimes Killerly would take him out into the woods to chop down a big tree.

O’Dowd’s manager was Paddy Mullins and he insisted on Hector McGinness as the referee. Killerly didn’t seem to care but they found out later that Mullins and McGinness were old friends.

The fight took place in Boston on May 6, 1920 at 10:00 in the evening. Johnny threw a left hook right at O’Dowd’s chin in the second round. The champ went down and barely got up by the count of nine. Maybe McGinness gave him a slow count, no way of being sure. O’Dowd became more and more frustrated as the fight went on. He just couldn’t catch up with the young Wilson. The second rule of boxing, don’t get mad—think! Johnny won the UD and the title that night. He got $3200 for that fight.

The first defense of his newly won middleweight title was against George Chip in Pittsburgh at the Motor Square Garden on January 17, 1921. Chip was a former middleweight champion himself. He had won the title on October 11, 1913, only to lose it a year later to Al McCoy by KO in the first round. Chip was near the end of his career here. It was a safe tune-up bout for Wilson’s rematch with O’Dowd. The newspaper decision in the Pittsburgh Post had it 6-2-2 for Wilson in the 10-round contest.

The rematch was a fancier affair set for Madison Square Garden on March 17, 1921. The results however were the same. Wilson won another UD in 15 rounds. O’Dowd took a terrible beating, worse than in the first fight. He had to be shamed by his corner into finishing out the final three rounds. Wilson got $50,000 plus expenses for that fight. This was a huge payday. You have to remember that people were working for $30 a week at the time.

Johnny defended his title against Bryan Downey in Cleveland and won on a disqualification when Downey hit him on a breakaway and kept hitting him when he was down! He fought Jock Malone twice, and knocked him out both times, in Boston.

Wilson finally lost the middleweight title to the great Harry Greb on August 31, 1923, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, but not the way you would have thought it would happen.

Here is how Johnny believed they stole his title. The night of the fight, as Wilson was waiting in his dressing room to be called into the ring, someone in Greb’s camp had secretly talked to the boxing commission. A switch was made at the last moment, replacing two agreed upon neutral judges with two ringers. One judge was an ex-pug named Frank Madden. Now get this—the other judge was none other than the man that cleaned up Dodge City, Kansas: former U.S. Marshal Bat Masterson! Bat was now the Sports Editor of the New York Telegraph.

Now a friend of Marlow warned him what was afoot, that the fix was in, but Marlow wouldn’t believe it. He let Johnny get into that ring knowing that his fighter would probably need a KO to win. Johnny didn’t get one. It was to be a split decision. According to newspaper accounts from that night, Wilson won eight rounds, the first three and the last five of the 15-rounder. He finished up with a good flurry of crushing hooks to Greb’s body.

Both of these ringer/judges scored it a decision for Greb, while the referee Jack Sullivan scored it a draw. Six months later, in the rematch with Greb for the title, Johnny again lost on points in 15 rounds, without Bat Masterson being anywhere in sight. So perhaps the first “fix” was not a “fix” at all but just a close decision?

This was not the last that the public saw of Johnny Wilson. He next fought Tommy Loughran in Boston on February 12, 1924. Tommy won the 12-round decision. Wilson was at a weight disadvantage. Loughran was at the time fighting as a light heavyweight, while Wilson was fighting as a middleweight. The “Philly Phantom” was untouchable that night but Johnny did as well as most against Tommy and made a decent showing.

His next fight was against Tiger Flowers on December 9, 1924 to raise money for “The Milk Fund” headed by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst. Tiger threw a lot of punches but there was nothing behind them. The referee stopped it in the third round because Johnny looked lethargic and tired against Flowers. He had only trained two weeks for the fight and was way out of condition. Wilson had taken the fight on short notice as a personal favor to Mrs. Hearst and it showed in his performance that night.

He fought Harry Greb again in a rubber match on April 17, 1925. Although this was a non- title fight, this third meeting with Greb was the best of their three bouts. Each man won five rounds of the 10-round bout. Greb seemed more aggressive and was given the decision by the judges.

Johnny next boxed Maxie Rosenbloom twice, once in Coney Island, Brooklyn on August 27, 1926, losing on points in 12 rounds, and in Pittsburgh on October 4, 1926, again losing a UD in 10 rounds.

He retired after that fight with 15 years in the ring. It was still the Roaring Twenties, and he had a lot of cash in the bank. Plus he owned several nightclubs in New York and Boston. He lived the good life after he retired with a big house up on Riverside Drive in New York City.  He was a good family man and never regretted any of his choices in life. Except maybe not putting on his clothes and leaving that night when Bat Masterson walked into Madison Square Garden.

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  1. Jack Green 04:04pm, 01/14/2017

    I’d like to know about Roy Green, and his relationship with Johnny Wilson.
    Was Green well known in the boxing world?

  2. Steve Compton 09:01pm, 12/27/2012

    How is it inaccurate? Balls on accurate? Ok, here goes:

    First this a mostly paraphrased account of Wilson’s interview with Peter Heller for the book In This Corner. Martin Killelea (not Killerly) was acting as a front man for the same mobsters who controlled WIlson for the vast majority of his career. While it was stated publicly that Killelea purchased Wilson’s contract and later sold it its unlikely that any money ever changed hands.

