The Historic Super Fight That Time Forgot
“Look at this match in the spirit of fair play. Remember that the future of boxing may depend on your actions tonight…”
On Sept. 21, 1917, one of the most important matches in boxing history was contested at the Harlem A.C. in New York. But lost in time is the significance of this event. The bout was billed as a “Championship Contest” between “Benny Leonard, Lightweight Champion of the World” vs. “Leo Johnson, Colored Lightweight Champion.”
Not since Joe Gans and Battling Nelson met nine years earlier had a white and “colored” boxer faced each other in a lightweight title match, and nine years since Harry Lewis declared in the Philadelphia Ledger that “COLOR IS NOT BARRED” after winning his claim to the welterweight crown by stopping Frank Mantell.
The historical impact of this match is that Leonard was confident enough to meet his leading black contender and risk his reputation in allowing the match to be billed as a “Championship” contest, when he easily could have avoided any such fight due to the popular sentiment of the time called the “color line.”
Harlem’s Leo Johnson at this time was a highly regarded boxer-puncher who had reigned supreme on the “Colored Circuit” and had more than held his own with many top white fighters including Johnny Dundee, Willie Jackson, Phil Bloom, Vic Moran, Patsy Cline and numerous others. In well over 100 bouts he had “never been off my feet,” and had only been stopped one time and that by the great featherweight champ, Abe Attell, back in 1911, when Johnson was still pretty much a novice. Even then, Johnson was so angry when his manager threw in the towel in the 5th round that he tried to assault his handler.
Some fistic followers thought with his smooth boxing ability, Johnson had a real shot to beat Leonard, or give him plenty of trouble. He even devised a plan to demoralize Benny into defeat. His stablemate, Harry Wills, worked Johnson’s corner that night and later relayed this episode to famed cartoonist, Ted Carroll:
“Wills who had tremendous respect for Leonard’s ability, warned the cocky Johnson to be wary of Benny. But Leo remained unconvinced and conveyed to Wills that his opponent would be no problem because he had a plan to get Leonard angry and get him out of his comfort zone.
“Leonard’s reputation was that he could go through a whole match “without getting his hair mussed” and at the first bell Johnson reached over with his left glove and “mussed” Benny’s hair. Wills claimed Benny was so infuriated that he completely demolished Johnson in less than two minutes.
“The atmosphere surrounding this match was positively electrifying. According to sportswriter George Underwood, “the match proved such an attraction to the boxing fans that a throng utterly out of proportion to the capacity of the club stormed the building. An army of blacks and whites arrived so early that the clubhouse was packed to suffocation [even the aisles], more than an hour before the first preliminary was staged. The Fire Department ordered the ticket sales stopped. Advanced seat holders continued to come but by 8:25 the Police and Fire officials ordered all doors closed and barred.”
The men entered the ring at 10:15, Leonard scaled 133 pounds and Johnson 130. Everything had gone well. But Robert Edgren reported “it was this mingling of the races that caused Joe Humphreys to address the crowd before the main event had began.”
“I want to appeal to every gentleman in this room, regardless of race, color or creed, to remember that this is an event emblematic of the highest sportsmanship, and to preserve perfect order. Look at this match in the spirit of fair play. Remember that the future of boxing may depend on your actions tonight.”
Humphreys’ warning wasn’t needed. Benny Leonard’s announcement “that he was giving Leo Johnson [the] match because he considered it a matter of fairness and sportsmanship,” had already won him friends among Johnson’s followers.
New York Tribune’s Fred Hawthorne: “The bout opened with a surprise for everybody. Johnson was the first to lead and with a long left he deliberately rubbed his glove across the top of Benny’s head. Benny’s hair had been ‘mussed’ for the first time since winning the title.”
“But he paid dearly for his fun, Benny rushed the negro to the ropes and began shooting over jarring rights and left hooks to the jaw. Johnson tried to ward off the blows by crossing his gloves in front of his face but the champion got through with deadly wallops.
“Johnson slid nervously along the ropes with Leonard in pursuit. Getting the negro in the latter’s corner, Benny fought savagely, until Johnson, dazed and weakened, turned his back and grabbed at the ropes as he fell to the floor on bended knee. The carnage was over.”
Edgren: “He fell across the bottom rope and swayed there, rigid as if paralyzed, until Referee McPartland jumped in and tried to lift him up. Benny helped, and they dragged the beaten black champion to his corner.
“The crowd had forgotten about the hand clapping, the floor and walls reverberated to a roar that seemed to come from all throats. Even Leo’s partisans, staring with unbelieving eyes into the ring, roused themselves to cheer the winner. They had seen their man beaten by the greatest lightweight champion that ever stepped between the ropes. They were satisfied.”
Six days later the champion stopped “another colored star” when he put Eddie “Kid” Dorsey away in the second round at Buffalo.
These matches gave two of the only opportunities to a black fighter (after Jack Johnson) to mix in high profile, championship caliber contests with an esteemed title holder, until the emergence almost a decade later of Tiger Flowers, Jack Thompson, William (Gorilla) Jones, Kid Chocolate, Panama Al Brown and the NBA tournaments, middleweight and light heavyweight in the early thirties, involving 12 black aspirants to be included into the elimination process to decide a “world champion.”
The final culmination being the rise of Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong and John Henry Lewis.
Check out phillyboxinghistory.com for countless facts and photos.