Johnson and McLaglen: The Boxer and the Actor

By Clarence George on February 6, 2013
Johnson and McLaglen: The Boxer and the Actor
Jack Johnson vs. Victor McLaglen, Vancouver Athletic Club, Wednesday, March 10, 1909

Not included on Johnson’s official record, because it was an exhibition match, is Jack Johnson vs. Victor McLaglen, his first post-championship bout…

There’s no shortage of actors who’ve portrayed boxers. John Garfield in Body and Soul and Robert Ryan in The Set-Up come immediately to mind. Or of actors who’ve played real-life boxers: Errol Flynn as Gentleman Jim Corbett, Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano, Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, and Russell Crowe as Jim Braddock. And of course there are plenty of guys who boxed before making it onto the silver screen—the recently deceased Charles Durning, for instance. But there’s only one boxer-turned-thespian who won the Academy Award for Best Actor: Victor McLaglen.

Best remembered as John Wayne’s choleric and belligerent nemesis in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), McLaglen starred in an earlier Ford film, 1935’s The Informer. McLaglen plays a fundamentally decent man. He’s of immense physical strength, but mentally limited. Almost in spite of himself, he betrays his Irish-revolutionary friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) to the British, thus indirectly causing his death. The plot, based on a Liam O’Flaherty novel, is both plausible and poignant. Moreover, it’s mercifully devoid of the treacly sentimentality that would mar so many of Ford’s later, albeit still excellent, films. I’ve seen it any number of times, and still get a lump in my throat when Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) cries out: “Frankie! Frankie! Your mother forgives me!”

In winning the award, McLaglen beat out fellow nominees Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone, all for their respective roles in Mutiny on the Bounty.

Before trodding the boards, McLaglen had been a professional heavyweight for 12 years, from 1908 to 1920. He has a record of 11 wins (10 by KO), six losses, and a draw. Unimpressive? That would be a euphemism and an understatement akin to William Roughead’s remark that Lizzie Borden was “unfilial.” No, McLaglen was no Jack Johnson…but he did have the honor of fighting him. 

“The Galveston Giant,” among the greatest of heavyweights (the best, according to Nat Fleischer), had an astonishing 34-year career, fighting from 1897 to 1931. He won 54 (35 by knockout), lost 11, and drew nine. The men he fought were and remain legends, including Sam Langford, Stanley Ketchel, and Joe Jeannette, whom Johnson battled seven times, winning four. They engaged in an exhibition match in 1945, the year before the champ’s death in a car crash, when Johnson was 67 and Jeannette 66.

Johnson became Heavyweight Champion of the World on December 26, 1908 by destroying courageous, but not-a-snowball’s-chance-in-hell Tommy Burns. In Johnson’s first title defense—on May 19, 1909—he drew against Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Not included on Johnson’s official record, because it was an exhibition match, is Jack Johnson vs. Victor McLaglen. It took place at the Vancouver Athletic Club two months prior to the O’Brien fight, on March 10, and is in fact Johnson’s first post-championship bout.

Unlike Joe Louis, Johnson never bothered learning how to “behave” in fighting a white opponent in what was in his day (as in Louis’) very much a white man’s world. It was said that no one could compare to him for sheer “white-baiting blackness.” He also could be, let’s face it, a bastard, though he was never very good at being a complete son of a bitch. He was neither a bastard nor a son of a bitch in his fight with McLaglen—by all accounts, Johnson carried his physically powerful, but modestly talented, opponent over the course of six rounds.

There’s a distressing dearth of information regarding the bout. But, as historical backdrop, we know that boxing-trainer and always-packing-heat George Paris, remembered for being the first of Canada’s jazz musicians, allowed Johnson and his girlfriend to stay at his home when the hotels refused to put up a mixed-race couple.

Johnson’s third and last wife, Irene Pineau, said of him that “There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.” Certainly, he didn’t fear McLaglen. As the years passed, did he even remember him? Perhaps not. But it pleases me to think of Johnson sitting anonymously in a darkened movie theater in 1935, watching The Informer, saying to himself with a justifiably self-satisfied chortle: “I knew him when.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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The Set-Up Robert Ryan Fight Scene Film Noir 1949

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1908-12-26 Jack Johnson vs Tommy Burns (ROUNDS 1,5,8,11,14)


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  1. Steve W Oatway 11:48am, 06/14/2017

    As a Vancouver Historian I find this story fascinating and researched it for more information. The Vancouver Athletic Club was built in 1906 at what is now the NW corner of Dunsmuir & Beatty Streets (formerly Smythe Street) across from where the Stadium-Chinatown Skytrain Station is now. This Boxing Match was described by Victor McLaglen in the book In the Footsteps of the Quiet Man: The Inside Story of the Cult Film. You can find that section of the book through Google.