    Look in to reports of the second Wilson O’Dowd fight. It wasnt a brutal beating except for the beating Wilson gave O’Dowds balls throughout the fight, causing O’Dowd to suffer a ruptured testicle which necessitated surgery. The fight was actually a split decision when the judges could not agree on a winner and referee Johnny McAvoy (who had a reputation for protecting the house fighter) ruled for Wilson. The idea that O’Dowd had to be forced to fight the last two rounds is ludicrous. He won those last two rounds with a rally as Wilson fought defensively.

    The account of the Downey fight is wholly inaccurate. Downey did not hit Wilson while he was down. I have all of the first hand accounts of this fight. Downey legitimately knocked Wilson down, and finally out. Wilson was down several times in this fight. On the last knockdown Wilson’s hand picked referee who travelled to the fight with Wilson counted very slowly to nine, started the count over, and finally before counting Wilson out disqualified Downey. It caused a major uproar with everyone who saw the fight. Wilson took stories back to New York that he had been fouled but he had not, of course Wilson’s hometown papers printed exactly what he told them.

    Because of the controversy the two were rematched by Tex Rickard in Boyles Thirty Acres. Wilson refused to fight and spent the entire time running and holding on. Rickard was so angry about Wilson’s chicken shit performance that he refused to pay him. The only way he could get his money was by agreeing to face Harry Greb. Wilson wanted no part of Greb but he wanted his money so he signed the contract, got his money, and then tore the contract up. Greb chased Wilson for nearly two years before finally getting a title shot, and only after Wilson thought Greb could no longer make the middleweight limit. Even then Greb had to agree to pay his portion of the purse to Wilson in the event that he win.

    The account of the Greb fight is entirely fictional and completely made up by Wilson. First, there was no last minute switch in the judges. Second, Bat Masterson was not one of the judges. He had been dead two years when the fight was staged. Its ridiculous to suggest that Grebs people, who were not “connected” in any way got special treatment from Johnny Wilson’s hometown officials when Wilson was being managed by high ranking mobster Frankie Marlowe. In fact, prior to the fight mobsters came to Greb’s dressing room and offered his manager a payoff to have Greb throw the fight. They were refused and Cuddy DeMarco, Greb’s stablemate and sparring partner ever after blamed this on the reason why he never got a title shot.

    The fight itself wasnt close and it wasnt a split decision. The reporters being most generous to Wilson gave him only four rounds of the fight. Most gave him only two. It was a foregone conclusion that Greb won despite fighting an uncharacteristically flat footed bout, fearing that if he got too wild he might be disqualified.

    Greb proved this by easily beating Wilson again in their two rematches. In their second fight Greb won handily, wearing Wilson down to such an extent that Wilson tried to foul out rather than be embarrassed by Greb. Wilson left the ring after that encounter bleeding from the ear, nose, mouth, and a cut eye. Greb was unmarked. In their third fight Greb broke Wilson’s nose and the beak bled to such an extent that Wilson’s handlers gave up trying to stop the flow of blood. Greb won so handily that the local Boston papers who had perpetuated the myth that Wilson had been robbed against Greb (despite most of them having not covered the fight) were forced to admit their error and Greb’s superiority.

    I could go on and on but whats the point. This guy read one short interview and thinks hes an expert.

  3. TEX HASSLER 04:04pm, 05/05/2012

    This article was worth tying up my horse getting off and looking at my iPhone. Thanks for bring Johnny Wilson back before the public eye. Yes he was tough and skilled as well. I doubt he was cheated out of the decison by Greb but possibly he saw it that way. Keep up the good writing Amigo!

  4. Deadringer 07:35am, 05/05/2012

    Compton, what mistakes r u talking about? If u know anything about boxing, it’s balls on accurate. People who come onto comment sections and just drop stupid comments without any depth or backup are complete losers. Why don’t u get yourself a life pal or maybe you’re too busy surfing the web and criticizing others. GFY

  5. Steve Compton 06:40am, 05/05/2012

    Did you do any research at all for this article? It has so many mistakes its unreal.

  6. daniel whitman 06:18pm, 05/04/2012

    interesting and fasinated would like to know more

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 11:43am, 05/04/2012

    Deadringer- It’s in the genes….the cuisine at Rao’s obviously has a big pull on his Italiano palate. He may be a schmuck as you say…..a schmuck with big balls!

  8. Deadringer 03:06pm, 05/03/2012

    Rao’s, an Italian restaurant, in old Italian Harlem, still may be the most difficult place to get a table in Manhattan. It’s a mobbed up restaurant, with many old gangster pics on the walls from it’s hundred yr history. Ironically, it’s Guiliani’s favorite restaurant. He patrons the place, but hates the mob. What a shmuck…

  9. Kellyirish 12:07pm, 05/03/2012

    Great Story Norm. Lot of famous people from Italian Harlem, gangsters, fighters, actors. It’s long gone now, but it was a great community in its day.

  10. THE THRESHER 11:25am, 05/03/2012

    NORM IS ON A ROLL HERE. IT’S DOOWNRIGHT SCARY.

  11. Jim Crue 10:33am, 05/03/2012

    Thanks for writing this about Johnny Wilson. How are great fighters like Johnny forgotten except by boxing history nuts like us? Three close fights with Greb!!

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 07:10am, 05/03/2012

    Norman Marcus- I second Mike Casey’s post. A $3,200 purse in 1920….what would that be in today’s dollars….big bucks I’d say…and a good business man into the bargain. No wonder he retired to that big house on Riverside Drive.

  13. mikecasey 12:53am, 05/03/2012

    Norm, thanks so much for remembering Johnny Wilson. He is a much forgotten champion, much like Mike O’Dowd. These guys were teak tough and fought an incredible level of opposition.

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