Warr and Peace

By Robert Mladinich on September 5, 2017
Warr and Peace
Warr said he developed his slickness from sparring with Mitch “Blood” Green. (Mladinich)

Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings picked Warr up and attempted to throw him out of the ring. Not surprisingly, he was not disqualified… 

After half a ring, former journeyman heavyweight Johnny Warr answers the phone with a voice that is as melodic and erudite as it is commanding and kind.

“Praise the Lord,” he says in lieu of hello before asking to whom he is speaking.

Warr is as comfortable preaching the gospel as he was in the ring. During a pro career that lasted from 1976 to 1983, he amassed an unenviable—and ultimately deceiving record of 6-21-1 (2 KOs).

There is an abundance of fighters who insist that their nominal records are the result of bad officiating and dubious decisions. However, after a careful examination of Warr’s ledger, you can’t help but think there might be some truth to his assertions.

Consider first that he was never stopped—despite fighting future world champions Pinklon Thomas and Trevor Berbick, as well as title challenger Renaldo Snipes and previously undefeated boxers Greg Sorrentino, Marvin Stinson, Wendell Bailey, Marty Capasso and Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings.

“Pinklon could punch, but he didn’t have real good combinations,” said Warr. “He hit hard, but he wasn’t as determined as Berbick.”

Over the Labor Day weekend, Thomas and Warr spoke on the phone for the first time since their January 1982 fight at the Sands Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.

“I learned so much from you,” Thomas told Warr. “I couldn’t hit you with nothing. You were slick and really knew your way around the ring.”

Warr was thrilled to hear the compliment, and said he developed his slickness from avoiding three and four punch onslaughts from hundreds of rounds sparring with Mitch “Blood” Green. 

“You made me work,” Warr told Thomas. “You made every round tough.” 

Warr lost a split decision to Berbick, who was 13-1-1 at the time, in Berbick’s hometown of Halifax, Canada. 

“Berbick was strong and he just kept coming,” said Warr. “He was a bull, but I managed to handle him pretty well. The split decision proves that.”

Warr also lost a split decision to Cummings, who was 11-0 at the time, in Cummings’ hometown of Chicago. 

At one point, Cummings, a behemoth musclebound ex-convict, picked Warr up and attempted to throw him out of the ring. Not surprisingly, he was not disqualified. 

“He didn’t win that fight at all,” said Warr.

The 5’11” Warr also battled to a draw with Art Tucker, a 6’6” inmate who was making his pro debut inside the walls of Rahway prison in New Jersey.

“We were in jail, but they stuck me up,” said Warr.

The 62-year-old Warr, who is retired from his job as a New York City school safety officer at the Fred R. Moore Elementary School (Public School 133) in Harlem, is much too spiritual to be bitter or resentful about what might have been.

“I was a cruiserweight fighting as a heavyweight,” said Warr, who fought at around 195 pounds. “I lost a lot of hometown decisions.”

Warr says that he was announced as the winner of a September 1977 fight in New York against C.J. Bar Brown, only to see the verdict reversed minutes later.

There were other fights that he says had strange circumstances, including one that was held at the fabled Blue Horizon in Philadelphia.

“Marvin Stinson wanted to stop fighting, but Joe Frazier (Stinson’s manager) had to force him out for one more round.”

Because Warr regularly sparred with such tough prospects as Gerry Cooney and James Broad, he says he rarely encountered any surprises in the ring. He said Snipes “was real wild, but had no real combinations.”

At one point Warr said he hit Snipes with a left hook and Snipes “turned around and ran.” But Snipes did manage to bang Warr with a left hook that resulted in him receiving 12 stitches and a ruptured eardrum. 

The toughest fights of Warr’s career were against a relatively unknown New England heavyweight named Ron Drinkwater. Warr fought him twice, and said both bouts were memorable. 

“He was the hardest punching guy I fought,” said Warr. “Nobody remembers him, but he could fight. Oh boy, could he punch! Before the second fight with him was the only time I didn’t pray. And I felt like I was hit by a truck.”

(Between 1976 and 1978, Drinkwater, a New England amateur champion from Malden, Massachusetts, compiled a 17-1 [13 KOs] pro record fighting throughout the Boston area. He was stopped in one round by Peter McNeeley during an ill-fated 1993 comeback and never fought again).

Although Warr’s career was somewhat disappointing from a statistical and financial standpoint, he said his entire life has been one miracle after another.

He was born with a lazy right eye, for which he was supposed to wear an eye patch on his left eye to make it stronger.

As a child he was picked on constantly, but says he never started a fight but became very good at finishing them.

“I was chubby and I had a lazy eye,” said Warr. “I was a target.”