  2. Clarence George 06:47am, 05/31/2016

    I think it was 1930.

  3. Francis 06:12am, 05/31/2016

    Please, somebody knows in what year John Garfild played semi-final golden gloves ?
    Many thanks

  4. Clarence George 05:15am, 02/18/2013

    I never saw it, Norm, but I’ll put it on my list.

    Are you familiar with the 1950 movie of the same title, with Richard Widmark?  Quite good.

  5. Norm Marcus 05:05am, 02/18/2013

    Clarence: “Night and the City” with De Niro and Jack Warden is a real sleeper film that doesn’t get its due. It’s more a film about a promoter than a fighter but it really shows the seedier side of the sport. Alan King does a super job as a Jewish gangster. Its one of my favorites. I can still feel that cold wind coming off the boardwalk as De Niro talks to Warden about the old man’s 2 fights with Maxie Rosenbloom, remember?

  6. Clarence George 01:55am, 02/10/2013

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Frank.

    I can’t think of a Ward Bond performance where he wasn’t effective and entertaining.  And, you’re right, he was particularly good as John L. Sullivan.  Very good casting.  The depth and poignancy of that last scene between Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) has always stayed with me.

    I think, by the way, that Flynn was trained for the role by Mushy Callahan.

  7. FrankinDallas 08:04pm, 02/09/2013

    I can hear Teddy Atlas now “Robert Ryan is giving up his height…he should stop bending down so low!”.

    Ward Bond was great as John L. Sullivan…looked just like you thought he would look and act in real life.

  8. Clarence George 10:02am, 02/07/2013

    High praise, Norm.  Thank you.

    I didn’t know (or I’d forgotten) that the Garfield movie was based on Ross.  An excellent film, though I think the grittiest (though not necessarily the best) boxing movie is the one with Ryan—an excellent depiction of the sport’s underside.

    By the way, I seem to recall that Tony Zale didn’t play himself in the Graziano film, as had been planned, because he knocked out Newman, who got cute with him in the ring.  Yet another reason to love “The Man of Steel”.

  9. norm marcus 09:42am, 02/07/2013

    An excellent read Clarence. You know that “Body and Soul” was really based on the life of Barney Ross. But when it came out after the war that Ross was addicted to morphine after being wounded at Guadalcanal, the studio changed the name of the fighter to Charlie Davis. They didn’t want to hurt the box office money.
    The best part of that video here was cut short. After the fight, the gangster who was double crossed when Davis wouldn’t tank it asks Davis, “What makes you think you can get away with this?” Davis replies, “What are you gonna do kill me? Everybody dies!”
    Film Noir at its best!!!

  10. Clarence George 05:01am, 02/07/2013

    Thanks very much, NYIrish.  Yeah, it does kinda kill two birds with one stone, doesn’t it?

  11. NYIrish 04:45am, 02/07/2013

    Interesting piece for the fight fans and the film buffs. Well done.

  12. Clarence George 03:46am, 02/07/2013

    Glad you like the article, Nicolas, and I agree that Denver Ed Martin’s experience was indeed “kind of charming”.  Can you imagine his reaction?  His jaw must have dropped down to his ankles.  Fifty bucks more than a century ago was real money—at least 20 times that today.

  13. nicolas 12:04am, 02/07/2013

    Interesting article. At one time, this was listed as a defense of Johnson’s heavyweight championship, and called a draw. Though it had been written later that Johnson did not try to harm Victor in any way. I had once heard that John Wayne had embarked on a boxing career, but with very little success, mostly losing, but as of now no records exist, and in one of his biographies I could find no information about this once mentioned career. Just a note because Wayne did win an academy award as best actor. Of course Jack Palance who won a best supporting actor award did apparently box losing to future heavyweight contender Joe Baski, and he is reported to have had also some 12 to 15 other fights, winning all of those. A little side note, McLaglen did fight Denver Ed Martin, who had once been world colored heavyweight champion. Go to boxrec to look up this fight. I found what happened after this fight to be kind of charming in the case of Ed Martin, which appears to contradict some of the racism of the time that we would come to expect.

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