But Warr was blessed with very quick hands, which he learned to use well on the streets of Harlem, where he grew up and still resides with his wife Carol, who is also a pastor. They have three adult children. 

After dropping out of high school, Warr began boxing more for fun than anything else. In the 1976 Golden Gloves tournament, he lost a decision in the semi-finals to Cooney, the eventual champion. Later that year, Warr turned pro.

He now realizes that his manager “had no political clout.” In Warr’s first three bouts, all of which were on the road, he lost two decisions to the undefeated Sorrentino, who was as slick as they come, and the hard-punching Drinkwater.

Still, Warr clung to the belief that one big win could turn his career around. Unfortunately for him, that career-changing victory never materialized although he came close on several occasions. 

“I’m still a miracle,” said Warr. “I dropped out of high school and failed my GED twice. I had a lot of bootleg jobs.”

Warr is proud of the fact that he has been married for 35 years, and has been a minister for 34 years.

“I might not be rich financially, but I’m not wanting for anything,” he said.

As a fighter, Warr says his paydays were as nominal as his record. While he earned a career high $2,000 against Berbick, his average take ranged from “a few hundred to a thousand,” which he says “wasn’t bad money in the 1970s.” 

In the big picture, boxing has played a small part in Warr’s eventful life. Besides being a pastor on the first and third Sundays of the month at Harlem’s Reach Out and Touch Ministry, he facilitates a bible study and a men’s fellowship called 12 on 12.

Warr is also a street corner sermonizer in Harlem, where he has lived his entire life and is a ubiquitous presence.

More than anything else, Warr is a people person. That is as obvious behind a pulpit as it is when he is proselyting on West 116th and 140th Streets. It was also abundantly clear while watching him perform his school safety duties. 

One morning, several years ago, Warr stood at the school entrance in full uniform, greeting everyone he encountered with high-fives, handshakes and pats on the back. Many were offered pearls of wisdom or encouragement as they entered and exited the building. 

There was no doubt that the students, teachers and parents liked and respected Warr as much as he did them. As effective of a goodwill ambassador as he is, he is much too humble and gracious to ever take his “service to others” for granted.

“A lot of these kids remind me of myself when I was their age,” he said back then. “I was lucky because I had a grandmother (Marie Mouzon) who taught me the power of prayer. Some of these kids don’t have anyone giving them anything. I show the kids lots of love, especially the ones that don’t know how to deal with their circumstances.

“I take them to the side and talk to them,” he continued. “Most little kids don’t want to listen. But I give them a hug and say, ‘tell me what happened, what’s on your mind?’ Hopefully in the back of their head, they’ll know someone cares. Sometimes that’s all a kid needs to know to do the right thing.”

Praise the Lord!

And praise Johnny Warr, who never won a world title but is a champion just the same.

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  1. Scrap Iron 10:51am, 09/06/2017

    This excellent article really brought back some memories from the electric Eighties. Remember Jumbo taking a bite out of Renaldo Snipes’ shoulder during a televised bout featuring the two undefeated heavyweight prospects at that time. Last I heard of Cummings, he was back behind bars for good. Art Tucker was supposed to be a decent prospect who kept himself in shape behind bars ala James Scott, with hundreds of pushups-dips-pullups, etc. Poor guy was leveled by Tommy Morrison.

  2. jim allcorn 05:06pm, 09/05/2017

    I remember following Warr’s career back in the late ‘70s & early ‘80s in the back pages of THE RING Magazine. So, it’s great to hear that he’s doing so well & is in good health.
    I’ve always had a fascination for the opponents & journeymen. They’re the lifeblood of boxing without whom the sport would cease to exist. I remember Warr so well because he was never knocked out or stopped & according to the writers who chronicled his fights he was frequently on the wrong end of dubious decisions.
    These sorts of pieces on the fighters like Warr & Brian O’Melia are absolute gems & so much more entertaining & interesting than the puff pieces on the big names that all the other boxing websites publish. Keep up the great work.

  3. c.h. 04:48pm, 09/05/2017

    A great writer, a great story and a fighter (who I saw a couple times in person) who never embarrassed himself in the ring and gave good fighters a tough night.

  4. peter 04:34pm, 09/05/2017

    I hope one day Mr. Mladinich compiles these little uplifting masterpieces into a book. The stories of these forgotten men are little gems which would easily go unnoticed, and unwritten, if it were not for the compassion and humanity of Mladinich’s pen. BTW—The title of this article was brilliant.

  5. Kokopelli 09:37am, 09/05/2017

    He only fought three guys with losing records….that tells the story right there! Talk about being thrown to the wolves….he spent his whole career in the wolves den!

  6. Ted Sares 09:18am, 09/05/2017

    Great read. Thanks Bob.

    Jumbo is also the subject of a compelling story.

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